One of the great things about meeting and walking with Jesus is that you slowly discover that even the deepest, darkest recesses of your life are seen by Him. Some react, as John 3:19, says in hatred to the light of Christ shining into their lives, but the fact is true for everyone that the light of Christ touches every area of your life, and this is what the book of Romans addresses and one of the many reasons why it is so revolutionary.
Take the Sermon on the Mount, for example. What makes this the greatest sermon ever recorded is that Jesus clearly shows that words, thoughts, actions and behaviors are not in a vacuum: they spring forth out of the very depths of our being. Who we truly are shows up in how we truly are.
Think, for example, of Matthew 5:22 where Jesus teaches that to harbor and unforgiveness toward someone in your heart is the same as murder in the eyes of God, or when He says in Matthew 5:28 that to lust after a woman in your heart is the same as adultery. We’re all murdering adulterers at heart, right? Again, when we walk with Jesus nothing is off-limits and we discover just how great is our need for His presence and Spirit in our lives.
This passage in Romans does the exact same thing: it teaches us that true, genuine, authentic, dynamic Christian relationship with God and others takes place upstream of our words, thoughts, and actions. The central theme here is LOVE as is the central theme of all of Scripture. The Holy Spirit of God would seek to teach us here that love – real, true love – is so fundamental to the Christ-follower that to be without love is to be without Christ Himself.
One of my favorite in classes in college was a physical geography class, and in this class we would periodically go out into the field to have a “hands-on” experience with what we studied in the classroom. One lesson I remember vividly was going out into the National Forest and hiking to the headwaters of the Etowah River. This river was well-known in that area and supplied life to much of the wildlife in the region. When we arrived at the headwaters, which was just a natural spring coming out from underground, my professor said, “If you go upstream far enough, you arrive at the source. The wildlife, the trees, the hills, and the people are all beneficiaries of this source.”
Just like that lesson I learned in the National Forest in North Georgia, this passage would teach us that Christianity is an “upstream” relationship. Every single thing in your life springs from a source, and The Spirit would convict you that the source for our lives should be the love of Christ. The lessons that we are to learn here are the most important lessons we can learn, and I don’t think we can take them seriously enough or think too hard or often about them. Let me pass on to you, this morning a few burdens about love that the Lord has laid on my heart. It is my prayer that this morning is just the start of a renewed heart and mind for each of us as we examine and consider the love of Christ toward us and our affection toward Him and others.
Here is, I think, the first lesson the Spirit would teach us about love from this passage: LOVE IS A PERPETUAL DEBT. Look at verse 8: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another…”
In our Western, American minds, we think of debt as something that has a definite beginning and end. I need to purchase a home, so I incur debt from a bank that I pay off; I need an education, so I incur debt from the federal government that I pay off. We think of each payment toward this debt as slowly chopping away at the total amount owed until we have completely paid off our debt and never have to make another payment again.
However, this is the thing about the Christian life: we never make any progress in paying off our debt to love one another. No matter how many “love payments” we make, we never “chip away” at the principal amount. It is the same value that we talked about last week with forgiveness: how many times must I do this, Jesus? SEVEN TIMES?!? No, Justin, love, like forgiveness, is without end.
Consider these words of Jesus from John 13:34-35 which, in our human minds, is near impossible to grasp: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Just how important is this command? Well, Jesus’ follow-up words are this: “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples.”
So, in order to understand Romans 13, we must first understand John 13 and travel to the depths of Christ’s love for us and, in doing so, we discover the depths of love to which we ourselves are called.
He loved us when we were His enemies; He loved us when we rejected Him; He loved us when we denied Him; He loved us when we committed the same sin over and over again; He loved us when we crucified Him; and, GET THIS, He loved us when He knew most of us would never love Him in return. JUST AS I have loved you, so you are to love one another. The love that Christ calls you to love others with it is a lifetime calling for all people, at any station in life, and that never changes. Love, for us, is a perpetual debt which we always owe.
Is this how we view and understand love? Is this how we exercise Christian love to others? Or, are we surrounded by people with whom we “click” and who are, for us, enjoyable company. I shudder to think of how far I still have to go in understanding this depth of love, and you should, too, because this is the biblical standard for Christian love.
When we begin to grasp the unimaginable depth of this calling, then we begin to understand a related truth about biblical love, which is that: LOVE IS NEITHER A CATEGORY OF EMOTION OR BEHAVIOR.
Verse 10 says that love is so massive, so all-encompassing, so powerfully present in the Christian that it itself the “fulfillment of the law.” And yet, when you talk to so many people – believer or unbeliever about love – there is this gross mis-categorization of love as something so much less than biblical love that it would be unrecognizable to the apostle Paul. When we fail to understand the depth of Christ’s definition of love, we tend to classify it as either primarily an emotion or a behavior, and neither categorization is either helpful or true.
For example, when we categorize love as an emotion – as many younger people that I talk to tend to do – we make love subject to the fickle whims of our emotions, and we all know that emotions are a wonderful helper and terrible master. One minute we feel as though we are on top of the world, and the next minute, for sometimes no discernable reason whatsoever, feel as though the world and its concerns are crushing the life out of us. So, naturally, when we categorize love as an emotion – alongside anger, happiness, frustration, sadness, and many others – we not only fail to ever experience true, liberating, unmatched biblical love, but we also find that we never seem to quite understand the thousands of biblical passages and commands about love. Love as an emotion makes the entire Bible seem constantly out of reach.
Similarly, when we categorize love as a behavior – as many older people that I talk to tend to do – we err in the same way. Many people say of love that it is a “commitment”, which is a vital part of love, but love as a commitment and nothing else relegates love to a dry series of decisions or behaviors which may be completely void of the affection we find in biblical love.
Many will claim to “love others” when they perform acts that they see and understand to be loving: providing a meal, filling up a gas tank, loaning some tools, helping with a project, babysitting children, cleaning a house, and the list goes on and on. These “acts” may be performed out of a spirit of love, or they may simply stem from guilt, shame, pride, conviction, or many others. Just as love is not an emotion, it is also not a behavior.
Look with me at the defining passage on biblical love, I Corinthians 13. “Love is…PATIENT, KIND, does not ENVY, does not BOAST, is not PROUD, does not DISHONOR OTHERS, is not SELF-SEEKING, is not easily ANGERED, KEEPS NO RECORD of wrongs, does not DELIGHT IN EVIL, does REJOICE WITH TRUTH, it PROTECTS, it TRUSTS, it HOPES, it PERSEVERES.
This definition obviously transcends emotion or behavior. This definition of love is better understood as DNA as it is interwoven with our emotions, our thoughts, our words, our actions, and everything we do. LOVE for the Christian is WHO WE ARE, and this is why it is a debt that we never pay because as long as we are living and breathing, we are called to love one another. In our transformed state, we always owe a debt of patience, kindness, hope, perseverance, trust, and protection to everyone. In the same way, our debt to never envy, dishonor, act selfishly or out of pride is never paid. Love, for us, is who we are and marks every thought, word, action, and behavior. This is why the Holy Spirit would tell you this morning that:
IF WE FAIL TO LOVE, WE FAIL ENTIRELY. Look again at verse 9 and pay attention to these words: “whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Holy Spirit leaves no wiggle room when He compelled Paul to write that “whatever other command there might be…” are included in that summation. This is how huge Christian love is: the entire message of Scripture is summed up in the command of Christ to love. What that means for us is that if we do everything else right – we have perfect church attendance; we read our Bible every day and pray without ceasing; we but we fail to love, then we must face the truth that we ourselves don’t know or understand Christ and everything that we have done or are doing is, as Paul says in I Corinthians 13, “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal”. Without love, in other words, we are noise and we are noise without purpose, out of sync, and a noise that only pushes people away. Tragically, I believe that many, many Christians and churches fall into this category and the thought of standing before the throne of Christ and having to answer for how we love, knowing that every command we were given was tied into love should sober us up and give us a pressing urgency to love deeper.
We have, as I have said many times before, the greatest and most important mission in the entire universe, and the only mission which has eternal consequences. We are called to reconcile mankind to their Creator and bring hope into the world, but, in the absence of love, we fail Christ and His church in our effort to complete this mission.
We are going to wrap up our time together this morning by taking communion together. We don’t do this as just another function of our service, but this is a serious time and I can’t encourage you strongly enough to go before the throne of God as we do this and examine your heart. Have you short-changed love? Are there areas in your life in which you can recommit yourself to Christ in order to be more loving and more ably fulfill this mission? This is the time for such commitment.
Americans are known for, among other things, their idioms. We say things like, “off the top of my head”, or “that doesn’t ring a bell”. We talk about “letting the cat out of the bag” and having something “on the tip of our tongue”. Of course, none of these phrases are intended to be taken literally, but they communicate an idea by painting a picture to the other person.
One such phrase is “the elephant in the room”, which refers to a subject that everyone is thinking about, but about which no one is speaking. Usually it implies that the subject is awkward or uncomfortable, and that just bringing it up may even stir up conflict. So, everyone stares at the big elephant standing in the middle of the room without addressing it.
Well, today there exists an elephant in the church, and I mean both the universal church as well as our little congregation here. The “elephant in the church” in 2018 has many symptoms, but one root cause. Before addressing the root cause, I want us to think through some of the symptoms together. In thinking through these symptoms, we need to be reminded of the issue of Christ speaking to me on an individual level when He talks of the work His Spirit accomplishes in my life. When Scripture speaks of sin, it speaks of my sin, and when Scripture speaks of repentance, it speaks of my repentance. This is the basic principle of Matthew 7:5 that each one of us must, before the throne of Christ, get the log out of our own eye before we try and remove the speck from our brother’s eye. Unless we go before Almighty God and lay ourselves before Him, and filet our hearts at His feet, and ask Him to cleanse us, then this elephant continues to dance around the room until it displaces each one of us, and this entire business of “doing church” is a complete waste of our time and energy.
One major symptom that shows up in the church is disunity or division, and this disunity in the Church surfaces in several ways. One example is seen plainly in the hyper-abundance of churches surrounding us.
I was driving home one Sunday night from military duty in Raleigh and passed no less than a dozen Baptist churches on the same road, all having Sunday night services, all with just a handful of cars in the parking lot. Two of these churches were directly across the street from one another, front doors facing one another, but worshipping separately. My heart was broken over this obvious and unnecessary division in the Church, and I prayed for us and that the Lord would bring healing and reconciliation to His bride.
Similarly, I was driving through town earlier this week and saw three new churches pop-up that I had never seen before in addition to one that was closed that had just opened months earlier! I passed numerous other churches and, in asking about others that I came across, many of their stories seem to start with, “Well, they used to be a part of this church, but they broke off…”
Another example of disunity which is painfully evident today can be found in the United Methodist Church. It breaks my heart to talk with Methodist pastors, to include Paul Stallsworth of the Whiteville UMC, and to listen to them lament the state of the church they love. Paul recently authored an article entitled, “A Disunited Methodist Church” where he addresses the fracturing and dismembering of the church over, as he labels it, the “progressive agenda”. This agenda mainly deals with issues of gender and sexuality and our UMC brothers and sisters are likely headed for a split over this division in the church. Paul wrote in his article that these progressives have “waged a kind of insurrection against the larger church. Gay and lesbian clergy have “come out.” Clergy have presided at same-sex services. Progressives have urged ordination committees in their annual conferences to ignore matters of sexual morality. Some have persuaded their annual conferences to declare that they would live in “nonconformity”—that is, they would not conform to the doctrine and discipline on sexual morality established by the General Conference.” Sadly, this disunity in the UMC is not only unnecessary but could possibly have been avoided altogether if our root spiritual problem would have been addressed years ago.
Sometimes a “breaking away” is necessary, as we saw when we studied Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation back in November. But, most of the time, such division and disunity is just a symptom of our root problem.
Another symptom of this deep-rooted spiritual problem is our insatiable desire for control. In our sinful nature, we have this desire to control all the elements around us, and to feel out of control is, to many, the worst and most unsettling feeling imaginable. So, what do we do to regain control, or at least regain a false sense of control?
For one, we often don’t pray about decisions and wait on the Lord, but we insert ourselves, often very pre-maturely or out of place entirely, into situations to ensure the best chance possible of our desired outcome. Or, if nothing else, to make sure that our voice is heard. Because, you know, the most important thing is to be heard and the greatest tragedy is to have no voice.
We so long for this sense of control and security that this longing of our heart often overrides the longing of God’s heart to surrender control to Him. One example that immediately comes to mind is the issue of having an unbridled passion for the lost which is the driving force behind our entire lives. As we read through Scripture, we discover clearly and unmistakably that this issue of lost people becoming found drives the compassionate heart of God. Luke 19:10 says that “the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” Luke 15:4-6 tells us that Christ, our Shepherd, will leave the ninety-nine sheep to find the one that was lost. Luke 5:29-32 tells us that Christ came not to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners. Luke 15:31-32 shows us that Jesus came to bring dead people life. This is accomplished by the power of Christ’s death (Isaiah 53:4-6), the proclaiming of the Gospel (Romans 10:14-15), and a call to repentance (II Corinthians 5:20).
It is categorically undeniable that Jesus’ heart is bent toward calling lost people to repentance, and yet, so many times, our desire for control overrides this biblical desire to win lost people to Jesus. Unleashing the Holy Spirit is a terrifyingly amazing thought because when people begin to see the glory of God and repent, they then become a part of our family, and sit in our seats, and pray with us, and sit in classrooms beside our children, and become a part of our lives. Terry Smith, our new Vice President for Church Ministries, says that outreach is so scary to so many because it gets “messy”. We have no control over who comes to church and what baggage they may bring, and so, even though this is unmistakably the will of God, we often ignore it. Not only would it involve giving ourselves over to something over which we have no control, but it also involves walking away from other areas of our life over which we have complete control. And unfortunately, in our sinful nature, this thought is all too often too much to bear.
James Misner wrote an article for The Gospel Coalition talking about how many white, evangelical American Christians view immigration issues through an entirely unbiblical lens. He devoted most of his article to laying out God’s heart for “the stranger in the land” and the biblical precedent God’s people have for ministering to them. He talked about how the nations coming to us is arguably the greatest outreach and missions’ opportunity the American church has ever seen. And yet, he noted, “Far too often within white evangelical churches, we have allowed a desire for security to become an idol, displacing our passion for the lost.” It is worth noting here that Terry Smith, our new Vice President for Church Ministries, had this same heart in relation to God bringing the nations to us, and that the Alliance is actively and aggressively establishing domestic mission sites in those areas. The hand of God is moving in this direction, and many will watch it pass over them because of their obsession with, and failure to let go of, control.
Another way this overriding desire for control shows up is in our resistance to change. In talking about resistance to change, I am not speaking about changes in methodologies or one way of doing something over another, but that can be a part of it. I am speaking of our resistance to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives which conforms our will to His. Many of us might say, for example, that we are walking with Christ and following Him and yet we hold on to bitterness and unforgiveness.
Peter struggled with this, in Matthew 18, and asked Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Verse 22 gives us Jesus’ remarkable answer: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” Forgiveness is without end, Peter! Forgiveness is without end, Christian! Forgiveness is without end, church!
What would cause a self-proclaimed Christ-follower to hold on to bitterness and unforgiveness that is clearly contrary to the heart and will of God? There may be a number of reasons, but among them is that to release and forgive relinquishes control of that situation, that individual, your thoughts and actions toward them, and the present and future into the hands of God. So, we resist such a change though it is exactly what Christ is calling us to do. Ultimately, we must recognize that a resistance to change on our part is often a lack of faith and trust in God to lead and guide us. Like a dog refusing to go on a walk, we stiffen our legs, tighten our muscles, and force our master to drag us along.
Another example of holding onto control is found in people who constantly voice their opinion and announce their position for all to hear, be it publicly or privately. I have always been and always will be amazed and humbled by the Christ we see in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Christ who does not want to go to Calvary – and tells the Father that He does not want to go to Calvary – but submits His will to that of the Father and never mentions to anyone that He doesn’t want to go.
Did Jesus have an opinion about Calvary – you bet He did! He was so anxious about it that His sweat was as drops of blood, but we see Him pouring His heart out to the Father and simultaneously encouraging the disciples about what was to come. One of the subtle ways in which our desire for control surfaces is in our incessant desire to voice our opinion. Are there times that call for our opinion – sure. But, our opinions are meaningless at best and destructive at worst if they are not submitted to the will of God.
More than fifty years ago, A.W. Tozer addressed this subject by saying that, “In our Christian fellowship, what can be more depressing than to find a professed Christian defending his or her supposed rights and bitterly resisting any attempts to violate them? Such a Christian has never accepted the way of the Cross. The sweet graces of meekness and humility are unknown to that person. Every day he or she grows harder and more acrimonious, trying to defend reputation, right, ministry, against imagined foes. Is there a cure for this? Yes! The cure is to die to self and rise with Christ into the newness of life!”
And, thus, we have come to the root cause of our problem: a lack of submission to the Lordship of Christ by every Christ-follower. These devastating problems, which are from our adversary, Satan, and work their way into the church through our sinful nature would be completely obliterated if each one of us will wholly, fully, and completely surrender ourselves to the Lordship of Christ.
When we see the God of Philippians 2 who is exalted to the highest place and has the name that is above every name, and that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father, then all these petty issues would dissolve in the light of His glory.
When we see the God of Romans 8 who assures us that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord, then all our fears would be dissolved.
When we have the same vision of God that the Spirit gave John in Revelation 5 who heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they were saying:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”
then we realize how silly and insignificant is our desire for control and resistance to such a glorious King.
When we surrender ourselves fully to that God and that King and that Savior, then we can being to resemble and experience the life of the early church.
That same Spirit who produced a courageous witness in Acts 4 to say, “we cannot help but speak about what we have seen and heard;
That same spirit who produced a powerful ministry in Acts 4 which lead every person in the church to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to speak the word of God boldly;
That same Spirit who caused rich and poor to worship together in Acts 4 so that everyone gave and no one had any need;
That same Spirit who led the church to endure a persecution in Acts 5 where we read that even though the apostles had been flogged and ordered not to speak in the name of Jesus, they rejoiced because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for His name and they never stopped proclaiming the Good News that Jesus is the Messiah;
That same Spirit who caused them to forgive their killers in Acts 7 when Stephen was being held down and stoned to death, and his only prayer was, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
This same Spirit is active in the world today, and desires to be active in our lives, but we each must completely submit to Him. There must be no area of our life off-limits to Him. So long as we preach, believe and follow, as Richard Niebuhr put it, the “God without wrath who brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross”, then we will leave unchanged, the elephant in the room will grow, and the church die leaving much fruit on the vine.
In Luke 6:46-49, Christ told the story of two builders and the outcome of their work. The one who surrendered to Him brought forth much fruit and the one who did not was destroyed. He said:
“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.”
Without your surrender to the Lordship of Christ, you will collapse and be destroyed and the Church will suffer. Every Christian can and should reflect on Jesus’ question here: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” Throughout Scripture, it is clear that we must submit and surrender ourselves to Christ, and when we do this we experience not only the unity that the Holy Spirit longs to brings into the church, but we also relinquish control of our wills, opinions, money and lives into His loving hands. Until this happens, as I stated earlier, this elephant continues to dance around the room until it displaces each one of us, and this entire business of “doing church” is a complete waste of our time and energy.
This morning, I want us to pause and reflect in prayer with one another on our own submission to the Lordship of Christ and give ourselves to the Holy Spirit of God to break us of our selfishness and sinfulness and bring us to our knees before Him. Find someone who is not a family member or close friend, and pray for a few minutes with them, and commit yourself, from this day forward, to Christ. I will come up and close us in prayer.
Each week this blog will be updated with a word for the week from my current studies.