In an epistle that contains a number of negative descriptions, Romans 16:17-18 is the last. Here, though, Paul is not concerned with degenerate Gentiles or hard-hearted Jews. Instead, he focuses on troublemakers within the Christian community. They have the following four characteristics:
They Create Division. Disciples of Christ are supposed to be peacemakers like their Master. Some Christians, though, seek out division instead. They prefer quarreling to bearing with, and they savor the feeling of angry self-righteousness that comes from being “right” when other brethren are “wrong”. We must watch out for those who enjoy conflict in the church, and we must beware of becoming such ourselves.
They Impose Obstacles. As all of us know, it isn’t easy to follow the commandments of the Lord. The path of righteousness is narrow. However, there are those who think it isn’t narrow enough. Pharisee-like, they bind heavy burdens on others that the word does not, and they reject those who do not agree with them. There is an appearance of holiness to this rigor, but it isn’t truly holy. We must be faithful to the Scriptures in what we condemn as well as in what we approve.
They Serve Their Own Appetites. Christ is to be master over us, but the devil constantly strives for dominance in every heart, especially the hearts of teachers of the word. He employs the familiar tools of 1 John 2:16, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. The lust of the flesh and the lust of the eye are obviously problematic, but it’s harder to spot ministers who are motivated by pride.
Perhaps the best way to determine whether pride is an issue in a man’s heart is to analyze his behavior according to the previous verse and Jesus’ dictum about knowing a tree by its fruits. Does he look to cause division instead of making peace? Does he put obstacles in the way of those who seek Christ? If so, pride is the likely culprit.
They Deceive with Smooth Words. It is worth noting that Paul says that the unsuspecting are the prey of the false teacher. It is much easier to fool the ignorant and trusting than the knowledgeable and wary.
Thus, we always must be on our guard against those who would deceive us in spiritual matters. This begins with a Berean attitude toward everything we hear. Even if the speaker is our favorite preacher or an angel from heaven, don’t take his word for it!
Second, we must beware of appeals to extrabiblical information. There is much to be gained from the study of linguistic and historical resources, but the Bibles we hold in our hands are all any of us need to inherit eternal life. When somebody starts telling us that we don’t understand a verse right because the Greek actually means this, or because scholars have determined that thus and such was true in Ephesus 2000 years ago, we should become very suspicious. Their goal is for us to put our faith in the expert instead of the word. Bible helps and Bible scholars have their place, but that place is not to trump the plain meaning of the text.
As we have been working our way through Romans on Sunday evenings and in our daily readings, hopefully the extraordinary quality of the epistle has become obvious. Romans has changed the course of human history, and with good reason. The substance of Paul’s argument is astonishing in its scope, and the skill with which he argues is no less impressive. He pulls out all the stops in presenting his case as persuasively as possible.
Some of the devices he employs are obvious, but others are quite subtle. Consider, for instance, the lead-in to the discussion of conscience in Romans 14. In that chapter, Paul urges the Christians in Rome not to judge or have contempt for brothers who differ in conscience.
Much of the preface in Romans 13 is straightforward. 13:8-10 tells us to love one another. 13:11-12 calls us to put on the armor of light because of the brevity of human existence. 13:14 exhorts us to put on Christ and make no provision for the flesh.
All of this is good sound preaching, as the saying goes. We like to be told things like this. Sermons using these Scriptures inspire us and have us walking out of the church building humming “Onward, Christian Soldiers” to ourselves. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with walking wide around the conscience of others, though.
The trap is in 13:13. There, Paul supplies us with a list of three pairs that are part of the works of darkness, the works in which we are not supposed to walk. The first two pairs are more of the same. We are not to walk in orgies and drunkenness. Sounds like a good idea to me! Likewise, we are not to walk in sexual immorality and sensuality. This may step on the toes of some Christians, but it probably doesn’t for most who are in the auditorium Sunday morning.
The third pair, though, is “not in quarreling and jealousy”. All of a sudden, “Onward, Christian Soldiers” kind of skips a beat, doesn’t it? Jealousy. Hmm. It’s awfully easy to find ourselves enviously regarding someone else’s attractiveness, prosperity, or position. Or good health, for that matter.
Quarreling is even worse. Brethren have been known to quarrel these days, sometimes, just a little bit. Perhaps we ourselves have exchanged a heated word or two with another Christian about. . . COVID, just to pick an example out of the air. Perhaps we have formed into factions with other like-minded brethren so that we can complain to them about the ungodly behavior of the other side. Perhaps we have Vaguebooked about how ungodly they are. Perhaps we have disturbed the peace of our congregation or even caused a church split.
The Holy Spirit says that’s walking in darkness. The Holy Spirit says that’s making provision for the flesh and its lusts. In fact, the Holy Spirit says that’s on the same level as participating in an orgy.
If that’s where we find ourselves, we need to put some onward in our Christian soldiers. We need to rush into battle, not against those who disagree with us, but against the devil who has entrenched his self-righteousness, judgmentalism, and contempt in our hearts. Our sin may be sweet in the mouth, but it will be bitter in the stomach.
How can we win this desperate fight? Paul is so glad you asked.
Welcome to Romans 14.
As you know, I like to preach on sermon requests, unless I forget what they are first. This one came to me in one of the church-building hallways after services. A member here asked me to preach on forgiveness, especially forgiving oneself.
This request does not surprise me one little bit. I’ve been hearing similar concerns from Christians for decades. It’s been true in Texas, true in Illinois, and true here. I’ve even seen aspiring hymnists wanting to write hymns about the subject because it’s such a struggle for them.
When I see the topic come up so much, it tells me that a lot of Christians feel like they don’t have good solutions to the problem. We all know that Christians rise from the waters of baptism to walk in newness of life. However, what do we do when guilt from the old life keeps intruding into the new one? For that matter, how do we handle it when we start accumulating sins in the new life too? We know that Jesus forgives our sins, but sometimes we don’t feel forgiven. This morning, then, let’s consider what it takes to make peace with the past.
The first thing that we must do is PUT THE BURDEN IN THE RIGHT PLACE. Here, let’s look at Ephesians 2:8-9. One of my primary rules in studying the Bible is always to seek to explain the text rather than explaining away the text, and this passage illustrates the importance of doing so perhaps better than any other. When I was growing up, I never heard this verse cited in church without somebody following it with “But you still have to be baptized!” The only people I heard quoting it approvingly were people from the denominations. I got the impression that this was a denominational verse instead of a church-of-Christ verse.
Sadly, it is no less dangerous for us to turn away from the whole counsel of God than it is for others to do so, and the consequences of our minimizing this passage are obvious. It shows up in two main places: in all the faithful Christians who are scared to death that they aren’t good enough to go to heaven and in those who are so caught up in their own guilt that the forgiveness of Jesus doesn’t register. You know what both of those things are? They’re symptoms of believing on some level that our salvation is from ourselves.
In fact, if we’re being perfectly honest, both of those things are symptoms of a desire to boast in ourselves. We want to be good enough on the day of judgment, and we want to have been good enough that we don’t have those regrets in our past. The problem is, though, that we know that we have failed and continue to fail, so we suffer beneath all this fear and guilt.
There’s only one way out of the trap. It’s to put the burden of our righteousness on Jesus. Of course we failed in the past! It’s why we became Christians in the first place. Of course we will continue to fail! Otherwise, we no longer would need His grace. We cannot hope to save ourselves or boast in ourselves, but He can and will redeem us.
Second, we must EMBRACE RENEWAL. I like the way Paul puts this in Colossians 3:9-10. It’s a passage that highlights both kinds of renewal. The first is the spiritual change of clothes that is so prominent in Ephesians and Colossians. When we obeyed the gospel, we put off the old self and put on the new self. We are different people now than we were before we were baptized. All the evils that the old self did were left in the water.
However, renewal for the Christian is not just a one-time event. It’s a continuing process. We have put on the new self, past tense, but we are being renewed, present tense. In context, Paul discusses our renewal in knowledge, but this is not the only kind of renewal we experience. In Lamentations 3, Jeremiah observes that God’s mercies are new each morning. We are constantly renewed in knowledge, renewed in righteousness, and renewed in every one of His great blessings.
When we look back, then, on one of those sins that gives us so much guilt now, we must ask if God has renewed us since. Are we still practicing that sin? Is our heart such that we would do it again if given opportunity? If so, we absolutely should feel guilty! We need to repent and get our hearts and our lives right with God.
However, for the Christians who can’t forgive themselves, that’s usually not the case. They usually experience such agony over their past sins because they have repented, aren’t practicing the same thing, and don’t want to.
If that’s where you are, guess what? Those sins don’t belong to you anymore. You’re a different person. You’ve been renewed. You’ve been renewed in your knowledge, renewed in your heart, and most of all, renewed in God’s grace. Those sins have been removed from you as far as the east is from the west, and it doesn’t make any more sense to feel guilty about them than it does to feel guilty about the sins of a stranger.
Finally, we must LEAVE THE PAST IN THE PAST. Paul makes this point in Philippians 3:13-14. It’s interesting that contextually, Paul is talking about forgetting the good things that were part of his life before Christ. He was working on leaving behind things like being a Pharisee of Pharisees and blameless according to the Law.
However, these kinds of unpleasant memories are joined to guilt over past sins by a common thread of regret. The devil was whispering in Paul’s ear that it would have been better if he had gone on being a wealthy, honored Hebrew of Hebrews. Likewise, he uses even our sorrow for sin as a tool to drag us back into the past.
Indeed, the devil wanted Paul thinking about the past and wants us thinking about the past for the same reason. He doesn’t want us thinking about the present because in Paul’s present and our present is Christ. No matter what pretty shiny worldly things the devil dangled in front of Paul, once the apostle compared them to Christ, he saw them for the garbage they were.
So too for us. The devil wants us to dwell on our guilt, our crushing, agonizing, overwhelming guilt. He wants us to lose sleep over it. He wants us to be unhappy. However, what he does not want us to do is to compare our guilt to the grace of Christ.
He does not want us to think about the infinite love of Jesus that led Him to die on the cross. He does not want us to think about the infinite grace that His sacrifice made possible. Remember too that infinity divided by any finite number remains infinite. Jesus didn’t just love the human race infinitely. He loved you infinitely and me infinitely too, and the grace that cleanses each of us of sin is infinite too.
It's good for us to learn from the mistakes of the past, but we must not define ourselves by those mistakes. Instead, we must define ourselves by the grace of Christ. None of us are or can hope to become anything more than a redeemed sinner, but that’s all we have to be because His grace is enough.
Romans is one of the easiest books to place in the chronology of the New Testament. Paul wrote it during the three months of Acts 20:3, which happened sometime between 55 and 56 AD. We can locate it so precisely because of Paul’s autobiographical commentary in Romans 15:22-32. He has finished collecting the contribution for the needy saints in Macedonia and Greece, and he is about to take it to Jerusalem.
However, there is more than a touch of pathos to Paul’s description of his plans after that. He hopes to leave Jerusalem, travel to Rome, meet the Roman brethren for the first time, and ultimately embark on the first-ever preaching tour of Spain. Throughout his ministry, he prefers to go where others haven’t.
To say the least, things don’t go according to plan. While in Jerusalem, he is nearly lynched by a mob in the temple. He is arrested by the Romans as a troublemaker and is spirited out of Jerusalem before a band of Jewish assassins can kill him. He appears before the Roman governor and is imprisoned for the next two years without a trial.
Another Roman governor appears. When Paul is brought before him, the apostle is forced to appeal to the emperor to keep from being remanded into the custody of the Jewish chief priests, who certainly will execute him. He is put on a ship to Rome, shipwrecked, and rescued. Eventually, he arrives at his destination, years after he had intended to come and a prisoner to boot. So far as we know, Paul never made it to Spain.
At first glance, these events appear to be much more the work of Satan than the work of God. However, we also must reckon with the other things that happened while he was enduring frustration, misery, and danger. For one thing, the prophecy of Acts 9:15 is fulfilled. Paul proclaims the gospel to the Jewish high council, two Roman proconsuls, and the puppet king Agrippa. Throughout his trials, he glorifies Christ.
Perhaps the most important consequence of Paul’s travails, though, is an indirect one. Among his companions on the journey to Jerusalem is the physician Luke, who joins him at Philippi. Luke goes with him to Jerusalem, then, two years later, from Jerusalem to Rome.
The Scriptures do not say what Luke did during those two years, but we can make some inferences. In Luke 1:1-4, Luke claims to have constructed his account after hearing from eyewitnesses and closely investigating things for himself. He was a Gentile from the Aegean, and so far as we know, the only time in his life that he would have been around people like the Twelve was during Paul’s imprisonment. It may well be that without that imprisonment, the foremost historian of our faith would not have been able to do his work.
Today, our plans often don’t go according to plan. When we face trial and suffering, we often wonder what God is doing with us, especially when we are prevented from serving Him in the way we wanted to. At such times, we should remember Paul. God’s plans for us are better than our plans for ourselves, and it may be that the most important thing about our suffering is the impact it has on someone else. We don’t know, any more than Paul did. All we can do is trust.
“There is no God,” the fool declares;
They all have worked iniquity;
From heaven God looks down on earth
For those who seek Him faithfully.
They turn aside in what they’ve done,
And none do good, not even one.
Do not the wicked understand
Who have not called upon His name?
He gives His foes to fear and death
And puts His enemies to shame.
When freed from their captivity,
Let Israel sing exultantly!