TheGospel

The Sanctifying Power of the Gospel

 

“So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” Romans 1:15

In the first chapter of Romans the Apostle Paul introduces his most profound and dense letter to the saints of Rome.  Undoubtedly the most quotable verse of this chapter occurs just after the one quoted above.  Verse 16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” has garnered a significant amount of attention, and rightly so, but it has in part caused me to overlook what the Apostle has said right before it.

“So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.”

For me, the focus for this verse has often been on Paul’s desire to go and preach at Rome.  This is no doubt true, for Paul has prayed “that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you,” “long[s] to see [them],” and has “often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented).”  However, lost in the anticipation for Paul to preach at Rome is the content of the message he intends to bring to the saints there.  The Gospel.

Remember that in the opening verses of chapter 1, Paul is intentionally addressing the saints, i.e. the saved, collectively the Church.  He writes in verse 7, “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints.”  This is important not only for the passage we’re looking at today, but for the overall scope and direction of the letter.  It is not intended to be a letter for unbelievers.  Though we often use the “Roman Road” for evangelism, the Epistle to the Romans, like the other letters of Paul (and arguably the entirety of Scripture), was intended for the Church, i.e. believers only.

As it relates to verse 15, this becomes all the more significant in that Paul doesn’t intend to bring the Romans a message of high-theology, a second work of grace, or philosophical musings that will grant them a deeper understanding of the workings of God.  He intends to bring the message of the Gospel to the saints!  Perhaps a first or second reading of this chapter might leave one with the impression that Paul’s anticipated mission to Rome is one of evangelism, however the Church is his intended audience and the gospel his intended message.  We must step back then and ask why would this be his message?  Given our understanding of the gospel in so many of today’s evangelical churches, who see it as a first step unto salvation rather than the beginning, middle, and end of all the Christian life, it’s no surprise why this verse might be overlooked.

Throughout Paul’s writings, he views salvation as past-saved (Romans 5:1, et.al.), present-being saved (1 Cor. 15:1,2, et.al.), and future-will be saved (Phil. 1:6; 2:12-13, et.al.).  When he follows up his statement on his desire to preach the gospel with, “for it is the power of God unto salvation” I think it is helpful to understand that for Paul, salvation most always encompasses more than a past event.  Secondly, we must come to understand the significance of the gospel in our lives as an on-going reality of the finished work of Christ on the cross and the implications of this as we become more conformed to the image of Christ.  Practically speaking, the Gospel is the key, the fuel, and the destination of the Christian life.  It is inaugurated (justification), anticipated (sanctification), and consummated (glorification) in the life of a believer.

Note how Paul unfolds the Gospel in chapter 6 of his epistle,

1What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

In verse 1, Paul begins his argument for sanctification in the life of a believer by asking the rhetorical, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (for complete context, refer back to Romans 5).  He then frames his argument by referencing the finished work of Christ on the cross, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” and the implications for us of His resurrection, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”  This is the Gospel and woven within Paul’s description is the implication for how the believer ought to live a life of holiness.  The significance of Paul’s statements here is the union of Christ with the believer.  Again, this unappreciated doctrine, can be expressed in Romans 6 in terms of past (vs. 3,4,5,6), present (vs. 4,6,7,11), and future (vs.5,8,).  The elect of God have been united to Christ before time began, “Even as he chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world.” Eph. 1:4  Believers have been united to Christ by faith in the present (Eph. 1:7,11, 13; Gal. 2:20; 3:26; John 15:5) and will be united to him, as His bride – fully consummating this union, at His second coming having been saved from the wrath of God (Romans 8:1; Eph. 1:10,13,14).

This is the Gospel.  It is not an introductory Sunday School lesson for unbelievers or infant Christians.  It is the entirety of the Christian life and all that he or she is flows forth like a fountain from this great and powerful work of Christ through His life, death, resurrection, and ascension.  Hasten to know the Gospel in and out, daily returning yourself to the meditation herein, for truly it was, is, and will be the power of God unto salvation for all who believe.

Unless the Lord Builds the House

 

Charles Spurgeon, commenting on Psalm 127:1 :

1-crazy-house-527Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it. The word vain is the keynote here, and we hear it ring out clearly three times. Men desiring to build know that they must labour, and accordingly they put forth all their skill and strength; but let them remember that if Jehovah is not with them their designs will prove failures. So was it with the Babel builders; they said, “Go to, let us build us a city and a tower”; and the Lord returned their words into their own bosoms, saying, “Go to, let us go down and there confound their language.” In vain they toiled, for the Lord’s face was against them. When Solomon resolved to build a house for the Lord, matters were very different, for all things united under God to aid him in his great undertaking: even the heathen were at his beck and call that he might erect a temple for the Lord his God. In the same manner God blessed him in the erection of his own palace; for this verse evidently refers to all sorts of house building. Without God we are nothing. Great houses have been erected by ambitious men; but like the baseless fabric of a vision they have passed away, and scarce a stone remains to tell where once they stood. The wealthy builder of a Non such Palace, could he revisit the glimpses of the moon, would be perplexed to find a relic of his former pride: he laboured in vain, for the place of his travail knows not a trace of his handiwork. The like may be said of the builders of castles and abbeys: when the mode of life indicated by these piles ceased to be endurable by the Lord, the massive walls of ancient architects crumbled into ruins, and their toil melted like the froth of vanity. Not only do we now spend our strength for nought without Jehovah, but all who have ever laboured apart from him come under the same sentence. Trowel and hammer, saw and plane are instruments of vanity unless the Lord be the Master builder.

Except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Around the wall the sentinels pace with constant step; but yet the city is betrayed unless the alert Watcher is with them. We are not safe because of watchmen if Jehovah refuses to watch over us. Even if the guards are wakeful, and do their duty, still the place may be surprised if God be not there. “I, the Lord, do keep it”, is better than an army of sleepless guards. Note that the Psalmist does not bid the builder cease from labouring, nor suggest that watchmen should neglect their duty, nor that men should show their trust in God by doing nothing: nay, he supposes that they will do all that they can do, and then he forbids their fixing their trust in what they have done, and assures them that all creature effort will be in vain unless the Creator puts forth his power, to render second causes effectual. Holy Scripture endorses the order of Cromwell—”Trust in God, and keep your powder dry”: only here the sense is varied, and we are told that the dried powder will not win the victory unless we trust in God. Happy is the man who hits the golden mean by so working as to believe in God, and so believing in God as to work without fear. In Scriptural phrase a dispensation or system is called a house. Moses was faithful as a servant over all his house; and as long as the Lord was with that house it stood and prospered; but when he left it, the builders of it became foolish and their labour was lost. They sought to maintain the walls of Judaism, but sought in vain: they watched around every ceremony and tradition, but their care was idle. Of every church, and every system of religious thought, this is equally true: unless the Lord is in it, and is honoured by it, the whole structure must sooner or later fall in hopeless ruin. Much can be done by man; he can both labour and watch; but without the Lord he has accomplished nothing, and his wakefulness has not warded off evil.

Strengthen What Remains

Strengthen What Remains

“Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.” Revelation 3:2

The interpretation of the book of Revelation has been somewhat controversial in modern church history.  This is due primarily to a shift from a historic interpretation, majority held until roughly the late 18th early 19th century, towards a more futuristic interpretation.  By that I mean that the majority report for interpreting Revelation today is to usher the events and prophecies recorded by John to sometime in the future.  Predominantly this has occurred for chapters 4-22, but has also been the case for the letters to the 7 churches, found in chapters 2 & 3.  What this futuristic view sometimes overlooks is that these were 7 actual churches addressed by Christ, through John’s letter, and that the message to these churches has had a practical, real application for the Church throughout history, even down to this day.

Our Lord instructs John to write to seven churches: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.  Of the seven, only two, Smyrna and Philadelphia pass by the watchful, flaming eye of Christ without rebuke.  Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira, though each receiving rebuke, were commending for varying levels of faithfulness; from strong doctrinal defense, to faithfulness and acts of love.  Yet when Christ directs His gaze to the Church at Sardis, He offers no commendation.  He finds no evidence in the Church’s works worthy of positive comment; neither strong doctrine, nor endurance, nor strong spirituality.  The church receives rebuke for a reputation of being alive, though Christ sees them as dead.  In other words, because they put on a nice show, perhaps even having large attendance, and having gained a reputation in the community for being alive, through the examining eye of Christ, the opposite is actually true.  He finds their works to be dead.  This is the danger of the pragmatic church founded on doctrinal quicksand, focused mainly on attendance and success, and unconcerned with centrality and sufficiency of the Word of God.

One thing has often puzzled me about these churches and Sardis in particular.  While, not commended for any outward evidences of faithfulness, Christ does notice something positive; the presence of a faithful remnant.  He charges the church to “Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die.”  Later we read of Him saying, “Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white for they are worthy.” (Revelation 3:4)  Two quick observations are in order: 1. That these faithful members were in the minority is explicitly stated (a few names) 2. That they were not in leadership is implied.  While the identity of the “angel” to whom each letter is addressed is somewhat debatable, it would seem the context of the statement “you have still a few names” seems to lend itself to mean a small group that are not responsible for leading the church in the path of dead works.  So, in the midst of this church façade dwelt a remnant of faithful believers who had not been tainted by the dead works of the majority.  The puzzling aspect of this fact is perhaps obvious.  Why didn’t this faithful remnant pack up and move on to another church?  Here they were in the middle of a dead church, though still faithful in their stewardship and worship.  Why?  I’ll offer a couple thoughts below.

First, in 21st century America we live in a country with a landscape littered with churches.  From my window at work, I can literally see 7 or 8 large churches within 2 blocks of each other.  It doesn’t mean they are all good and faithful, but options abound.  If someone is offended by the First Baptist Church of Your Town, USA they can move on to the Second Baptist Church of Your Town, USA.  In first century Asia (and really in large rural areas throughout the world today) however, this luxury was not present.  Sardis was about 40 miles from Philadelphia and about 60 miles from Smyrna.  Nobody was going to pack up the kids on donkeys every Sunday morning for a trip to a faithful church that far away (and you thought you had trouble getting the family to church on time!).

Which begs a second question; Why not plant another church in Sardis?  This is the puzzling part and where we’ll land in this discussion.  Though much of the territory where in now is speculation, I think it’s still possible and beneficial to think through this question. It’s of course possible that this small, faithful remnant had not been called by God to plant another church nearby.  Christ does not instruct them to leave, but calls the church to “Wake up” and “Strengthen what remains”.  Who’s to wake up?  Perhaps the faithful, though more likely not.  Who’s to do the strengthening?  Most likely the faithful.  They were called to stay and work reform in the church.  How do we know this?  I think it’s because on the heels of commending the faithful, who had not stained their garments and were given the promise to walk with Christ in white, He states, “The one who conquers will be clothed in white garments” and they will not have their names blotted “out of the book of life” and will have their names confessed by the Son before the Father.  Certainly these promises extend to the faithful, as previously seen in verse 4, though in verse 5 the introduction of the condition, “the one who conquers” would seem to extend these promises beyond the small faithful remnant to the rest of the church who overcome their deadness and lack of zeal for Christ.  Regardless, these faithful few were called to stay and do the work of reformation with the hope that the Holy Spirit might do the work of revival among the church.

This brings me to three exhortations on the benefit of remaining in an unfaithful, dead church for the purpose of working reformation.

  1. For the Glory of God.  This is the chief motivating factor for all that a believer does (1 Cor. 10:31).  The Westminster Shorter Catechism affirms that the chief end of man is to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”  God is glorified through the work of His faithful saints who labor in difficult places, be they churches or hostile countries, for the sake of spreading the Gospel, seeing the salvation of sinners and the sanctification of saints.
  2. For the Fame of Christ’s Name.  Any church that flies the Christian banner represents the name of Christ.  It doesn’t matter whether the church is liberal or fundamental, neo-orthodox or orthodox.  If they pretend to be a church at all, then they are representing Christ.  His name is either smeared in the mud or it is exalted on high, but either way His name is involved.  The same is true for professing Christians.  It is therefore imperative that we “let our light so shine before men that they see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5:16)  The church that continues in dead works, pretending to be a faithful witness for Christ ultimately brings reproach to the name of Christ.  Therefore, when laborious work for reform is achieved in a dead church it brings fame to the name of Christ rather than reproach.
  3. For the Repentance of Sinners and the Restoration of “Backsliders”.  Would it be right for a faithful few to wash their hands of a dead or dying church situation and move on?  Maybe, in some situations.  Though it seems to lean heavily towards self-preservation.  As believers we are called to the Great Commission, i.e. spreading the Gospel to the lost.  That mission field might be as far away as New Zealand, or as close as your own backyard.  And it might even be your local church.  A dead or dying church most always has sin in her midst (Rev. 3:2, 4), it therefore needs Christ proclaimed boldly and relentlessly by the faithful for the purpose of bringing sinners to Christ and to awaken those who are asleep.

I’m sure planting a church brings with it a level of excitement and adventure for the cause of Christ and it certainly must have its challenges and discouragements.  But re-planting is restoration and reform and that is the heart of Christianity.  To take a person who was once dead and bring them to life by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit is the purpose and plan of God for the salvation of sinners.  To take a church that was once dead and bring it to life by the reforming power of the Word of God and His Holy Spirit is the work of His saints.  Strengthen what remains.

John 17:17 Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.