How the Gospel Cures Community Ailments
Preached by Mike Grenier
Romans 12: 1-16
1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform 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.
3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. 4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your[a] faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead,[b] do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[c] Do not be conceited.
A. Where have we been in the Gospel-DNA series so far?
At the beginning of the Gospel DNA series, we looked at the question – what were we created to do? We saw in Romans 1 that we were created to glorify and enjoy God. But we also saw that each of us has exchanged that glory for worshipping and serving created things rather than the Creator. And we saw that God’s wrath rested on us because of our rebellion.
But God, in the riches of his mercy provided Jesus Christ, who ‘though he knew no sin, became sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor 5:21). Through repentance and placing our faith in Christ’s work, we’ve been brought into the family of God by grace. What an incredible thing! And last week, Jason began exploring how this amazing news informs and shapes how we go about the Christian life. And this week we’re going to look at Romans 12 and see that Paul takes that a step further and explores the question – how does the good news of the gospel shape the way we approach community?
B. Why does Paul begin the chapter with the statement “In view of God’s mercy..?”
Paul is urging us not to leave behind Romans 1-11. Paul has just finished up a glorious 11 chapter exposition of the good news of the gospel, and finished Romans 11 with an explosion of gratitude to God for what he has done in Jesus Christ.
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
35 “Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?”
36 For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.
By beginning the chapter with “Therefore…”, he’s urging us not to do the very thing we so often do in the Christian life – treat the gospel as the doorway into our faith, but fail to see that it also functions as a pathway for the Christian life. And so, as we look at some of the qualities that make up a Christian community in Romans 12, we’re going to pause with each quality Paul implores us to embody and ask the very question he intended: How does the gospel enable this in us, and why?
C. Imperatives without indicatives = impossibilities
Have you ever wondered by Paul begins each of his epistles with a thorough exposition of the gospel, before he dives headfirst into telling churches what they must be and do? Remember, these letters are addressed to Christians who have already professed belief in the gospel and should be growing in their faith. Paul sees the gospel as integral to that growth and as the foundation of a cure for the ailments that plague the churches he’s writing to.
We must not, and we cannot divorce who we are in Christ (the indicatives), from what we must be in Christ (the imperatives). Or as Tullian Tchividian puts it, “gospel obligations must be based on gospel declarations.”i This is the model of scripture, and therefore it should be our model as well. To encourage people to live the Christian life without grounding it in who they already are in Jesus Christ creates moralism and impossibilities, and, I’d argue, the result is a series of ailments that plague our churches – some of which we will look at today. The most seasoned Christians among us need the gospel too – and we need the gospel in order to do community the way Paul lays out here.
Paul moves on to urge us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. He urges us to do this as an act of worship to God (v 1) and this should immediately bring our attention back to Romans 1 where Paul explained that in sin we do not worship God as we were built to (Romans 1:21). We’ve come full circle – through the gospel that worship has been restored and Paul is about to tell us the context in which it’s cultivated.
Why does Paul begin a chapter on Christian community with a command to worship God by being a living sacrifice? I would argue that this is because God is pleased to create this worship in us through being deeply involved in an authentic Christian community.
So, what does such a Christian community that operates “in view of God’s mercy” look like? It appears to me that Paul proceeds in this chapter to describe 3 broad categories of characteristics of such a community. Let’s look at each in turn:
I. The Gospel Produces Relationships of Mutual Dependence (v 3-8)
First, Paul continues on to show us in verses 3-8, that the gospel should produce a community which models relationships of mutual dependence. As American individualists – this can sound absurd, even wrong – but, think with me for a second. Why would it be the case that each of us enters the Christian life through a gospel that proclaims we are fully dependent on Jesus Christ and his work for salvation (we accomplished none of it on our own – it’s all by grace), and then proceed into the Christian life fully independent and self-sufficient for our growth? In other words, why do we become Christians on a spiritual stretcher, and then try to live like a Christian version of Indiana Jones?
You and I did not obtain our salvation like Indiana Jones obtains the golden statue at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, dodging traps and massive boulders. In fact, we didn’t obtain it at all – it was obtained for us. We were caught in every web and trap of sin, and Jesus played the rescuer – there was no heroism on our part. So why do we tend live the Christian life like we don’t need anyone?
1. Unmasking Ourselves (v 3)
Verse 3 reads, “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought, but think of yourself with sober judgment,”
Paul is warning us of a danger. Each of us is prone to a clouded understanding of ourselves – one which is either too elevated, or too deflated.
Stated negatively, this ailment could be called individualitis. There has perhaps been no culture in human history who emphasized the individual more than ours.
But, the gospel allows us to see ourselves clearly. In the gospel we realize that we are more lost and sinful than we ever dared believe. And yet at the same time we see how we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope. This should simultaneously produce in the Christian a humble, non-inflated view of self (I was so lost in my sin Jesus had to die for me), and yet should produce a wonderful joy and uplifted spirit (I am so loved by Christ – he was glad to die for me). This in summary, is the kind of “sober judgment” Paul is calling us to – a sober judgment of ourselves grounded in the gospel
2. Inter-Dependence is the Way (v 4-8)
This line of reasoning naturally follows to Paul’s next point: spiritual self-sufficiency is the enemy of our growth in Christ-likeness. Now that we see ourselves with a gospel lens, we understand this. We are members of one another.
“…just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others…”
In other words, we desperately need each other in the Christian life! The hand does not say to the wrist – “I don’t need you”, because to do so would produce a pretty useless hand flopping on the floor, unable to fulfill its intended function. So it is with us when we discount certain gifts or roles in the body of Christ that may be less flashy, or out of the spotlight
This was a convicting thought to me: Do we enter community (our small groups, our ministry teams, our relationships) with the joyful expectation that there will be something we have to offer? Do we go prepared and expecting to offer something someone else may need?
On the flipside, do we enter community submitting to the fact that we need others in order to grow? Do we see our need for the insights, gifts, and admonishments of others?
Paul lists a number of examples:
We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your[a] faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead,[b] do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
In my own life, if I look back on periods of extreme growth, none of them were times where I was going it alone or times when I was checking in and checking out at church without hardly anyone really knowing me. I grew the most through challenging, sometimes messy community in which I was forced to practice things like repentance, forgiveness, service and ministry.
So, how does this translate to our context at Community Evangelical Free?
We are convicted here that to grow in the Christian life, we cannot live it like Indiana Jones. We must overcome our individualitis by intentionally planting ourselves in smaller communities within the church in which we’re able to be truly known, where we can be blessed by the gifts of others and offer our own, and truly practice living as members of one another – inter-dependent in a biblical and healthy way.
This church practices something called small groups which are intended to provide a context in which this can happen. But hear me– this is not intended as a new legalism. If you’re in a non-small group setting in which you are involved in authentic Christian community and are truly known – great, don’t clutter your schedule for the sake of doing small groups out of obligation. But if you come and go from church and are not currently embedded in a community setting in which you can truly be known and can grow – I’d strongly encourage you – join a small group (any of the elders would be happy to help get you plugged in). And enter such a group “in view of God’s mercy” – seeing yourself with sober judgment through the lens of what Christ has done for us.
II. The Gospel Produces Relationships of Vulnerability and Authenticity (v 9-12)
Paul continues in these next few verses to show us that authentic community is absolutely essential if we are to become the living sacrifices he urged us to be at the beginning of the chapter. Let’s keep reading:
1. No Need to Pretend (v 9)
“9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. “
The first phrase is extremely important for the remainder of the chapter. Other translations read (to put it negatively), love must be without hypocrisy.
If you’re like me, you may also struggle with another community ailment – something I call finitis. “I’m fine, you’re fine, everybody’s fine.” There are times when I come to church or small group really struggling, whether it’s with sin in my life, or a hardship I’m going through, and I pretend. I put up a façade out of a desire to appear to be a Christian that has it all put together. I foolishly worship being well thought of. But Paul is telling us – and we can’t forget how he began this chapter – that in view of God’s mercy, love MUST be sincere.
Think about this with me – if we really believe that we’ve been declared righteous by God because Jesus took our sins to the cross and that by trusting in his death and resurrection we’ve been declared sons and daughters of God, why do I need to create a façade that I’m better than I am? If I really believe this amazing news, I should be freed into sincerity in relationships. Jesus is my righteousness! I have no need to create it on my own. I’ve already fully acknowledged that I’m sinful and completely lost outside of Christ –and so why do I go around pretending?
The gospel produces sincere, authentic, vulnerable relationships. A community of people grounded in this truth will see struggles honestly discussed, healing take place, sin brought into the light, and real change occur.
2. No Need to Fear (v 10-12)
Moving on, this kind of love hates what is evil and clings to what is good. The most pretending kind of insincere love is that which sees someone struggling and entangled in sin, but which does nothing to pursue or admonish in gentleness and love. This is the sort of love, if it can even be called love, that sees our friends and neighbors who do not know Christ and says “live and let live.” This is incredibly hard and I am so guilty of falling short of it. Thank the Lord we don’t have a savior who related to us this way! Instead of saying “live and let live”, he pursued us, and loved us, and opened our eyes to the gospel.
Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church church in Dallas Texas, shared a story along these lines during one of his sermons on this subject that had had a profound impact on me in seeing this with clarity. He shared that during the first year he began preaching at his church, he was asked a direct question by a leader at his church who was over him about something that had happened. He said he answered the question with a half-truth, in the hopes he could tell a part of what happened without delving into the whole. Matt then describes what happened when this elder found out about it:
I got straight up busted, and I got called into our offices and I sat at a table, and Steve Hardin walked up to me and told me that he knew what had really happened and what had gone on and then he asked me just one question; he goes ‘is this who you want to be? I mean do you want to be the half-truth guy? Half-truth guys don’t get to preach the Bible. Half-truth guys aren’t a power conduit through which the Holy Spirit flows. Half-truth guys dishonor God.’ And I mean I sat at that table and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed, and then they didn’t let me preach for the next 3 weeks.
Some of you may be thinking “all that for a half truth’? Seems a little harsh! But Matt has a different perspective:
Please, I praise Christ for that day. I praise Christ for that day. Because what could’ve happened is I could’ve taken this ‘oh, you can get away with stuff; oh you don’t have to be full on honest…’ and I could’ve taken that and it could’ve become kind of a character pattern for how I function. But a man in my life who loved me and loved Christ in me way too much to let that go. had a very awkward, very uncomfortable, very horrible meeting with me. And I think because he had the courage to do that, I am standing in front you today. Because he had the courage to do that, I’m pastoring this place.ii
It’s almost hunting season. Have you given anyone in your life you trust a hunting license for hunting sin in your life? It’s clear to me that Romans 12 is saying that we have a tendency not to see ourselves clearly, and that we need other members of the body of Christ to grow. This is best done in a vulnerable and authentic community that is shaped by the gospel. In such a community, we’re not surprised by loving criticism from fellow believers (because we need it), nor are we totally crushed emotionally when it happens (because I’m totally loved and accepted as I am in Christ). This frees us to take it in and change.
Many of you might be thinking (like me at times): “Yes, I know this is right, but what if I’m hurt doing this? What if I’m rejected in trying to share the truth with someone, or what if I’m hurt when I become vulnerable in a community setting?”
This is where we need to remain “in view of God’s mercy.” If we’re in Christ Jesus, the God of the universe has given us his approval through his Son – we no longer need to be a slave to the approval and well-thinking of others. So, when confronted with the choice between pursuing someone with the truth in love, and keeping their approval, we can freely choose to love them as Christ has loved us because we are no longer a slave to human approval – we have the approval of the only one that matters. Sometimes to be a friend (one who ‘hates what is evil and clings to what is good’) is to risk the friendship.
And with regards to risking hurt in a place of vulnerability, I can only acknowledge, that yes, there is risk involved in this sort of community. CS Lewis wrote this in his book The Four Loves:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” iii
There is no way to escape risk and vulnerability if we’re going to love at all. But we do have tremendous resources in Jesus Christ – who became vulnerable himself. And if we’re in Christ, the Father’s approval can never be taken from us, no matter the risk.
III. The Gospel Produces Relationships of Self-Giving Love (v 10-14)
Paul continues on to describe what I see as a 3rd category of community traits – that gospel communities are characterized by relationships of self-giving love.
1. Family Love (v 10-13)
10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
Each of these examples listed by Paul, from what I’ve studied, seem to be examples of the first type of love he’s called out in verse 10 – brotherly love. In other words, our relationships in gospel community should look more like familial relationships than what I might call “smorgasbord” relationships, or consumer relationships. These sorts of relationships aren’t primarily evaluated based on the benefits they will provide us, nor are they based primarily on compatibility, or usefulness. And yet, how often do we (I), approach community in the church with an acute form of consumeritis? Do our small groups and ministries reflect the sort of familial love described by Paul here? In a study of the small group model in the American church, Dr. Robert Wuthnow of Princeton described his conclusions as follows:
There is [a] sense in which small groups may not be fostering community as effectively as many of their proponents would like. Some small groups merely provide occasions for individuals to focus on themselves in the presence of others. The social contract binding them together asserts only the weakest of obligations. Come if you have time. Talk if you feel like it. Respect everyone’s opinion. Never criticize. Leave quietly if you become dissatisfied.iv
Do our communities look like this? It’s certainly possible to participate in all the structures of the church meant to cultivate the sort of community Paul has described here and completely miss it. How do we overcome our natural bent toward a consumer approach to community? Again, we must get in good view of God’s mercy in the gospel. How do we love others in a community in which there may be difficult people, or people with which you simply do not find much in common?
Tim Keller: The gospel is this: we are not loved because we are lovely, but in spite of our unloveliness. We are not loved because we have made ourselves worthy of love, but because Jesus died for us when we were unattractive in order to make us attractive. If Christians think of this as they are serving difficult or unattractive people, they will find a growing degree of repentance. “loving Father, I was so much more unattractive to you than this person is to me, yet you were tortured and killed—you gave up your life for me! And all I need to do is to give up some time and effort for this person.” v
In every other area of life we audition our relationships, but Paul says this should not be the primary way we go about relationships in the church, in our small groups, in our ministries. We should honor the needs of others before our own needs.
12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
So, for those of us with tendencies toward consumeritis – how are you approaching church life? There does not appear to be any concept in Romans 12 for how many would approach community in the church today – attending services to consume a sermon and some sacraments without any real entanglement in people’s lives, popping in and out of small groups as they continue to meet needs and don’t conflict with the truly important things on our calendars.
Instead, Paul calls us to deep life on life devotion – this kind of devotion comes asking primarily “what can I give?” rather than “what am I going to get out of this?” This is impossible without drawing on the gospel – seeing Jesus’ devotion to us and letting that motivate our own.
But Paul doesn’t stop there – he moves from talking about a familial love, to an even harder type of love in verse 14.
2. Enemy Love (v 14)
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.
Not only are we to regard those relationships in the church with a sort of family devotion, but we are to actively work for the good of those who would oppose us, or even seek to harm or slander us. Undoubtedly, Paul had in mind the surrounding Roman culture here, which was often hostile to Christians – but this could certainly still refer to those we simply do not get along with inside the church as well.
DA Carson describes the church like this:
“The church is…made up of natural enemies. What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything else of that sort. Christians come together…because they have all been saved by Jesus Christ and owe him a common allegiance…they are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake.” vi
How do we get a love like this? Do our small groups look like this? How do we come to share deep affinity for people that normally we’d have virtually nothing in common with?
Inclusiveness and tolerance are greatly valued in our culture today. Many would undoubtedly say that for different groups with different lifestyles to get along, we simply need to temper our religious fundamentalism. Some would say that the problem is that religious people think they have the truth, and that this is the reason natural enemies cannot live together in peace. If only Christians would just get rid of this idea that they are the only ones that have the truth, then we might live at peace in this culture. Fundamentalism is the problem here.
But don’t you see? This line of thinking is doing the very thing it forbids! It places its own fundamental (“exclusive truth claims are the problem with the world”) at the heart of what it means to live in peace. Rather, isn’t the solution what your fundamental is, rather than fundamentalism itself? Everyone has a fundamental.
We live close to Lancaster – if anyone could be called a fundamentalist, it would be the Amish, no? One of the most striking examples enemy love that I can think of occurred after the West Nikel Mines schoolhouse shooting tragedy in 2006, in which a gunman, Charles Roberts, entered the school and shot ten little Amish girls, ages 6-13 before committing suicide. The response to Roberts’ family, by the Amish community, was absolutely staggering – from an article reflecting on the tragedy:
A Roberts family spokesman said an Amish neighbor comforted the Roberts family hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them. Amish community members visited and comforted Roberts’ widow, parents, and parents-in-law. One Amish man held Roberts’ sobbing father in his arms, reportedly for as long as an hour, to comfort him. The Amish also set up a charitable fund for the family of the shooter. About 30 members of the Amish community attended Roberts’ funeral, and Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the victims. vii
Now, I certainly differ with the Amish in plenty of areas, but undoubtedly the reason for this radical enemy love is because their fundamental is a man giving his life for his enemies even as they crucified him. A benign tolerance or moderated belief in this fundamental would never have produced this.
Paul calls us not to benign tolerance, but to a pursuing love that seeks to bless our enemies. Where do we as Christians get the resources for something as difficult at this?
I may sound like a broken record at this but, but once again we must remain in view of God’s mercy. Let’s read from Titus:
Titus 3: 3-7
At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. 4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared,5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
We, who were once God’s enemy, have been deeply and intimately blessed by the God of the universe who gave his own life for us. What a resource for doing the same in our communities. As we remember what we were – completely blind and lost in our sins outside of Christ – it should drain us of any superiority. We were saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. And so, if we understand the gospel, our persecuting our enemies would be a little like the blind man Jesus graciously granted sight, then getting up and berating the other blind men around him for their blindness.
And so, if we understand the gospel, our communities should be radically sensitive and patient with outsiders – yes, even our small groups. We should relate to those who despise our faith, or those we find difficult to love with tenderness, and compassion, because our fundamental is a God who loved his enemies by going to a cross for them.
And so, in closing, may we be the type of community described by Paul here. Let’s seek to be mutually dependent in a healthy biblical way as members of one another, let’s let our acceptance in Christ produce sincerity and vulnerability in our relationships, and may our love for each other be characterized by family and enemy love. Let’s endeavor to remain “in view of God’s mercy”, letting who we already are in Jesus Christ motivate us to become the living sacrifice Paul started this chapter with. If there is one thing you come away from this message with – let it be that. Let’s pray.