Romans 9:6-13 – Who’s in Charge?

God is in control

Don’t suppose for a moment, though, that God’s Word has malfunctioned in some way or other. The problem goes back a long way. From the outset, not all Israelites of the flesh were Israelites of the spirit. It wasn’t Abraham’s sperm that gave identity here, but God’s promise. Remember how it was put: “Your family will be defined by Isaac”? That means that Israelite identity was never racially determined by sexual transmission, but it was God-determined by promise. Remember that promise, “When I come back next year at this time, Sarah will have a son”?

And that’s not the only time. To Rebecca, also, a promise was made that took priority over genetics. When she became pregnant by our one-of-a-kind ancestor, Isaac, and her babies were still innocent in the womb—incapable of good or bad—she received a special assurance from God. What God did in this case made it perfectly plain that his purpose is not a hit-or-miss thing dependent on what we do or don’t do, but a sure thing determined by his decision, flowing steadily from his initiative. God told Rebecca, “The firstborn of your twins will take second place.” Later that was turned into a stark epigram: “I loved Jacob; I hated Esau.” (MSG)

I want to break this to you as gently as possible yet as straightforward as I can: My friend, neither you nor I are in control!  Any semblance of control we think we have is merely a delusion.  Now, before you push back its important to make the distinction between control and responsibility. We are to own our decisions and take responsibility for their outcome.  The Bible describes this as “self-control.”

God’s saving kindness has appeared for the benefit of all people. It trains us to avoid ungodly lives filled with worldly desires so that we can live self-controlled, moral, and godly lives in this present world. (Titus 2:11-12, GW)

Attempting to control others is not our job – never was, isn’t now, and never will be – that’s God’s business.  God makes his choices.  This was the Apostle Paul’s point to the church at Rome.  The congregation was a volatile mix of both Jew and Gentile.  There was some bad history between them that stretched back centuries. Yet, here they were together in one church worshiping Jesus.

Paul made a responsible choice to step into the mess between them and let each group know something important: It is neither their choice about who’s in and who’s out as God’s people, nor their choice about how someone gets in to start with.  Again, this is God’s choice.

The Jews needed to know that Gentiles are in the kingdom because God does his work of choosing, calling, and including Gentiles just as much as Jews.  The Gentiles needed to know that they were not replacing Jews as chosen people.  The point? God chooses whomever he darn well pleases to choose, and the choice is not up to you or me.

This speaks on so many levels about how to conduct ourselves with one another in the church.  The foundation of all good church dynamics is the recognition that God is the one who calls and gathers people together in the church.  This always needs to be the starting point in our relations with each other. The church is not a random collection of persons who happen to be in the same place at the same time. God puts us where we are.

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11, NIV)

The Church is a covenant community. Believers in Jesus are receiving the blessings first promised by God’s covenant relationship with Abraham in the Old Testament that all nations would be blessed by grace through faith.  God has graciously committed himself to acting on their behalf through election, adoption, and redemption.  The new covenant community, the Church, receives the promises of God and exists to follow Jesus Christ in all things.  The Church is not a voluntary society, like every other human institution. Rather, it is the divinely called community of the redeemed whom God has joined through his Spirit to Christ.  Therefore, an individual, theologically speaking, does not join a church; instead, God joins the Church to Jesus.

Church in God's hands

The Nicene Creed describes the Church with four identifying marks:

  1. The Church is one. The unity of the Church comes from God’s covenant people being in fellowship with him through Jesus in the Spirit.  This unity is expressed through the bond of love and a common worship that includes the spiritually forming practices of preaching, liturgy, and sacraments.  Since believers serve a triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit who exists in unity, so Christians are to work toward maintaining their unity through the bond of peace.
  2. The Church is The Church is holy by virtue of Christ’s finished work.  Therefore, the members of the Church are saints, called by God to live in holiness and participate with him in carrying out his purposes on earth.  As God is holy, so believers are to be holy in all they do.  Since Christians are holy through God’s justification in Christ, so the Church as saints must uphold justice in the world.
  3. The Church is This means that God’s people are found in all parts of the world throughout all times in history, including every race, class, gender, and ethnicity.  Since the Church includes all kinds of people from different cultures, these believers must work together.  The Church, across all kinds of denominations, ought to minister together to the total life of all people through gospel proclamation and good works done in the Spirit.
  4. The Church is Apostolic means “to be sent.”  The Church is not only a people who are gathered for worship and teaching; they are also sent into the world as salt and light to those who are in darkness.  Where the Church goes, the rule and reign of Jesus goes with them so that the gospel is spread to all nations.

Sovereign God, you choose whomever you want to include in your kingdom.  Allow me to see Jesus in each person you call and save so that I can love and encourage them in the faith which is mutually and graciously given to us all; through Christ our Lord, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Galatians 5:16-26 – Being Led by the Spirit

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“Be guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires…. the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this.  Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires.  If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit.  Let’s not become arrogant, make each other angry, or be jealous of each other.” (Common English Bible)

I’m the youngest sibling in my family.  So, I know what it feels like to be a third wheel with things.  When I was a kid, it always seemed as if everyone thought I was too young to do anything or engage any of the real fun stuff, like watching Mannix, Sanford and Son, or Love American Style past my bedtime like everyone else was doing (I was fascinated with TV as a kid).  Now, much older, I have a larger context for understanding all of that stuff.  Yet, the fact remains that I really was a third wheel lots of times.

Sanford-and-Son

Sometimes I think we treat the Holy Spirit of God somewhat like a third wheel.  We pray to Almighty God; we pray in Jesus’ blessed name; and… what of the Holy Spirit?  Sometimes, even many times, the Spirit gets the short end of the stick.  In fact, I’ve been in some churches where I think their understanding of the Trinity is Father, Son, and Holy Bible; the Spirit is nowhere to be found.

Maybe, because we can never predict what in the world the Spirit is going to do, we send Him off to some metaphorical bedtime so that we watch and do whatever we want.  Or, perhaps we really are diligent about the Christian life.  We strive, work, and wrestle to live a good life.  But, somehow, we fall short and feel like a failure far too often.  Why is that?

Could be that we’ve looked at the Holy Spirit as the third wheel.  We believe in Him, have faith that He’s there, but don’t have any idea how to relate to Him.  God is big and sovereign; Jesus has a real body and blood; and, the Spirit… well, He’s really out there, man – like, He’s too cool for school and would be one of the characters on The Mod Squad, or something.  How do you have a relationship with someone (and often we refer to the Spirit as some “thing”), that is, with a person (and the Spirit is fully a person) who is so crazy ethereal and seemingly other than you and me?

the mod squad

The Holy Spirit is the power source of the Christian life.  Without him, we can easily degenerate into all kinds of illicit thinking and behavior – including things like “sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that” (verses 19-21).

It is the Spirit who helps us, comforts us, provides strength for us, and enables us to replace old habits with new ones and dead practices with solid “Spirit”ual action.  The Christian virtues which flower and produce the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control occur through a close intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit helps us in our weakness when we pray and act.  The Christian enjoys such a close affectionate association with the Holy Spirit that it is as if we are a building, like a temple, and the person of the Spirit has taken up residence within.  The person of the Spirit is the person of God the Father’s, and the person of God the Son’s gift to the people of God.  By means of the Holy Spirit, God is always with us and continually at-this-moment working within us to make the redemption given in Christ an actual real-live encounter.  In other words, the Spirit gives us feet to walk among this world armed with the implements of God’s love.

fruit of the spirit

I’m going to make a simple observation about the Galatians text for today.  All of the spiritual virtues expressed are the “fruit” of the Spirit, not “fruits.”  The nine ethics are a package deal.  When you have the Spirit and spiritual fruit, you possess all nine Christian values.  If we look at the list and say something like, “Well, Tim, I’m pretty good at kindness and goodness, but I don’t have much peace or patience.”  What that really means is that you are probably doing kindness and goodness from a different place than by means of the Holy Spirit because when the Spirit manifests Himself in us we exhibit the fruit.  You can’t separate the nine spiritual virtues any more than you can separate the Trinity.  They are all one spiritual fruit cultivated and produced inside you by the agency of God’s Spirit.

Maybe it’s time to back up the truck and take a look at the shadow side of our lives.  It could be that we are, for example, far more driven by our anxiety about most things than about genuine altruism and love.  The same result might seem to appear through our words and actions, but it will not last if it is generated from a place of worry – and it is not of the Spirit.

So, what do you do about it?  You must put to death (mortify) the deeds of the sinful nature.  You have been crucified with Christ and you no longer live but Christ lives in you by means of the Spirit He has given to us (Galatians 2:20).  If you have C-clamped your heart so tight that the Spirit can’t get in, then it’s high time to loosen the grip and enable God to do His gracious and merciful work within you.  It is the only way to go about genuine transformation of life.

two wild and crazy guys

Yes, it is scary.  Letting go of control is very hard for many people, including me.  But the results are worth it.  The Spirit knows what He is doing.  He might work in wild and crazy ways.  He might show up on Saturday Night Live where you least expect him to be.  The way we go with God is by going with the Spirit and being led by Him.  Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent” (John 6:29).  The Spirit always points us to Christ, the one who has delivered us from the realm of sin and brought us forgiveness.  This work of Christ sets us up for the work of the Spirit who now makes our deliverance practically and effectively a reality in daily relationships and experiences.

streets of san francisco

The Holy Spirit is not a third wheel.  He’s the real deal.  When you open your heart to Him, you expose yourself to the wideness of God’s mercy which results in the wonderful fruit of the Spirit.  And when you experience the Spirit working inside of you, it makes the car chase scenes in The Streets of San Francisco look not so dramatic.

May the Spirit of the living God be with you now, and forever.  Amen.

Seven Christian Virtues

            The Christian life is a struggle, a wrestling match of putting off bad behavior, and putting on good behavior.  Like a set of dirty clothes, we take them off and put on new clothes (Ephesians 4:14-5:20).  We must do both, putting off and putting on.  It does no good to take off dirty clothes and stand there naked.  Neither does it make any sense to just put clean clothes on over your dirty ones.
The seven deadly sins of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, anger, envy, and pride are bad habits of vice which darken the heart.  From them springs the evil behavior of the world. We must put them aside.  In their place we are to put on the seven heavenly virtues of purity, self-control, generosity, diligence, forgiveness, kindness, and humility.
1.      Purity
 
The insatiable habit of committing mental adultery needs to be replaced with purity of heart.  The pure of heart seek to better themselves through confession, repentance, and accountability.  One reason many people do not experience victory over their lust is that they confess and repent without allowing themselves to be held accountable by a wise spiritual mentor or a safe small group of people.
“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10, NIV)
 
“Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.  Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:1-2, ESV)
 
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8, NIV)
 
2.     Self-Control
 
The glutton overindulges to the point of addiction.  He needs self-control.  Self-control is to engage in the good things of life in moderation, learning to say “no” before it’s too late.  Notice this is self-control, not others-control.  The way to gain mastery over yourself is not through controlling other people.  It’s tempting to blame others for our gluttony, but the path forward is through taking small steps of personal courage and faith.  Lent is the perfect season to intentionally plan to put aside one vice or besetting sin in your life.
“Better a patient person than a warrior, one with self-control than one who takes a city.” (Proverbs 16:32, NIV)
 
“For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7, NIV)
 
“Control yourselves and be careful! The devil, your enemy, goes around like a roaring lion looking for someone to eat.” (1 Peter 5:8, NCV)
 
 
 
3.     Generosity
 
The greedy person only thinks about money and how to get more.  Greed can only be overcome with generosity toward others.  Not only are we to liberally give money away to those in need, we are to be generous with encouraging words, go out of our way to do humble service, and be effusive in spending time with those who need it.
But if there are any poor Israelites in your towns when you arrive in the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward them.  Instead, be generous and lend them whatever they need.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8, NLT)
 
“Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” (Proverbs 19:17, ESV)
 
“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.  Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” (1 Timothy 6:17-18, NIV)
 
4.    Diligence
 
A lazy and indifferent attitude doesn’t want to get involved.  It needs to be replaced with a diligent hard-working spirit.  Diligent people seek to make a difference in the world.  They roll their sleeves up, jump-in and get to work on the great problems of the day.
“The lazy have strong desires but receive nothing; the appetite of the diligent is satisfied.” (Proverbs 13:4, CEB)
 
“The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.” (Proverbs 21:5, ESV)
 
“So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9, NRSV)
 
“Whatever you do [whatever your task may be], work from the soul [that is, put in your very best effort], as [something done] for the Lord and not for men.” (Colossians 3:23, AMP)
 
 
 
5.     Forgiveness
 
Maybe it goes without saying that anger and forgiveness are mutually exclusive terms.  An angry person doesn’t forgive – she just wants to get even.  Putting off those angry clothes means putting on the clean clothes of extending forgiveness.  Forgiveness is neither cheap, nor easy. It can’t be done quickly or hastily.  It’s the difference between throwing on a few sweats – and getting dressed up in a tuxedo.  Forgiveness takes care and time.
“Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil.  Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.” (Ephesians 4:31-32, CEB)
 
“As holy people whom God has chosen and loved, be sympathetic, kind, humble, gentle, and patient.  Put up with each other and forgive each other if anyone has a complaint. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:12-13, GW)
 
6.    Kindness
 
Envy is the evil rot that separates people.  The antidote is kindness.  To be kind is to celebrate what another has achieved that you haven’t.  Kindness extends friendship instead of trying to knock another person down a peg so that you can try and have what they have.  Kindness creates connection and heals division.
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, ESV)
 
“And to your service for God, add kindness for your brothers and sisters in Christ; and to this kindness, add love.” (2 Peter 1:7, NCV)
 
7.     Humility
 
If pride is the root from which all other sinful attitudes break ground, humility is the herbicide that kills that root.  To be humble is to know that others have a valuable contribution to give.  Humility listens because it doesn’t think it has all the answers.  The humble among us quietly serve others without caring if it draws attention to themselves.
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:2, NIV)
 
“Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.” (James 4:10, NKJV)
 
“God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5, NASB)
 
 
 
            Developing Christian character is more than identifying the vices and bad habits of life; it is replacing them with these seven virtues.  Cultivating true Christian virtue is in the struggle to be better, and not in the notion that one can achieve perfection.  It is the continual wrestling with one’s own shadow-self that allows the virtues to gain a foothold in the soul.
            Therefore, church ministry needs to be a place where people are free to struggle, doubt, and wrestle with their inner demons.  Genuine ministry is a hospital for the soul, resembling more of the messy triage work of the emergency room, than the sanitized antiseptic room on the top floor who hasn’t seen a patient in days.

 

            Try using these Christian virtues as a way of having a conversation about the nature, direction, and goals of your ministry.  Are these virtues evident in your context? Why, or why not? Which one needs the most attention? How will you address it?

Taming the Tongue

 
 
Words are powerful.  God created the entire world with speech.  Since people are created in God’s image and likeness, our words carry a great deal of weight.  Within the church, the tongue is the most powerful tool we have for building up the Body of Christ, giving praise and offering prayer to God, and for proclaiming the good news of forgiveness in Christ.  However, the bald truth is that there are far too many duplicitous tongues within the church which can say something good one minute and something hurtful the next.
 
Whatever comes out of our mouths reveals what is on the inside of our lives (James 3:0-12).  If we can grasp the truth of this, I believe it could transform the way we talk to one another.  Salt water and fresh water cannot both come from the same spring.  A fig tree cannot bear olives, and a grapevine is not going to produce figs.  Here is the biblical point:  Whatever comes out of the mouth reveals the source.  Evil words come from an evil source; and, good words come from a good source.  If a person has a pattern of negative condescending speech, then that person is drawing from a well pumping up words from the depths of Hell.  And if a person has a practice of continually saying helpful words that encourage others, that person is producing good fruit from roots that draw nourishment from God’s Word.
 
            Here are four ways to bring the tongue under control so that our speech and our words can reflect the God who created us for good:
 
  1. Train your tongue for good, just like you would train anything else.  When starting an exercise regimen, you are training your body for health.  When dieting, you are saying ‘yes’ to certain foods, and ‘no’ to others.  The tongue needs to be trained to express gratitude, gospel, and grace.  And one of the best ways to do it is through speaking Scripture out loud in a daily regular regimen.  Consider going on a fast from talking, and seek only to be silent and listen for a specified amount of time.  Paul said to Timothy:  Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly (1 Timothy 4:7).  The writer of Hebrews said:  Solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil (Hebrews 5:14).
  2. Read a chapter of Proverbs each day for a month.  There are thirty one chapters in Proverbs, one for each day of the month.  Pay attention to the power of words.  Notice the difference between the speech of a wise person and the words of a fool – and take to heart the consequences of both approaches.  Here are just a few of Proverbs’ short pithy statements about the tongue:  When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise (10:19); Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing (12:18).
  3. Foster relationships and friendships with people that are positive and encouraging.  If a negative person keeps being negative, even after you have warned them more than once about it, you likely need a new relationship.  Paul was straightforward with his young protégé, Titus, by saying:  Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time.  After that, have nothing to do with him.  You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned (Titus 3:10-11).
  4. Listen and learn before speaking.  A judgmental spirit comes from an inability to rightly interpret another person’s words and/or actions.  We can too often jump to conclusions about something or someone with only partial information and a fact or two without the whole story.
When it comes to using our words, love is to be our guide, as the Apostle Paul so eloquently said in the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians, chapter 13:
 

 

Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects (does not destroy or harm), always trusts (gives the person the benefit of the doubt), always hopes (that is, thinks the best of others), and always perseveres (never gives up on loving speech).  Love never fails.  But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled….