Romans 2:12-16 – Doing, Not Just Hearing, Makes the Difference

If you sin without knowing what you’re doing, God takes that into account. But if you sin knowing full well what you’re doing, that’s a different story entirely. Merely hearing God’s law is a waste of your time if you don’t do what he commands. Doing, not hearing, is what makes the difference with God.

When outsiders who have never heard of God’s law follow it more or less by instinct, they confirm its truth by their obedience. They show that God’s law is not something alien, imposed on us from without, but woven into the very fabric of our creation. There is something deep within them that echoes God’s yes and no, right and wrong. Their response to God’s yes and no will become public knowledge on the day God makes his final decision about every man and woman. The Message from God that I proclaim through Jesus Christ considers all these differences. (The Message)

Every single person on planet earth has been created by a good Creator in the image and likeness of God, without exception.

Because we are all stamped with the Lord’s divine image deep within us, there is a universally inherent sense of justice, rightness, fairness, integrity, morality, and love. Particulars of ethics may differ from culture to culture, yet all persons and societies have a broadly similar innate understanding of right and wrong.

Within the ancient Roman Church were a mix of Jews (the historical people of God who were given the law and the covenant through Moses) and Gentiles (non-Jewish persons). The Apostle Paul wrote his lengthy and probing letter to them because the two groups of Jew and Gentile were at odds with one another.

The Gentile Christians could not understand the Jewish Christian fondness and insistence on ancient rules and particular commands, and so, they looked down on their brothers and sisters in the faith as being hopelessly locked into outdated traditions and practices.

Conversely, the Jewish Christians could not understand the Gentile Christian affinity for a freedom that seemed to not care about the religious importance of food and eating, seasons and holy days, and outward signs of Christianity, and so, they tended to look down on their brothers and sisters in the faith as ignorant, immature, and in need of ritual practices.

We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.

Romans 3:22, NLT

The Church back then was almost like putting a group of people with O.C.D. (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) with a group of people with A.D.D. (Attention-Deficit Disorder). At the least, it’s going to very interesting to watch them try to live and worship together; at the worst, it’s going to spark an all-out battle for supremacy.

Paul was intervening somewhere in the middle between the interesting situation and the pitched battles so that the Church would not turn into total war. The last thing he wanted was two churches: one Jewish and one Gentile. No, there is one church, just as there is one God. Paul was determined that these knuckleheads are going to have to learn to get along.

Since Paul himself was a Jewish Christian, he tended to get pretty testy with his fellow Jews. Although Paul often went back-and-forth throughout his letter to the Romans, addressing Jews, then Gentiles, he most often had more to say to the Jewish brothers and sisters.

And that is what’s happening in today’s New Testament lesson. The Apostle Paul is directing his words chiefly toward the Jewish believers. He is lifting the Gentile believers and placing them on the same level as the Jews. Although the Gentiles weren’t the ones who received the law, they’ve always had that law deep inside them.

God is not only the God of the Jews. He is also the God of those who are not Jews. There is only one God. He will make Jews right with him by their faith, and he will also make non-Jews right with him through their faith.

Romans 3:29-30, ERV

Not only ought the Gentile Christians to be respected because of their inherent sense of God’s law, but this also makes them accountable for their own words and actions. In other words, there’s no excuse for any sinful talk or behavior.

What’s more, the real issue isn’t whether one group has the law, or not. The rub is whether one actually obeys and does the will of God. It doesn’t matter whether one hears the law read aloud in a Jewish synagogue or whether one hears the law spoken in the individual conscience. All are responsible for acting on that voice and engaging in deeds of justice, peace, and love. All must connect with the stamped image of God within us.

I’m not sure what is worse: committing overt sins or observing the sin and doing nothing about it. Indifference is at the core of most sin – both for the perpetrator and the passive spectator seeing it. Each one is living against both their conscience and by what they’ve heard and been taught.

The Word of God has not been truly received until it is put into practice. This is a consistent theme in the New Testament: 

Jesus said, “The people who are really blessed are the ones who hear and obey God’s message!”

Luke 11:28, CEV

Obey God’s message! Don’t fool yourselves by just listening to it. If you hear the message and don’t obey it, you are like people who stare at themselves in a mirrorand forget what they look like as soon as they leave. But you must never stop looking at the perfect law that sets you free. God will bless you in everything you do, if you listen and obey, and don’t just hear and forget. (James 1:22-25, CEV)

Listening to the Word without obedience is just that – it is mere hearing.

Profession of faith in Jesus means nothing without a practice of that faith.

Learning the Bible is useless without living it.

Acceptance of the Word is nothing more than a mental exercise without action to back it up.

Profession, knowledge, and acceptance alone does not satisfy God’s plan for our lives. 

The danger is that we have the potential to deceive ourselves into thinking we are okay just because we know the right things and believe the right things. Christianity is a vital love relationship with Jesus, and, so, is not merely a matter of hearing and affirming orthodox truth; it also involves orthopraxy, that is, having right practice, the doing of truth.

Whenever the Gentile Christians in Rome refused to love the Jewish Christians, they were not hearing God and doing his will.

Whenever the Jewish Christians listened to law and gospel, but then had no intention of changing to accommodate the Gentile Christians, they were being disobedient.

And whenever we hear about how God forgives us in Jesus’ name, but then we insist on not forgiving another person, we are not being doers of the Word.

So, let’s take a lesson from the ancient Roman Church: Live by faith. Be attentive to all persons in the Body of Christ. Include them and care for them. Pay attention to God’s Word. Include it and engraft into your life. Because care of the Body and care of the Word go hand-in-hand together.

May the God who created a world of diversity and vibrancy,
Go with us as we embrace life in all its fullness.

May the Son who teaches us to care for stranger and foreigners,
Go with us as we try to be good neighbors in our communities.

May the Spirit who breaks down our barriers and celebrates community,
Go with us as we find the courage to create a place of welcome for all. Amen.

Romans 2:1-11 – Against Criticism and Judgment

Some of you accuse others of doing wrong. But there is no excuse for what you do. When you judge others, you condemn yourselves, because you are guilty of doing the very same things. We know that God is right to judge everyone who behaves in this way. Do you really think God won’t punish you, when you behave exactly like the people you accuse? You surely don’t think much of God’s wonderful goodness or of his patience and willingness to put up with you. Don’t you know that the reason God is good to you is because he wants you to turn to him?

But you are stubborn and refuse to turn to God. So, you are making things even worse for yourselves on that day when he will show how angry he is and will judge the world with fairness. God will reward each of us for what we have done. He will give eternal life to everyone who has patiently done what is good in the hope of receiving glory, honor, and life that lasts forever. But he will show how angry and furious he can be with every selfish person who rejects the truth and wants to do evil. All who are wicked will be punished with trouble and suffering. It doesn’t matter if they are Jews or Gentiles. But all who do right will be rewarded with glory, honor, and peace, whether they are Jews or Gentiles. God doesn’t have any favorites! (Contemporary English Version)

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

Carl Jung

Since it is the Christian season of Lent, the Revised Common Lectionary freights the readings with biblical sections about repentance. It can be a hard slog, this inner work we are called to do. Yet, it leads to the peaceable fruit of righteousness for those spiritual athletes who train their souls for the will of God.

One of the first lessons we learn in our desert journey through Lent is that judgment belongs to God, not us.

Claiming the moniker of self-appointed Judge will, ironically, get one judged. There is only one true Judge. And Judge Jesus renders decisions which are always right, just, and fair, with no favoritism, cronyism, or malice.

A critical spirit is an evil spirit. It vaults oneself over and above others who are viewed as inferior, unworthy of love and belonging. It is the very antithesis of Christ’s way of being in the world with others.

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Church at Rome, merely upheld the teaching of his Lord Jesus, who said:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make, you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:1-2, NRSV)

Although most people would affirm that showing favoritism is a bad thing, in practice we have a difficult time avoiding it – especially in polarizing times such as ours. Political mudslinging is (unfortunately) a time-honored American tradition. And so is religious judgmentalism.

Some of the most emotionally laden vitriol comes from folks who are so heavily entrenched in their religious convictions that they believe any deviation from their way of belief is worthy of scathing criticism.

People, however, do not change because someone criticizes or judges them. They experience transformation through basic divine and human kindness.

As a hospital chaplain in a behavioral health unit, I wholeheartedly affirm this to be true. Many patients have been told repeatedly by family or friends to stop their destructive behavior or thinking, get their lives together, move on, wake up, etc. – all with the condescending edge of criticizing judgment.

Yet, when someone takes notice, is curious about them, treats them like a fellow person, offers helpful encouragement, and a listening ear without trying to fix, souls become open to receiving the healing grace of love and truth.

God shows no partiality, and neither should we, period.

God is right, just, and fair in all dealings with everyone. The Lord judges according to divine standards of righteousness and mercy – no matter one’s race, ethnicity, gender, economic status, or social standing. And it is all laced with the love and compassion of Christ.

Christians are not exempt or given a pass on being judgmental, as if owning multiple Bibles or giving lots of money exempts one from a wagging tongue and an insensitive spirit.

Our own unhealthy practices, bad habits, and angry outbursts will be treated just like any non-Christian by God. In a time when decrying the moral condition of our world is nearly a spectator sport, the New Testament lesson for today reminds us that we must first be concerned for the condition of our own hearts before we can point the finger at another.

If we want revival in the land and repentance from others, then it must first be directed and practiced by oneself.

We all equally stand in need of God’s grace in Jesus.  There is a symbiotic relationship between our actions and the state of our hearts.  A soft and tender heart toward God leads to obedience; disobedience hardens the heart and leads to God’s wrath, no matter the individual.

So, it will help if we all faithfully engage in daily spiritual practices which keep our hearts attentive and alert to God’s will and way. 

No matter how busy we are, or how we feel, to forego or ignore the Word of God and prayer on a regular basis will slowly calcify our hearts and render them unable to respond rightly to grace. Instead, we can drink deeply of the gospel throughout every day so that we may experience peace.

A critical spirit begins to melt away when the tools of empathy, compassion, understanding, and acceptance are used to forge connections and provide support.

It takes no training to bludgeon someone with condemning criticism. However, it takes repeated practice to speak and act with grace, mercy, and peace, especially when we are stressed and/or anxious about our surrounding circumstances.

“Be curious, not judgmental.”

Walt Whitman

Instead of judgment, observe and be curious. Seek more information. Ask clarifying questions. Expand the gap between observation and conclusion.

The ability to have an awareness of one’s own emotions, to be mindful of self and surroundings, and to do it all with neither criticism nor judgment is perhaps the highest form of intelligence and spirituality.

Kindness is what leads others to repentance, not condemnation. Grace has the final word, not judgment. So, let us be blessed through a gentle spirit which spreads the goodness of God throughout the world.

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, we have sinned against you, through our own fault, in thought, and word, and deed, and in what we have left undone. For the sake of your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, forgive us all our offenses and grant that we may serve you in newness of life, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Romans 4:1-12 – Saved by Grace Through Faith

“Abraham Journeying to the Land of Canaan” by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-1664); The Fitzwilliam Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/abraham-journeying-to-the-land-of-canaan-5550

So how do we fit what we know of Abraham, our first father in the faith, into this new way of looking at things? If Abraham, by what he did for God, got God to approve him, he could certainly have taken credit for it. But the story we’re given is a God-story, not an Abraham-story. What we read in Scripture is, “Abraham entered into what God was doing for him, and that was the turning point. He trusted God to set him right instead of trying to be right on his own.”

If you’re a hard worker and do a good job, you deserve your pay; we don’t call your wages a gift. But if you see that the job is too big for you, that it’s something only God can do, and you trust him to do it—you could never do it for yourself no matter how hard and long you worked—well, that trusting-him-to-do-it is what gets you set right with God, by God. Sheer gift.

David confirms this way of looking at it, saying that the one who trusts God to do the putting-everything-right without insisting on having a say in it is one fortunate man:

Fortunate those whose crimes are whisked away,
    whose sins are wiped clean from the slate.
Fortunate the person against
    whom the Lord does not keep score.

Do you think for a minute that this blessing is only pronounced over those of us who keep our religious ways and are circumcised? Or do you think it possible that the blessing could be given to those who never even heard of our ways, who were never brought up in the disciplines of God? We all agree, don’t we, that it was by embracing what God did for him that Abraham was declared fit before God?

Now think: Was that declaration made before or after he was marked by the covenant rite of circumcision? That’s right, before he was marked. That means that he underwent circumcision as evidence and confirmation of what God had done long before to bring him into this acceptable standing with himself, an act of God he had embraced with his whole life.

And it means further that Abraham is father of all people who embrace what God does for them while they are still on the “outs” with God, as yet unidentified as God’s, in an “uncircumcised” condition. It is precisely these people in this condition who are called “set right by God and with God”! Abraham is also, of course, father of those who have undergone the religious rite of circumcision not just because of the ritual but because they were willing to live in the risky faith-embrace of God’s action for them, the way Abraham lived long before he was marked by circumcision. (The Message)

“Abraham Journeys Forth into the Unknown” by Yoram Raanan

We all need help. Yes, we like our independence and would rather give help than receive it. Yet, there are some things which we can do nothing about without some divine intervention. This is where faith comes into the picture.

“Faith” is a big word in Holy Scripture and in the Christian life. Faith encompasses the totality of how we come to Jesus Christ, and then how we live for him. In talking about faith, it is important to distinguish between the faith which saves us from guilt, shame, sin, death, and hell, and the faith which sanctifies and makes us holy. 

“Salvation” and “sanctification” are also big words in Scripture and in life. If we are fuzzy on our understanding and application of these two spiritual realities of salvation and sanctification, we are going to end up sleepwalking through life as spiritual zombies.

Christianity’s answer to the vital help we need for deliverance is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This deliverance, or salvation, only occurs by faith. A person is “saved” by knowing about Jesus and his finished work on the cross and trusting that this work has taken care of my need for salvation, once for all. 

Christ sacrificed himself for us. He took our place. The punishment that belonged to us, he bore. When we acknowledge our lost and wayward lives, and believe Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, then we are delivered and experience salvation from the awful emptiness of life. 

A person cannot earn this deliverance; they cannot buy it or work for it. No, salvation is a gift that comes only by faith in the person and work of Jesus. That is the essence of saving faith in Christianity. It is a one-time event of trust.

“Sanctification,” on the other hand, is what begins when becoming a believer in Jesus. The word simply means “to become holy,” or, “to be set apart for God.” Sanctification is not a singular event, but a process Christians engage in for the rest of their earthly lives. 

Whereas saving faith is a gift given to us without effort, sanctification requires a great deal of effort. We work and struggle and expend lots of energy to live the Christian life. 

“Grace [God’s gift to us in granting forgiveness] is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action. Grace, you know, does not just have to do with forgiveness of sins alone.” 

Dallas Willard

When a student gets a college scholarship at a university, the giving of the scholarship is a one-time event. It is granted to the student. They now possesses it and are able to attend school without trying to earn the money to pay for it. 

But that scholarship has been given for a reason – so that the student can now focus entirely on their studies and/or sport. The work has just begun. More blood, sweat, and tears will take place living into that scholarship than the student could ever imagine. It won’t be easy, and it will consume the student’s waking hours for the next four years.

Our life is a matter of faith, not of sight.

2 Corinthians 5:7, GNT

The biblical character of Abraham is Exhibit A of faith. He was delivered from an empty way of life in a pagan country and given a gift of grace to move to the country God would show him. Abraham did nothing to earn this favor. Before Abraham chose God, God chose him. 

Abraham sojourned as a pilgrim throughout the land God gave him, which mirrored his spiritual sojourning and learning to be a follower of God. Abraham likely faced the greatest test of faith a person could ever experience; he was asked to sacrifice his son. He responded to God with complete obedience.

Abraham’s faith was made complete by what he did; and it occurred well before his circumcision of being physically marked as belonging to God. 

We are made right not on our own but through the sheer grace of God in Christ by faith. Then, we continue to exercise faith by living into the righteousness given to us by the mercy of God.

God’s mercy is so abundant, and his love for us is so great, that while we were spiritually dead in our disobedience he brought us to life with Christ. It is by God’s grace that you have been saved. In our union with Christ Jesus he raised us up with him to rule with him in the heavenly world. He did this to demonstrate for all time to come the extraordinary greatness of his grace in the love he showed us in Christ Jesus. For it is by God’s grace that you have been saved through faith. It is not the result of your own efforts, but God’s gift, so that no one can boast about it.

Ephesians 2:4-9, GNT

God grants his faith scholarships to whomever he wants: rich and poor, men and women, from every race, ethnicity, and background imaginable across the entire earth. 

From the standpoint of faith, Abraham did nothing to receive God’s gracious scholarship of faith. He did not work for it. It was granted to him solely because of God’s grace. Then, his faith was confirmed and proven as genuine by his life of faith and obedience.

Therefore, our own deliverance and ability to live rightly is firmly rooted in faith – and not by holding a prominent position, having a particular pedigree, or expending personal power. All of humanity needs the saving help of Jesus Christ. Salvation is in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone.

Lord Jesus Christ, I am sorry for the things I have done wrong in my life. Please forgive me. I now turn from everything that I know is wrong. Thank you that you died on the cross for me, so that I could be forgiven and set free. Thank you that you offer me forgiveness and the gift of your Spirit. I receive that gift with a grateful heart. Amen.

Confess and Believe

Welcome, friends, to this Christian season of Lent. Holy Scripture graciously communicates that everyone who believes in their heart, with a faith which bubbles up and come pouring out of the mouth, shall be saved. Click the videos below, and let us consider God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ…

Pastor Tim Ehrhardt, Romans 10:8b-13

Forgive those things we have done, O God,
which have caused you sadness,
and those things we should have done
that would have brought you joy.
In both we have failed
ourselves,
and you.
Bring us back to that place
where our journey began,
when we said that we would follow
the way that you first trod.
Lead us to the Cross
and meet
us there. Amen.