This week, we pick up where we left off last time in our series on Paul’s letter to the Romans. We have spent the better part of the past three years making our way microscopically, verse by verse through this letter and now we only have the final section of chapter 16 left to place under the microscope. Before we conclude that final text however, we have paused to look at the book from a wide-angle perspective. That is, we have, for the past few weeks been surveying the broad flow of truth as Paul presents it in Romans using not a microscope, but a telescope. We have surveyed the first four major sections of Romans and this week we look at the fifth major section which runs from 12:1-15:13. This section of Romans, like all the others, is about the gospel.
The first section, running roughly from chapters one through three deals with the necessity of the gospel. It answers the question, what is the need for the gospel. Section two, which runs through the last section of chapter three and through chapter four, is about the gospel because it presents the foundational elements of the gospel. Righteousness, justification, redemption, propitiation are the main supporting pillars of the gospel and Paul treats those truths in that section. Section three, which runs from chapter five through eight explores other blessings of the gospel. The gospel brings us peace with God and power over sin’s domination so we no longer have to live as slaves to sin. Section four discusses the gospel as it relates to Old Testament prophecies about national, ethnic Israel. In this section, Paul explains God’s redemptive plan through the gospel as it relates to national Israel and in so doing reminds us that salvation is given NOT on the basis of any national heritage, but on God’s purpose in election.
As we come to this fifth section of Romans, we see a similarity in structure between this section and the second section. There, Paul lays out at the beginning of the section the essence of the entire section. The rest of that section is simply an explanation and amplification of the first few verses. In section five, Paul does the same thing. In the first two verses, Paul broadly states the entire truth he then proceeds to unpack in the next four chapters. Let’s look at these two familiar verses again and allow them to guide our thinking about this section as Paul intends them to. Paul says in Romans 12:1-2, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. 2Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
The question that should come to our minds as we are surveying Romans as a book about the gospel is, “How do these verses (and therefore this entire section of the book) relate to the gospel?” The answer is: this section of Romans shows us the result of the gospel in people who have accepted it and been changed by it. A key element of the gospel is faith. Chapter 1:17 says the righteousness that comes from God is the righteousness that comes by faith. This faith required to save the believer through the gospel is by definition a living, active, vital faith and it brings fruit to the believer. All the way back in chapter one, verse five Paul says his call as an apostle is to call people to the “obedience that comes from faith.” The saving faith that receives Christ through the gospel produces obedience. That’s putting it broadly. As God gives faith to believers and they show or live out that faith in Christ, what does that obedience look like? That is the question Paul implicitly answers in chapters 12-15:13. This section of Romans is like the application section of the letter. Paul shifts gears here and shows what the gospel looks like as it is lived out in the life of the believer. Paul gives the broad application in these first two verses in chapter 12. Any sincere believer wants to live out the “obedience that comes from faith.” There is a tendency for the sincere believer as they go through Romans 12-15 or any such application section in the bible. That tendency is, as they read the various expressions of faith-born obedience Paul gives here, to say to themselves, I need to do that in that verse and that in that text and that in this section.” That is certainly not wrong, but there is a preliminary step that must first be taken if we are to live out the obedience that comes from faith and without that first step, we will fall on our faces as we try to live out lives of obedience. We see this prerequisite to obedience in the first phrase in Romans 12:1 and we dare not skip over it. The first phrase reads simply, “Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy…”
Paul makes it clear by the way he structures this text that offering your bodies as a living sacrifice and not conforming to the world, but being transformed by the renewing of our minds comes only AFTER something else. What precedes all that according to Paul is having a view of the mercy of God that he has so clearly shown us up to this point in Romans. Paul begins this section of application in the book of Romans with a crucial word that ties this section to all that has preceded it, especially chapters 9-11. When Paul says, “Therefore…in view of God’s mercy” he is giving us the absolutely necessary ground for living out the obedience that comes from faith. That is, we are to live our lives in response to God’s mercy. A life that is NOT lived in response to God’s mercy will not look anything like what Paul commands in chapters 12-15. In chapters 1-11 Paul has powerfully put under the spotlight God’s mercy to redeemed sinners. At the very heart of the gospel Romans discusses is the concept of God’s mercy. That is, (and I believe Paul is using the term mercy here broadly to encompass grace as well) the sinner receives what they don’t deserve and the sinner is spared what they do deserve. God’s mercy is the essence of the gospel. There is no gospel without the mercy of God.
The Christian life is a life lived in response to God’s mercy as Paul details that here in chapters 1-11. The problem for many sincere but defeated Christians is they seek to live out the supernatural life Paul writes of in chapters 12-15, but they are missing the necessary prerequisite. That is, a living, vital, ever-present heart and head apprehension of God’s mercy to them. They are trying to live a life that is, by definition, only lived in response to something, the mercy of God. But they are trying to live it in response to nothing. They have a desire to live it out, but the desire is not influenced or driven by an apprehension of the mercy of God and they are therefore destined to fail. The promises of God’s mercy in chapters 1-11 of Romans are the rocket fuel that enables us to soar to the heights of Christian living commanded in chapters 12-15. If you try to live out chapters 12-15 without the fuel of a life lived in response to God’s mercy, you will crash and burn while you are still on the launching pad.
What this means is, as Jerry Bridges says in his book, “The Discipline of Grace” we must preach the gospel of God’s mercy to ourselves every day. Because a life that expresses the obedience that comes from faith is a life lived in response to the mercy of God and which banks its hope on the mercy of God. And so, because this is so crucial, let’s briefly highlight the mercy of God as Paul has shown it to us in the first eleven chapters. Let’s look at these chapters through the lens of God’s mercy. In section one we see God’s mercy in Paul’s clear picture of the wretched plight of the sinner. The mercy of God is what reaches down to someone totally depraved. The mercy of God doesn’t reach down to nice people who need a little work. God’s mercy is not given to people who see themselves as basically good people or even people with a tinge of wickedness in them. NO! The mercy of God is given to those who are actively suppressing the truth of God in unrighteousness. They are running from God at breakneck speed, fashioning their own idols out of what God has created. Their lives are lived under the wrath of God and that is seen in the fact that they are spending themselves on perverse, self-indulgent pleasures and God is letting them go at it with reckless abandon—He’s not lifting a finger to stop it. He is under no obligation to do anything except watch the rebel sinners continue to sin their way into lives of emptiness in this life and the eternal torment of hell in the next.
Paul says in chapters one through three that those are the ONLY candidates for the mercy of God. That is a description of every person who has ever received the mercy of God because that is the only kind of people there are. If that is not our understanding of the sinner, then we will have a superficial understanding of God’s mercy because the wonder of God’s mercy is seen perhaps most profoundly in the kind of person he gives it to. He doesn’t dispense it to good people or even slightly flawed people. He gives it to human wreckage--those who are, in their heart of hearts, shaking their dirty little fists at Him. God reaches down and saves those people. If we don’t get that, then we will never fully “get” God’s mercy. It is so practically important to have a biblical grasp of the character and plight of the sinner if we are to be healthy Christians. Much of the disease in people’s spiritual lives in the church can be traced back to an incomplete or even wrong view of their sinfulness before a holy God.
In the second section of Romans we see the mercy of God in terms like “justification.” The mercy of God is seen in this: God takes these rebels and plucks them off the path of hell and, with absolutely no help or contribution from the sinner, declares them to be righteous—like Him--in His sight. He forgives their sin and transfers to their spiritual resume the perfect, sinless righteousness of Christ that he lived out for more than 30 years on earth. This is possible for him to do because He has offered his perfect Son as a propitiation for them. That is, he has taken all the wrath they earned and deserved and poured it out on Christ on the cross. He has paid the ransom we could never pay and used as His redemption currency, the sacred blood of his spotless Son.
Part of the mercy of God is seen in the third section of Romans in the peace of God we have because we have been justified. Before we are saved, God has one disposition toward us. He burns with holy wrath toward us. That is his attitude toward the sinner. That may sound utterly barbaric and hopelessly dated in 2001 but it is the truth. But the redeemed sinner saved by Christ through the gospel has peace with God. God is not angry with us anymore! The relationship is characterized and defined NOT by anger or conflict or an adversarial context. All that has been replaced by glorious peace. God is thankfully no longer at war with us. We have been reconciled to him, having the peace of God that comes through the blood of Christ. That is mercy! This section also shows us the mercy of God in the fact that believers no longer have to live under the domination of sin’s reign. Because we are united with Christ, we have been, with him, transferred out of the dominion where sin reigns. We no longer have to fear the enslaving power of sin. We can say “no” to sin and triumph over it. Now, instead of being held in bondage to the law, we can fulfill the law of God because, in the mercy of God, the gospel provides for that kind of life. Finally in this section, the mercy of God is seen in the fact that nothing can or will be able to separate us from the love of Christ—nothing. We may FEEL like we have been separated, but the truth is we are not because there is nothing that CAN separate us from the love of Christ.
In chapters nine through eleven, we see the mercy of God in a powerful way be we Jew or Gentile. In this section, Paul explains why the Jews didn’t initially come to Christ as Savior as expected based on some Old Testament promises. He also goes on to explain why the Gentiles have come in droves to Christ. The reason is because he has chosen only a remnant of Jews to be saved and allowed the Gentiles in large numbers to participate in His New Covenant promises as He prophesied. If we are Gentiles, we must appreciate the mercy of God in that. Think about it. We, who were in no way part of God’s part of redemption for the first 2000 years of his plan, we have no spiritual heritage, no spiritual roots we can call our own. Yet we have been brought in from the outside to share in God’s saving mercy through the gospel. The few Jews who have been saved through Christ can see God’s mercy in that they, unlike almost all the rest of their kinsman, have been included in this remnant of Jewish believers to be saved before the great move of God’s Spirit to come on the last days Jews. This is the mercy of God.
We see God’s mercy in chapter nine through eleven in that all of this excluding of most of national Israel and including the Gentiles is all a part of God’s eternal plan crafted before the foundation of the earth through predestination and election. We see the astonishing mercy of God in this. Before we were even created, before we could do one thing for God—with God knowing fully all the spiritual sewage we would generate toward Him, God elected us to be his children before the foundation of the earth. And even more astonishing, his mercy is seen in the fact that he DOESN’T choose everyone. Why did God choose Isaac and not Ishmael? Why did God choose Jacob and not Esau? Why did God choose Moses and not Pharaoh? And most astonishingly, “God, why did you choose me and not my neighbor, that godless sinner who died last week?” Paul’s answer to all the above in 9-11 is: God, for reasons known only to Him, gave mercy to the one and not to other. THAT’S the mercy of God!
Paul says in Romans 12:1-2 that the obedience that comes from faith which every sincere Christian wants is lived out IN RESPONSE TO the mercy of God—THAT mercy of God. This life of faith producing the fruit of obedience is ONLY lived out in response to God’s mercy as exemplified in Romans 1-11. What that means is, if we want to live out holy lives before God, we better each day drench our minds in the awareness of God’s abundant mercy. There is no short cut. Its as we humble ourselves and meditate on the completely undeserved mercy of God to us, that we are put in a position where the grace of God can flow through us to live out lives of supernatural quality. There is nothing more humbling than meditating on the undeserved mercy of God toward us. And God gives grace to live the Christian life biblically only to the humble.
In response to that mercy, we are told in chapters 12-15 what it means to “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do no conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Everything you will ever do as a Christian that has God’s blessing will be merely an expression of what Paul says in those two verses. This IS the Christian life in two verses. How does Paul unpack that in the remaining three chapters? Looking at it from a telescopic perspective, it is amazing how much time Paul gives to living in community with one another. Approximately two thirds of this section is given to living within the body of Christ in a manner that honors God. That is so telling to us today. Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” The defining emblem or mark of the Christian is the love they show to one another in community. In a church age where we generally only see each other at most three to four hours a week, this sounds like a foreign language.
Paul says offering our bodies as sacrifices means living in humility in community with each other where each person does “not think more highly of himself than he ought to think.” He says we must live in community faithfully exercising our spiritual gifts. That implies that we will be sacrificing time away from work and family to use the gifts He has given us in the venue where they are fundamentally to be used—the body of Christ, to build it up. He tells us we must offer our bodies by sacrificially going the extra mile for those who are weaker in the faith than we are instead of condescendingly looking down our noses at them. He tells us we are to work toward unity in the body in the midst of what may be great diversity. This is what shows the heart of Jesus most profoundly to the world.
The text that ties together all Paul’s teaching about living in community with each other is 13:8-10. “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law…(verse 10) Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law.” The obedience that comes from faith lived out in response to the mercy of God is seen fundamentally in our love toward each other. This is the heart of the Christian—it is the heart of the Christian ethic. This is utterly revolutionary. It will blow up most of our boxes if we truly seek to apply this to our life. Because, as was the case in the church Paul addressed in Rome, when we seek to love each other, we will find that some people are just not that easy to love. They are different than we are—they have different backgrounds, personalities, socioeconomic places than we do.
For most of us, when we meet someone in the body of Christ that we sense no real kinship and frankly they bug us, our option of choice is to avoid them. By living this way as most of us do habitually, we are horribly distorting the gospel. By choosing to surround ourselves and have significant contact with only those people who are pretty much like us, who love us, we are in no way showing the love for one another Paul calls for here. There is nothing supernatural about that. Jesus said, even the “sinners” do that. The kind of love that is authentically Christian, that is truly offering our bodies as a sacrifice, that manifests a mind that has been renewed, is the love for those people to whom we would not naturally be drawn. The brother or sister with whom we have nothing in common but Christ. The gospel is lived out as we pay the obligation we have to love each other to those people as well as those we find it easy to love.
Paul says in chapter 12 that we are to love even those who hate us, who have done evil to us. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink.” Instead of allowing what he has done to you dictate your actions, allow his needs to dictate your response to him. This is simply not possible apart from the power of God, yet this is where the rubber meets the road for us. These are not simply pious platitudes Paul (and Jesus before Him) spit out. We will be held accountable to actually DO this. How do we do this? The quick answer is, the power of the Holy Spirit. But the answer that Paul implies through the structure of Romans is, the mercy of God.
How can you love people who are, in natural terms unlovable—people who are either so different from us we have nothing in common with or even people who have seriously injured us? This becomes possible by the grace of God if we are soaking in the waters of God’s mercy to us. Jesus tells us in the parable of the unmerciful servant that the power to forgive others comes from an understanding that we have been forgiven much more by God. I can’t imagine anything more humbling to our souls than to persistently meditate on the utterly undeserved manifold mercy of God to us. And God gives grace, the grace to love as Christ loves, only to the humble. He resists the proud—those who are not daily in touch with the abundance of His mercy toward them. As we daily live under the radiance of God’s mercy and allow ourselves to be humbled by that truth, then God will pour out his grace so that we may show the authentic, supernatural, mercy-filled love of God toward each other and toward our enemies. The love we give to others in or outside the body of Christ will never exceed our own awareness of God’s love shown to us through his mercy in the gospel of Christ. “We love [why?] because He first loved us.” May God give us the grace to be consistently be filled with His mercy so that we might live as sacrificial offerings before Him, knowing and doing His will.
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