Last week we looked at the end of Romans 13 and the beginning of Romans 14. It was a challenging message, wasn’t it? I think it is a particularly challenging message for us because of our local context and culture.
This week I traveled down to Merritt Island, Florida for a pastor’s conference. The conference reminded me how vastly different church contexts and cultures can be. For example, the “beach culture” does not struggle or wrestle with issues such as, “Can you wear hats in the sanctuary?” or “is it ok to wear shorts and flip-flops to church?”. Their context, and churches like theirs, struggle with attracting “hyper-pentecostals” and “New Age” sort of people and having to confront them and clarify with them about what they believe about spiritual gifts and the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.
But, our struggles in our culture and context are very different. In general, we here in the “Old South”, or the “Deep South” tend to struggle with legalism. I have lived in the South my entire life, as have most of you, and it breaks my heart to see the complete lack of joy in people’s lives when it comes to knowing Jesus. They have years of thorough training in how to follow the supposed rules to be religious and live “good lives”. People’s greatest concern is with not wanting to do something that may be perceived as breaking the religious rules of the group – like smiling, or being a little too excited about life. So, we know exactly what not to do. We have no idea or actual experience of knowing what exactly it means and feels like to be a Christian, but we know what not to do, and so we carry on not doing anything for fear of breaking the rules.
As most of you know all too well, we had some serious financial struggles when we moved into this new property. At a board meeting talking about how to ease some pressure a couple of years ago, Geoff, who was serving as our treasurer, said, “You can’t cut your way to profitability”. In that same vein, we can’t become fruitful by simply knowing what we are not. It would be akin to someone asking you what you do for work and you saying, “well, I know that I’m not a postman, or an oceanographer, or a construction worker, or a policeman. I’m more like a doctor than I am a lawyer, but I know I don’t work in the medical field. But, that’s all I really know.” That response, as ridiculous as it sounds, is akin to what we, in our context, often do when trying to explain the type of Christian and type of fellowship we are. We know what we are not much more than we know what we are, and this is a clear sign of legalism creeping into the body, and we know of how clearly and harshly Christ spoke against legalism in His ministry.
Well, legalism – along with every other culture and context – is destroyed in the book of Romans, and, particularly, in chapter fourteen. The reason these other cultures and contexts get destroyed is because the emphasis is on relationship; our relationship with the Holy Spirit of God and our Spirit-filled relationship with one another. You’re familiar with the parenting phrase, “Rules without relationship breeds rebellion”, well the same thing is true, and carries even more weight, in our relationships with others as ambassadors for Jesus. Legalism, along with every other culture and context, is destroyed by Spirit-filled relationships, and this is what this chapter and this section of Romans is all about. This morning, we’re examining verses 10-15, but we’ll read together from the beginning of the chapter.
Now, the central focus of the Spirit here is on LOVE. Because you are submitted to Christ and have been transformed into His image, you love one another. Last week, we looked at three character that become a part of who we are when we love one another:
When we love one another: we journey with those stronger and weaker than us
When we love one another: we stop majoring on the minors
When we love one another: we recognize that we are a servant of all and a master of none.
This morning, we continue to look at this idea of what true, biblical, Spirit-filled transformative love does for us in our relationships with one another. In addition to these three character traits, we also:
When we love one another: we reflect the truth that we will be judged not for someone else’s actions, but for our attitude.
It is one thing to know that something is true, but it is another thing entirely for your life to reflect that truth. In other words, when people examine our lives, it is obvious to them just by observing us that the central issue for the Christ-follower is a surrender of my heart to Jesus and not a policing to ensure that your heart is surrendered.
Look at verses 11-13 with me. It says:
“we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written:
“‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will acknowledge God.’”
12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.
13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.”
God wants you to know, or be reminded, that you will give an account of you and of no one else. The most difficult aspect of this part of the Christian life is that you will not only give an account of our thoughts, words, and actions, but also you will give an account for the deep state of your heart toward others and their thoughts, words, and actions.
For example, if someone is dressed in a way, or talks in a way, or markets themselves in a way that absolutely repulses me, the only account I will give to God is an account my heart toward them. Did we immediately pass judgment on them? You will have to answer to God for that, and the sooner you repent of your judgmental spirit the better.
I can remember vividly one time when I was working hard in a particular ministry to bless people and show them Jesus, and not only did no one seem to notice my hard work, but they seem to be completely unchanged by it. A hard, judgmental spirit came from within me and I began to complain about these people: these ungrateful, selfish, hard-hearted people…and the Lord spoke to my heart and convicted me. “Who are you serving?” “I’m serving you, Lord!” “Are you?” “I’m sorry, Lord. Forgive me and thank you for speaking to me. Help me to continue to listen.”
When we run into someone in Wal-Mart, and we pass them on the street, or they come into our church, and they don’t look, or dress, or act in a way that we see as proper or acceptable, we will give an account of our heart towards them. Wake up, church, Paul says! Love one another in this way.
When the Spirit of God is at work in our hearts to teach us this truth, we reflect another incredible truth that we see here in this passage:
When we love one another: we reflect the truth that sin dwells in a person and not in any material things.
Look here at verses 14-15 again with me:
“I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.”
You know, Paul says, the more I meet people the more I am convinced that we have a sin problem and not a “stuff” problem! “Nothing is unclean in itself” can be a hard concept to wrestle with because it pertains to everything in life.
Money is not the problem; alcohol is not the problem; marijuana is not the problem; policies are not the problem; people’s clothes are not the problem; nothing is unclean in itself for everyone. In other words, nothing man-made is inherently sinful. We won’t rehash it again, but this ties in directly to what we talked about last week with majoring on the minors. When we recognize that the only “major” is sin, then we are free to love people and lead them to Jesus regardless of their personal stuff or struggles.
So, if people want to dye their hair blue or neon green, have at it! If they want to wear clothes that look absolutely ridiculous, go for it! If they want to have the most bizarre head of hair the world has ever seen, more power to them! If one of my daughters begins to have a serious relationship with someone of a different background or ethnicity, but they clearly are given to Christ, let’s bless them! MINORS.
However, if someone is the most generous person on planet Earth but they are completely lost, it’s time to address that sin in a loving way. If someone is the most upstanding looking citizen in the community but has never met Christ, it’s time for me to focus on making that introduction. Our lives must be a reflection of our understanding that sin dwells in a person and not in any material thing. We major on the majors and trust the Lord to take care of the minors in His will and in His time.
This all ties in to the final point I’d like for you to consider with me this morning, and this is the consummation of these first five truths we’ve looked at.
When we love one another: we don’t destroy each other.
How do we destroy one another? By disregarding what we’ve talked about so far in this chapter: by not walking with others where they are, by majoring on the minors, by ignoring the convictions of others, by judging others for their actions, and by acting like sin in inherent in anything other than the human heart.
This is, in my opinion, the most important point because a failure to recognize this has eternal ramifications. It’s important to understand in this last point that “destroy” doesn’t paint a picture of a nuclear holocaust, or a bombing raid. It paints a picture of our judgment and failure to love as being the final straw which causes someone to walk away from the Lord.
This word “destroy” is always used in the New Testament as referring to those in hell. It’s the word Jesus uses in Matthew 10:28 when he says that we should fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in hell. But, it’s also the same word Jesus uses in Luke 19:10 when He says that He came to “seek and save the lost”. The best definition here is in this passage is to “give over to eternal misery in hell”.
What God is telling us here is heavy: Christ loved this person enough to come and die for them, and we love them so little that we are willing to condemn them to death over something like meat, or drink, or clothes.
This makes the weight of our actions so immeasurably important. We are – you are – as Paul told Timothy, ambassadors for the Kingdom of Christ. As ambassadors, when people look at us, talk to us, watch us, and live with us, they develop an impression – rightly or wrongly – of what the Kingdom of God is like and what our King is like. When we fail to love one another, we must never forget that the eternal consequences could be to cause someone to walk away from Jesus. What a terrible, shameful thing to face on judgment day.
What might this look like?
Mick Noel told the story of his son, while he was a Marine at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, taking some of his friends to a local church. He had been after them for a while to go with him, and they finally relented. When they arrived at the church, they were turned away at the door because their clothes didn’t match up to the dress code. Now, if one of those men walk away from that church and from Jesus for all eternity on account of that person, according to Scripture, it would have been better for him if he had never been born.
Alwyn Wall, who is a pastor in London, told the story of going to a public park and putting on a little concert and doing some open-air preaching. After a couple of weeks, several people came to know Christ and Alwyn wanted to get them plugged into a local church family. The problem was that everywhere they went, the conversations and the sermons always centered on long hair, smoking, wearing “holey jeans”, or some other incredibly minor issue. Now, if one of these new converts walked away from Christ forever on that account, it would have been better for them if they had never been born.
It doesn’t have to be so blatant, though. It could something such as gossip, slander and tearing down someone’s character. You know what I’m talking about, the “guess what I heard” chatter; the “let me tell you what I think” crowd. I personally believe this to be the biggest relational issue in our culture. I talk with so many people who have been wounded by the church because of gossip and passive/aggressive backbiting. People see it or experience it and walk away from church altogether because of it, and in many, many ways I don’t blame them one bit. What a tragically awful testimony and, if we are in that crowd and cause someone to walk away forever, then we better get on our knees and do some serious praying and interceding before both God and man.
It is important to remember, too, that this passage is dealing with those who are weak in the faith, who this who are the most vulnerable. These are those people who are “exploring” Jesus or “exploring” the church. These are those who have been wounded before, and perhaps are just getting up the courage to venture into the family of God for, maybe, the first time in years. We don’t, as this passage tells us, live for ourselves or die for ourselves. We are a servant of all and a master of none, and we must walk with others where they are and not where we are. This is the calling of a disciple.
You don’t have to worry about me! Everyone in my family, or in this fellowship, or in the world could be completely crazy, but my faith in Christ is strong enough that I will be fine. BUT, there are so many people who are skeptical, who are hurting, who are wounded, who – to just set foot inside a church building or the home of a believer – takes an unbelievable amount of courage and vulnerability. We must consider them because their faith is the easiest to shipwreck. Don’t destroy your brother, Paul says, for something as silly as meat.
Is the Spirit of God convicting your heart about this? Does someone come to mind? Someone may come to your mind when you think of those who “destroy” the faith of others, but the question is, “Do you come to someone else’s mind when they consider this question?” We must beg and plead with the God to save those who have been wounded and redeem them from our ignorance and immaturity. Our God is a God of salvation and redemption and, like with Abraham in Exodus 32, appealing to God through fervent prayer can move His hand to deal with people differently and redemptively.
Now, let’s bring this entire discussion full circle. We, as followers and disciples of Jesus, are called to submit to Him and be transformed by Him. A huge part of this involves oozing the joy and love of the Holy Spirit. When this happens, it completely changes our relationships not only with Jesus, but with one another as well. We love one another, and we love one another in a way that causes us to live life in intentional, redemptive, discipling relationships with one another. We walk with those who are weaker than us where they are, and we also walk with those who are stronger than us so that we might be encouraged, equipped, and strengthened to serve Christ and His Kingdom.
When that happens – those intentional, redemptive, discipling relationships – everything changes. A culture of legalism dies and a culture of liberalism dies. Judgment ceases to exist amongst one another and the family of God transforms into the salt and light we were called and set apart by our Lord to be. However, if these relationships don’t exist, then legalism will thrive, passing our subjective judgment will be the norm, and a deadly cycle of destroying one another – relegating others to eternal misery in hell – will kill the church. “WAKE UP”, says the Spirit of God. REPENT, says Jesus. You walk personally with Jesus and be an ambassador for Jesus.
Let’s go before the Lord.
In recent weeks, we have been examining the challenging message of this section of Romans, which is the message of the all Scripture: LOVE! In Romans 9-11, Paul talks about the deep love he has for the Israelites and how profoundly he wants them to turn to Jesus. “I would take their place in hell”, he says, if that would drive them to Jesus. Do we love anywhere close to that depth?
Then, in Romans 12, we are urged to surrender all of who we are to Jesus – completely, entirely, and without reservation – to be used for eternal purposes by the One who created us for His glory. When this happens, love becomes sincere, we honor one another above ourselves, and we serve Christ and His Kingdom with hope and joy. This love also changes how we interact with others. Romans 13 opens by talking about subjection and submission to authority, which is a natural outflow of the love of Christ. Then, as we looked at last week, this love is a continual debt which is never paid off, and which comprises everything about who we are as believers: love, for us, is our very DNA. So, now, we come to the next development of that thought as we read Romans 13:11 – Romans 14:9. Let’s read it together.
Now, there’s a lot here, and all of it is integral to the Christian life, so I’m begging and pleading with you to pay attention and listen to Jesus this morning. A few weeks ago, when we talked about division and disunity in the church and what a problem and issue it is, this exact same topic came up, and here we see that even 2,000 years ago, Christians were fighting about this they simply shouldn’t be fighting about it and it was harming the Body. The mission of Christ and the power of the church were suffering due to the opinions of God’s people. Sound familiar?
Now, what is really fascinating is how this whole passage ties in together to the Christian life as well as the second coming of Christ. Verse 11 says for us to “do this, understanding the present time.” It is imperative, Paul says, that we WAKE UP!
IT’S TIME TO WAKE UP! “Wake up from your slumber,” says the Holy Spirit, “because the night is nearly over.” As an Alliance congregation, we believe that Christ is our Coming King, and that, because our King is returning for us, we need to wake up and “put on the armor of light” as Paul says in verse 12. This is reflected in the Alliance statement of faith regarding the second coming of Christ. We believe that “the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ…is the believer’s blessed hope and is a vital truth which is an incentive to holy living and faithful service.” This is a sermon in and of itself, which we talked about three years ago at this point. I’ll be happy to provide that sermon to you if you want to listen to it again. But, the larger point in which this is nested is that this whole idea of “putting on the armor of light” and “behaving decently” is an incredibly urgent matter and one which changes the way we live and interact with one another. Here are just a few things, from this passage, that transform when we love Christ and one another with this Spirit-driven love.
WHEN WE LOVE ONE ANOTHER: WE JOURNEY WITH THOSE STRONGER AND WEAKER THAN US.
One of Jesus’ greatest characteristics – and one of the most appreciated by humanity – is that He meets you where you are. If you think of who you were and where you were when you came to Jesus, you were, in many ways, a mess! And yet, like the little boy with the bread and fish, Jesus said, “Oh, I can work with this.”
Likewise, says that Holy Spirit through, Paul, we are called to love in that same way. Is someone weaker in the faith than you? Then you need to come down to their level and walk with them for a while. Are you weaker than someone else? Then you need to be constantly walking with them in order to grow in your faith. This is simply a picture of a family, isn’t it? Children need help with things for a while before they can do it themselves: walk, reaching cereal on the top shelf, making macaroni and cheese, and so on until they are independent and helping others with those tasks which they once needed help with. A physical family, like a church family, needs the wisdom of the elderly, the strength of youth, and the life of a child. This is exactly what verse one means when it says that we are to “accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.”
Another example of this principle in action comes from what the United States did with their ships in World War II:
“In the early days of World War II, German U-boats attacked Allied ships traveling from the East Coast to Europe. To remedy this, they traveled in large convoys. But, the convoys could only travel as fast as the slowest boat. So, the faster boats slowed down to the speed of the slowest boat in order that they all might be protected from attack.”
Who are you walking with? It’s difficult to criticize someone when their struggles become your struggles, and their victories become yours. God may well be calling you to walk with and protect someone of weaker faith, or to walk with someone stronger than you to grow.
Don’t miss this, too, though: when we walk with others in love, something else transformative happens.
WHEN WE LOVE ONE ANOTHER: WE STOP MAJORING ON THE MINORS.
Look again at verse one, “accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.” This is really a central idea of Paul’s message, and we know it’s a principle and not one issue because he gives two examples: eating meat and worshipping on different days.
The issue of the day was meat which was offered to idols and was, therefore, cheaper to buy. You had some in the church who had no personal conviction about buying and eating those meats, but others who were obviously deeply convicted about that. The same was true for worshipping on different days in that culture: Saturday was the Sabbath for Jews, while the early church met on Sunday to celebrate the Resurrection. People were fighting about meats and veggies, and days of worship. Now, not much has changed in the past 2,000 years, has it?
The church has always struggled – and always will struggle – with “majoring on the minors” because of our human depravity. Because of our depraved nature, we want to conform everyone to think like us, and live like us, and our sinful nature, like Adam and Eve, desires to be “god-like” and persuade everyone else that our convictions are to be honored above everyone else’s. The consequences for this are severe, because verse three says that when we major on the minors that we are, essentially, telling God that, even though in His judgment He has accepted them, that we really know that they should be condemned. Our heart places us above God: majoring on the minors makes us idolaters in the worst way.
This failure to love causes the church and the mission of God to suffer. I came across this story earlier in the week which, I think, communicates the effect of “majoring on the minors”.
I once heard a story of a poor, simple woman who visited an upper class, sophisticated church. After attending for some time, she applied for membership in the church. Her application was rejected. She sent a second one a few months later, which was also rejected. After a third and a fourth, she went to the chairman of the membership committee and said, “Why are my applications being rejected?” “You need to go home and pray,” answered the chairman. “And I think the Lord will show you what the real issues are.”
A few years later, the chairman saw her scrubbing floors in a hotel lobby and said to her, “You haven’t made application for membership lately. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen you in church at all. Tell me, when I sent you home to pray, did God speak to you?” “Why, yes,” answered the woman, “He did. He told me not to feel bad about being rejected because He tried to join your church for twenty years before He finally gave up.”
Now, we may not be fighting over meat and vegetables, but we have our own minors that we major on. We divide ourselves among matters that are all too often a deep, personal conviction we have but that become the soapbox upon which we stand and push others away because they don’t share the same conviction.
I’ll give you several examples of what this looks like today, and remember, these are all examples of “majoring on the minors” which reveal a lack of love in one area or another.
One minor which often gets majored on is what church looks like. It’s interesting when you talk to missionaries from around the world, or people from other American cultures and listen to what church looks like in their context. I remember when Jimbo was here a couple of years ago and he mentioned what his average week as a missionary was like: soccer games, coffee shops, and evening Bible studies in their living room. That is church. In the ever-changing world in which we live, there often aren’t “weekends” for people; many people work in the evenings or on Saturday and Sunday. Yet, all too often an argument will arise if someone is not at “church” during service times. If we don’t see someone in the two-hour block we are at church, we assume they must not be at church at all. Scripture tells us clearly what the church does (prayer, studying Scripture, breaking of bread, fellowship) but never prescribes how that is to be done, and yet we fight over the how at the expense of the doing.
Terri, my mother-in-law, told me of when they lived in Europe and had to drive an hour-and-a-half to get to church. This was a Baptist church back in the 80’s, so you had a Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night service. Well, people would drive for 90 minutes to get there and then just have to sit around all afternoon with their kids until the Sunday night service. One afternoon, a friend remarked sarcastically, “well…another day of rest…” Their inability to change the how made the doing a big burden.
Another issue that I have always found interesting is that of smoking and drinking. When I was young, smoking or drinking were pretty much automatic tickets to hell! Now, nowhere in Scripture are either of those things forbidden to believers, but oftentimes we make them both pre-requisites for joining God’s family. Are these bad convictions to have? Not at all! We just must remember that they are personal convictions which others are not mandated by God to follow. When we take these deep personal convictions and project them onto others, we take a disputable matter and use it as a cattle prod to push others away unnecessarily. Christian love majors on the majors and leaves latitude on the minors.
Another example is the “Billy Graham Rule”. Billy Graham had a personal rule that he would never, under any circumstances, be alone with a woman; not in an elevator, a cab, a restaurant, anywhere. Now, this is not a bad rule at all, but it was a deep and well-thought out personal conviction of Billy Graham but nowhere in Scripture. And yet, many people take this personal conviction and make it a requirement for serving Jesus. I was told by someone who graduated from Bob Jones University that they had such a rule for their students. Well, one night a young man passed a young woman in the pouring down rain on the side of the road. He was by himself and she was by herself. He left her standing in the pouring rain on the side of the road because this rule was a requirement of this Christian school. We must not major on the minors.
One more which came up during the course of my week was the issue of giving. I was talking with someone and they asked me how they should calculate how much they give: should it be from their gross or from their net? I thought for a minute, and responded that verse eight here says something that goes upstream of our giving: “If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” To think in terms of gross or net is not the real issue, but the real issue is: are you submitted entirely to the Lord, to include 100% of the assets He gives you? Jesus condemned the Pharisees for carefully measuring out a tenth of their spices, but neglecting the very foundations of law: justice, mercy, grace, and so on. When Jesus was questioned about paying taxes, He replied that we should give Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God. The implication there is that just as coins have the image of Caesar on them, so is the image of God on you; all of you belongs to God. So, as much as I would like to answer that question of how much should I give, and to where should I give it, the Bible doesn’t specifically address that issue, but it does cover the topic by saying that everything belongs to God. So, offer it all to Him and obey, just as Jesus told the rich, young ruler to do.
To argue and divide over such issues is no different than arguing over meats and veggies. We may have deep, personal convictions about such issues, but we must listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit there and understand that others may have equally deep convictions from the Holy Spirit which are different from ours. And that is part of the beauty of the body of Christ!
Now, one final principle that we see here ties into the issues of our convictions and our love for one another, and that is this:
WHEN WE LOVE ONE ANOTHER: WE RECOGNIZE THAT WE ARE A SERVANT OF ALL AND A MASTER OF NONE.
Verse 4 phrases it this way: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”
In other words, what Paul is saying here is that if that someone you judge were your servant, then that judgment would be fine. But, such is not the case. The servant answers to the master, and you are not the master. You are a servant, as are we all.
What’s interesting about this is that it shows us how often we think of ourselves as the master and others as the servant. Again, the thought is that our sinful nature craves to be god-like, and this comes out in our judgment. But, every Christian answers to Christ, and no Christian answers to you.
Now, what’s interesting is how this relates to our convictions. Convictions, verse 5 tells us, are largely a personal matter, but that is not where the buck stops. For example, both Romans 1 and the end of chapter 13 here lay out some convictions that must be shared by all believers. Certain lifestyles and behavior patterns are universally and objectively unacceptable: orgies, drunkenness, sexual immorality, debauchery, dissension and jealousy, for example (Romans 13). However, for those other “gray area” convictions, we must honor the personal convictions of others and not just our own.
Consider this with me: our own convictions are not the final guideline for our life, but we must also walk with others according to their convictions. This is all part of the theology of verse seven, “None of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.” What does this look like in the practice of Christian community?
Well, let’s just consider some of those “gray area” convictions I mentioned earlier. Let’s look at what is perhaps, in our culture, the most troublesome: drinking. Drunkenness is clearly a sin in any circumstances by any person at any time. However, one person may have no personal convictions about drinking wine with dinner in the confines of their own home, while their neighbor may have deep personal convictions about ever sipping a single drop of alcohol. What is the Christian to do here? As a part of walking with one another at different levels and honoring one another as more important than ourselves, the love of both individuals comes out in honoring the convictions of the other. The one who has deep personal convictions about drinking alcohol is bound by Spirit-filled love to not pass judgment on his brother, and the one who has no convictions refrains from waving the liberty he has in Christ in the face of his brother. In other words, in honoring others above yourself, you lovingly respect those with convictions narrower than your own as well as those with convictions broader than your own.
The Christian life is not a life of solitude; we are not an army of one. We are one part of a large body, all following the same Head, which is the Lord Jesus Christ. The more we argue over silly, trivial, insignificant, disputable matters, the more it reveals about all the ways in which we do not understand or practice Christian love. There is such variety in the Body of Christ, and that is only one small part of what makes it so glorious.
So, if you have deep personal convictions which you constantly force on others, you need to repent. Or, if you have broader personal convictions and you pass judgment on those with narrower convictions than yourself, you need to repent. Through the power of the Holy Spirit of God, let us reconcile ourselves to Christ and to one another and show the world who our God is and how He loves. Pray with me.
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.
I recently concluded my 2017 Annual Report for our church. My final section was on biblical unity and a plea from my heart to persevere toward biblical unity by the power of the Holy Spirit. I decided to copy and paste that section of my report here as a cry from the heart of one pastor to the Church for biblical unity.
I would like to conclude this annual report by speaking to what I see as our greatest and deepest need: the unity of the church by the power of the Holy Spirit. This call is for each of us as it only requires a single individual to disrupt the work of the Holy Spirit. This is not only a call to unity but a call to accountability as well; may we willingly and humbly hold one another accountable to keep the unity of the Holy Spirit.
Ephesians 3:4-6 gives a clear call to the Body of Christ: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” In praying for our church and her leadership for this year, I feel very much like Paul who, in II Corinthians 11:28, after telling of his hardships for the sake of the Gospel added, “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for the churches.”
When I first arrived here, one of the first pieces of church history presented to me, with pride, was that “we have never had a church split!” While I understand the significance underlying those words, and the pride attached to it, we must not relegate biblical unity to “we have yet to cannibalize one another!” True biblical unity surfaces in sacrificial love toward one another, in action as well as spirit. Philippians 2 describes this attitude best when it says:
“5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death--
even death on a cross!"
In your relationships with one another, you become nothing for the sake of others. This is, undoubtedly, a work of the Holy Spirit as nothing in our flesh can have, or even desires to have, the same mindset as Christ Jesus. This requires a full and complete submission of our wills, opinions, personalities, and desires to Jesus so that Christ is glorified and His bride is unified.
This attitude leads us to consider the needs of others before we consider the needs of ourselves, and to esteem their opinion as more important than our own. It leads us to spend our time doing what they enjoy and not what we enjoy. A Christ-like unity involves each of us sacrificing ourselves and our lives (time, money, energy) for others to the glory of God.
John Piper noted poignantly, though, that biblical unity includes affectionate love, not just sacrifice for those you don’t like. It is a feeling of endearment. We are to have affection for those who are our family in Christ. “Love one another with brotherly affection” (Romans 12:10). “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22). “All of you, have . . . sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8).
Biblical unity, though, is not primarily unity with one another (though that is an important variable), it is primarily unity with the Holy Spirit of God. This unity with the Spirit of God then draws us to be united with one another. Biblical unity requires our heart to align with His heart and our goals to align with His goals.
So imperative is the unity of the church that Christ says that our unity is what leads the world to believe in the Gospel. Jesus says in John 17:21, “I ask that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Without the unity of the church by the power of the Holy Spirit, the world scoffs at us for we appear no different to them than politicians.
Unity will not happen apart from relationship: a personal relationship with Christ and, flowing naturally from that, a deep, affectionate relationship with one another. Unity breaks down when relationships are not deep or authentic. When the only thing holding a group together is a shared interest in anything other than the mission of Christ, disunity will be the norm. It is predictable and understandable that people will differ in preferred methodologies, styles of music, spending of money, and a multitude of other issues. However, we must not lose the authentic biblical affection for one another that causes us to reorient our daily lives, change our priorities, and humbly cease to voice our personal opinion.
As your pastor, I am calling us all to celebrate those things that Christ celebrates and to be broken-hearted over those things which break the heart of Christ. I pray that we would individually and corporately celebrate the reconciling of relationships, the healing of a brother or sister, the conversion of the lost and the discipling of a brother or sister. I pray that we would not only celebrate these victories but work together toward those ends. Likewise, I pray that we would be broken-hearted over the brokenness all around us, over the destruction of relationships, the lostness of man, and the discreditable lack of discipleship evident in the Church. Similarly, I pray that we would work together toward bringing the healing hand of Christ into such brokenness.
Recently, I had an M.Div. student at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest contact me for an interview. One of his courses required him to interview a leader, record their responses, and write a paper about Christian Leadership. I was humbled by his request and joked with him about it, telling him that when I thought of a good leader I would gladly recommend one to him.
However, it got me thinking of the paradigm of the term "Christian Leadership". After all, we never really "lead", as the world defines leadership, because we are always following Jesus and living in obedience to His will. No matter the degree of "leadership" the world or the church place upon us, we are always primarily followers of Christ Jesus our Lord.
I took my responses to his questions and have presented them below as a reminder to myself and all who follow Jesus, especially in positions of Christian leadership, of the unique and paradoxical mantle which we carry: the mantle of leading by following.
Please describe your leadership responsibilities.
My leadership responsibilities include pastoring a church of approximately 100 and overseeing a Christian school of approximately 150 students and 20 staff. These responsibilities encompass administering three boards, superintending a budget of approximately $750,000, and presiding over a 30-acre campus. From the standpoint of spiritual leadership, these responsibilities include primarily vision casting, preaching, counseling, mentoring, and aligning human and physical resources to our corporate mission and vision.
What is a leader?
A leader is someone who influences others. This influence can come in the form of constituted authority, spiritual influence, or can simply be positional. Anyone who influences the thoughts or actions of others is a leader.
What are three important character traits of a biblical leader?
The three important character traits of a biblical leader are, in my opinion, humility, wisdom, and obedience.
Humility is clearly exhibited by Christ in many instances – washing His disciples’ feet, healing lepers, feeding the hungry – but, most powerfully and pronounced, in His death on the cross. Philippians said that He considered Himself nothing and humbled Himself to death on a cross. Likewise, the biblical leader must consider themselves as nothing, and consider others as better than themselves as did Christ. This humility shapes the servant leadership required by Scripture for those who wish to serve in His Kingdom.
Wisdom from the Holy Spirit is required to navigate the difficulties imposed by leadership. Christ told His disciples that He was giving them the Holy Spirit to guide them, and James says that we should pray if we lack wisdom and Christ will give it generously. Wisdom from the Holy Spirit is required to live, walk, and lead in the gray areas and adult-sized decisions that leaders face regularly. Without this wisdom which is not from ourselves, leaders can cause severe damage to Christ and His bride and can leave many bodies in their wake.
Lastly, obedience is required to follow the leading of Christ even when it is difficult and even when all the answers and outcomes are not readily available. Jesus Himself clearly stated that He had not come to do His own will, but the will of His Father who sent Him. This was powerfully evident in the Garden of Gethsemane. Furthermore, Jesus told His disciples that if they truly loved Him, they would obey Him. The biblical leader must, at all costs, obey God’s will if they are to expect those whom they influence to do likewise. Without the obedience of Jesus, there would be no death or resurrection. Every biblical leader must embody obedience to the will of the Father.
What are three vital skills of a biblical leader?
Three vital skills of a biblical leader are communication, flexibility, and delegation.
Communication is imperative not only to communicating God’s Word and the heart of Jesus toward people, but also toward motivating others to see, love, and follow Jesus. Paul addresses that in Romans 10 with his series of questions regarding the importance of communication so that people may hear about and follow Jesus. However, communication is also important for interacting with people regarding intent, planning, and administration. In order for everyone to be marching to be the beat of the same drum in unity, communication is a vital skill which must be continually evaluated and honed.
Flexibility is a vital skill which is often overlooked in biblical leadership. God is entitled to change our plans, and often does. In the Gospel narratives, Jesus was constantly changing course depending on the needs which were brought before Him. The entire course of Paul’s life was changed when he was forbidden to go to Asia in Acts 16. Biblical leaders must be flexible to respond to the voice and leading of God. This is true both in a career sense (I plan to stay for 20 years) and in the daily sense (these are my plans today). James says that to lay out your plans before the Lord is arrogant. Biblical leaders must be flexible.
Biblical leaders must also learn and utilize the skill of delegation. Investing yourself in others to empower them to serve and lead is a skill which was modeled beautifully by Jesus. Though he could have accomplished everything Himself, He carefully and painfully invested Himself in others to empower them to lead. Paul invested in Timothy and Epaphras, and James invested in the elders of the church in Jerusalem. Delegation is not only wise (think of the advice Jethro gave Moses about meeting the needs of the people), but it is also a biblical model for equipping others to serve Jesus in a greater and deeper way.
Please share with me three valuable pieces of advice for leading God’s people.
Firstly, from experience, I would advise you to seek the Lord to help you surround yourself with like-minded believers who walk closely with Him and can speak into your life on a personal level. Leading God’s people is difficult and can be exhausting, however, I would suggest that it is impossible to do alone. Jesus had only twelve disciples, and even within those twelve He had an inner circle of just three. Ask the Lord to show those in your life who walk with Him and who can speak into your life, both for encouragement and rebuke, and be willing to accept those words when they come. These relationships will not only develop you as a leader, but will also serve to help carry you through difficult times.
Secondly, let people have a voice and provide input into issues and decision-making, but understand that the burden and responsibility to lead has been especially laid upon you. Those other voices have not assumed the mantle of biblical leadership, and their lives and souls have been placed in your care. Listening to them is a visible and powerful reminder that you care for them, but leading them is what God has called you to. Listen to them, but lead them.
Lastly, let everything in your life and leadership stem from your personal relationship with Christ. It will be tempting to employ new methodologies and leadership principles, but let those always and only be a secondary supplement to a personal, dynamic walk with Jesus. In leading others, Christ does His greatest work through those who first apply those lessons and principles to themselves. When you visualize the words of Jesus to get the plank out of your eye before you get the speck out of your brother’s eye, this principle will be painfully evident! Walk hand-in-hand with Jesus and let the encouragement, correction, and rebuke that you humbly give to others come only after Christ has given it to you.
What is the greatest mistake you have made as a leader in your ministry experience?
My greatest mistake in my ministry experience was that for the first several years I made certain assumptions about people which simply are not true. In my naivety, I assumed that everyone had the same desire I had to follow Jesus and be transformed by Him. I unconsciously equated time as a believer to spiritual maturity. However, I was disappointed to discover that this was not the case. I put far too much faith in people and not near enough faith in Christ. The potential risk for this mistake is huge because it can easily lead to giving up on ministry and even people altogether.
What has been the greatest blessing of being a leader?
The greatest blessing of being a leader is being used by God to pour into the lives of those He brings into your life. I have had the blessing of seeing the Lord use my walk with Him to lead dozens of people to Jesus, and to walk with them through their own growth with Him. It is the most rewarding and fulfilling experience a human being can have. I have one man whom I have been intentionally pouring into for the past four years, and he now serves as a pastor. I have others whose relationship with Christ and spiritual maturity have grown so much that it is evident to everyone. This is the greatest blessing of being a leader. Like the great missionary C.T. Studd famously quipped, “Only one life, ‘twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.”
What is the riskiest prayer you have ever prayed? My most recent sermon dealt with the issue of taking faith-filled risks. At the end of the sermon, I challenged our congregation to apply this concept to their own prayer lives. Do we pray risky prayers, or do we “play it safe” with what we ask of God? If we always, or even mostly, pray "safe" prayers, I would question whether or not we understand the power of the Holy Spirit and the grandeur and glory of Him to whom we speak.
When the apostle Paul prayed for his church in Ephesus, his Holy-Spirit inspired view of God was recorded in Ephesians 3:20-21. He said,
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
When is the last time this exalted view of an all-powerful God enveloped our conversation with Him? What is it that causes a person to pray in such a way? What is it that would cause you to pray in such a way?
As we look through Scripture, we find a common denominator in those who pray in such a way: they have not only encountered Christ, but they have been completely transformed by Him. Their view of God and His power has been forever altered, and their view of themselves and their lives have been radically revolutionized. Take, for example, the tax collector in Luke 18. Here is a man of relatively important status and lofty position compared to most around him, and yet, when he sees God, He truly prays for likely the first time. His words were simply, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”.
Consider also the leper from Matthew 8. Following His famous “Sermon on the Mount”, Jesus is approached by a leper who bows down before Him and prays, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.” What a risky prayer! This man approached Jesus willing to continue to live with leprosy, if the Lord willed Him to carry on in that condition. However, as with the tax collector in Luke 18, Christ had mercy and compassion and touched him.
Likewise, think of Stephen, the first recorded Christian martyr. In Acts 7, he was being stoned to death for his speaking against the religious leaders of the day. They became furious and began stoning him, and yet, because he was full of the Holy Spirit, he prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” What a risky prayer! Stephen did not beg the Lord for victory over those killing him, he did not ask him for longer life, but he simply asked that the Lord would not hold the sin of killing him against them.
Let’s get back to the question: what would cause you to pray this way? What would it take to increase the risk factor in your prayers to Jesus? I would suggest that Scripture is clear on that: someone full of faith in Christ (Hebrews 11:1), full of the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:55), and fully surrendered to His authority (Matthew 28:18) will pray very differently from someone who is not.
How do you approach God when you talk to Him? Do you approach him, like the leper, knowing that knowing and worshipping Him is a greater end than being cured? Do you approach him, like Stephen, knowing that being forgiven and forgiving others is greater than life itself? Do you approach Him, like Jesus, submitting your will to Him even when you know His will is radically different from your own?
It is like the story J. Vernon McGee once told of a young seminary student who was about to preach his first real sermon. The young man was quite accomplished in his studies, and he felt more than equipped to communicate God’s Word. As a matter of fact, he was overly confident. When the time came for him to deliver the sermon – he walked boldly, even arrogantly, to the sacred desk. He arranged his notes before him, then gazed over the congregation. As he began to preach, his memory and his tongue betrayed him. He couldn’t remember his illustrations, his words shaky and weak. What he thought would be a 30-minute sermon was over in 10 minutes. Sheepishly he descended the stage after the concluding prayer.
The Senior Pastor of the church was an experienced minister who had seen this sort of thing many times before. He placed his arm around the young seminarian and said, “Son, if you had walked onto the stage the way you came down, you would have come down the way you went up”.
God our Father is, as Paul stated, “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us”, and all He asks of us is faith that He is and that He can. Why, then, when we walk and talk with Him, do we so often not exhibit such elementary faith in Him with our words and actions? Why, when we walk and talk with Him, do we so often pray for outcomes or solutions that are well within that which we can ask or imagine, and require no power at work within us? A.W. Tozer said that, “God is looking for those with whom He can do the impossible – what a pity that we plan only the things that we can do by ourselves”.
May the risk factor in our prayers continue to increase as we encounter the God of the impossible; the God beyond our comprehension; the God of all authority; the God throughout all generations, for ever and ever. Amen!
Scripture is replete with thoughts and ideas that seem at first glance to be paradoxical, but, in fact are not. For example – take the attributes of God’s mercy and justice. God is merciful (Luke 6:36), but at the same time totally and completely just (Psalm 7:11). At first glance, it seems near impossible for someone to possess both the attributes of mercy and justice simultaneously; they seem as though they would constantly be at odds with one another. Yet, because of God’s holiness, He is always just and always merciful. As A.W. Tozer stated, “There is nothing in His justice which forbids the exercise of His mercy.”
This issue of seemingly paradoxical values gets played out in countless examples throughout our life. One great example which immediately comes to mind is a scene from the movie “Les Miserables”, and it has everything to do with these attributes of justice and mercy.
In the most recent remake of the movie, there is a scene where a convict is invited into the home of a bishop and his wife. They feed him dinner and give him a place to sleep for the night. In the middle of the night, the convict gets up and begins stealing all of the silverware in the kitchen. The bishop hears the clatter, and gets out of bed to go check up on things. He enters the kitchen, spots the convict, and they stare into each other’s eyes for a moment. Then, suddenly, the convict punches the bishop, knocking him unconscious, and makes off with the silverware. The next scene opens with the convict being brought back to the house, in chains, escorted by armed soldiers. They tell the bishop that they caught the convict making off with the loot. Then, when questioned about it, the convict told them that the bishop gave him all his silverware, to which they all laugh. Then, the bishop says, “I did! Why did you forget the two silver candlesticks? They’re worth at least 2,000 franks!” He then has his wife fetch the candlesticks and get the soldiers some wine to drink. Then, he approaches the convict, chains now released, and removes his hood and says, “Don’t ever forget, you promised to become a new man.” The convict replies, bewildered, “Why are you doing this?” The bishop then replies, “My brother, you no longer belong to evil. With this silver, I bought your soul. I’ve ransomed you from fear and hatred. And now I give you back to God.” The scene then ends with the convict gazing with astonishment into the bishop’s eyes.
Depending on your viewpoint, you could cite the bishop as either failing to administer justice or excelling in administering mercy. You could accuse him of lying to the authorities on giving the convict his silverware, or you could applaud his act of ransoming the convict from fear and hatred in that same act.
There are countless other examples of these seeming paradoxes throughout Scripture. One which the Lord has recently placed on my own heart are those of faith and planning. At what point does diligent planning become an infringement on living by faith, and at what point does a lack of planning lead to irresponsibility and a disregard for biblical stewardship? These questions are at the heart of many discussions by Christians and churches today seeking God’s will. Our Father speaks about both ideas throughout Scripture.
From the book filled with practical wisdom we find, in Proverbs 21:5 the admonition that “the plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty.” Clearly, we understand here that diligent planning is valued over hasty decision-making, and the lack of planning can easily lead to poverty.
However, in Luke 7, we see Jesus commending someone for their faith in Him (which was the only time such a commendation from Jesus was recorded) without requesting or requiring a plan of him of how his request was to be met. A Roman centurion – not a disciple, religious leader, or Rabbi, but a Soldier (of all people!) – requested Jesus to heal his dying servant. However, an unexpected commentary came with his request.
“Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed.”
How remarkable! There is no lengthy, technical explanation of what was going on, there was no discussion of his medical history, and there was no sense of panic despite the urgency of the situation. The centurion required nothing of Jesus but to simply “say the word”, and had complete faith that when he arrived home, everything would be as it should. Thus, Jesus marveled and said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” (Luke 7:9).
Fast-forward a few chapters to Luke 14:28-30, and Jesus talks about the issue of diligent planning. He says to a large crowd:
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won't you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn't able to finish.’”
Now, again, Scripture is speaking to us of the importance of diligent planning. Jesus is cautioning the crowds, essentially, to count the cost before taking the first step. He even re-emphasizes the point by following that parable up with a similar one about a king counting the cost before going to war (vs. 31-32).
So, what’s the answer here? How are we to reconcile these seemingly competing values? When does planning stop and faith begin? How much diligent planning is wise, and how little planning is required for commendation from Jesus?
I think the best answer comes at the end of Jesus’ parable in Luke 14. After advising the crowds to count the cost of their plans before making such decisions, he says this:
“In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”
These parables regarding the importance of planning were themselves intended to communicate the necessity and centrality of faith! In other words, if you want to follow me, Jesus was saying, make a calculated plan to live by faith from this day forward! Consider the cost of discipleship before you plan on following me, He says, because it will cost you everything.
This is precisely why, in Hebrews 11, these men and women were in the “Hall of Faith”: their only plan was to follow Christ at all costs! No further discussion, calculation, or deliberation was required. Obedience was the extent of their plan. This is communicated in the very first verse of the chapter when we read that,
“faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”
For the believer, faith in Christ itself is our assurance and certainty. Of course, planning is involved in temporal projects such as construction, buying a car, paying for college, and preparing for retirement. This is where King Solomon’s words of wisdom enter into the practical realm of human existence. But, the faith embedded in the mantra of the Roman centurion of “say the word” is the extent of the plan of the Christian.
Plan to give up everything, Jesus says. Are we prepared to take those words seriously? If Christ called you to something that you didn’t fully understand, would you trust Him? Or, would you have a litany of questions wanting more information and a detailed timeline? I’ve always found it humbling that when Jesus was telling His disciples about the end times in Mark 13, even His most devoted disciples asked Him privately:
“Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
Most incredibly, Jesus doesn’t give them a timeline. Rather, in verse 11, He says:
“Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever you are given at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.”
After hearing that reply, my thoughts might be something like this: “Are you kidding me, right now, Lord?!? The world is ending, and you’re telling me I am going to be arrested, flogged, and asked to speak before governors and kings, and I shouldn’t even plan on what to say?!?”
Don’t plan what you will say, Jesus says. Don’t plan your present. Don’t plan your future. James calls such planning arrogant and evil (James 4:16). Just plan to give up everything. Just plan to obey. Just plan to be faithful.
This summer I am leading our church through a biblical look at our core values. We are delving into who we are as individual Christians as well as our identity as a corporate body. The particular value that we looked at recently was the biblical principle of stewardship: “Everything we have belongs to the Lord. We are His stewards.” In examining many Scriptures on this topic, the most impactful came from Romans 14:8.
“If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”
It can be tempting to exclude ourselves – our bodies, our opinions, our lives, our personalities, that which comprises the very core of who we are – from the “everything” that belongs to the Lord. Yet, the Holy Spirit inspired words of Paul are very clear here: we belong to the Lord. Whether you live or you die, you belong to the Lord.
Individualism has been a cherished value in our culture, and, in fact, often appears to the highest virtue in many ways. The attitude of “this is MY body”, “this is how I feel”, “this is what I think”, “this is what I see and understand to be truth”, and so on. It is painfully evident in many national conversations: abortion, sexual identity, gender discussions, race relations, etc. However, it is also on display in most every area of our life: our attitude, our money, our relationships, our bodies, and our possessions.
As a Christian we are not the Captain of this ship we call our life but rather, as 1 Corinthians 6:20 tells us, we were bought at a price. We are called to actively and consistently DENY ourselves (talk about counter-culture!), take up the cross, and follow our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ (Matthew 16:24). We are called to be transformed – that is changed from our own image – into the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 12:1-2). What does this mean for us, Church?
The implications are far-reaching, indeed. Since we belong to the Lord, He owns us; we are His and He is our Master. Imagine the impact we would have on our community – and ultimately our country and the entire world – if every Christian began to live this way! If, as we began to read Scripture, we actually read these inspired words as mandates, as commands, from our Lord and Master and, in response, began to internalize them and live them out. The death-grip that individualism has on our culture would disappear as people began to “live for the Lord” rather than “live for themselves”, or “live for the moment”, or “live for the feeling”.
May I challenge you with what I have been challenged with this past week? Ask the Lord to begin to conform you to His image to the point where the reality of Romans 14:8 is undeniably evident in your heart, mind, and life. You belong to the Lord. Submit your opinions to Him. Submit your identity to Him. Submit your strengths and weaknesses to Him. Submit your will to Him. Ask the Holy Spirit to take your very life, and live it for Him. As we do this, may He begin to transform not only us, but our families, the people around us, our churches, our communities, our country, and the world. Live for the Lord, today and every day. You belong to Him.
I closed my sermon with a powerful prayer from John Wesley. I would encourage you to not only pray this prayer, or one of your own with the same heart and spirit, but also to ask the Lord to embed it deeply in your spirit. I do not believe we can honestly pray this way and not be changed.
“Lord, I am no longer my own, but Yours. Put me to what You will, rank me with whom You will. Let be employed by You or laid aside for You, exalted for You or brought low by You. Let me have all things, let me have nothing, I freely and heartily yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, You are mine and I am Yours. So be it. Amen”
Acts 9:36-39: "In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which, when translated, is Dorcas), who was always doing good and helping the poor. About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room...All the widows stood around [Peter], crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them."
Right now, our church is studying through the book of Acts. It has been a tremendous encouragement to see how regular, every day, ordinary people are used by the Lord to accomplish incredible things for the Kingdom.
Much of the early part of the book is devoted to Peter. It’s not uncommon for people to think of Peter as “super-spiritual” because of what the Lord used him to accomplish in his lifetime. But, as I reflect on the Peter revealed in the Gospels, I discover a man who struggled with a temper, a man who had a big-mouth, and was always having to fish his own foot out of his mouth for having spoken too quickly! And yet, it is simple surrender to the will of the Lord and being filled with the Holy Spirit that allowed him to be used in such an undeniably powerful way by the Lord.
However, even more encouraging than that, to me, is the story of a lady named Dorcas found in Acts 9. Dorcas was the epitome of “ordinary”. She was an older widow, and the only detail that we know of her life is that she made clothes for people. Here was an older woman who sat in her house and sewed. Her and my grandmother would have gotten along just fine! And yet, when we read of her passing, we read of a tremendous outpouring of sorrow by those in her town. Their sorrow was on a level that you might expect for a government official, or perhaps some local, influential religious leader. All of this for an old widow who wore out her sewing machine.
What was the cause of such an outpouring? It was simple: this woman had a very powerful and impactful ministry in the community. Here was a woman so in touch with the needs of her neighbors, and so in touch with the heart of Jesus Christ, and so in touch with her own skills and abilities that she used each of these to reach deep into the heart of those who lived around her. Typically, we think of those who stand behind pulpits, or those who spend their lives in foreign countries as those who have the most impact for Christ, but what reach a simple servant’s heart that is given to the Lord and seeks to meet the practical needs of others has on people.
As I was encouraged by this Scripture, let me encourage you: let the Lord use you to meet the needs of those that the Lord has placed in your life. Christian service begins with asking the Lord to give you HIS sight for the needs of those around you, and then simply meeting needs with the heart of Christ. Be a “marketplace missionary” in your community. Use those talents that the Lord has given you to have a powerful impact for the Kingdom of Heaven.
Each week this blog will be updated with a word for the week from my current studies.