“Affliction, Friend or Foe?” A Sermon by Albert N. Martin

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One of the common experiences of all the people of God is this matter of affliction. In this study we will look at Second Corinthians 1: 3– 11 under the general theme of affliction, friend or foe?

2nd Corinthians 1:1-11

(1) Paul, an Apostle of Christ Jesus through the will of God, and Timothy our brother, unto the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints that are in the whole of Achaia: (2) Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (3) Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; (4) Who comforts us in all our affliction, that we may be able to comfort them that are in any affliction, through the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. (5) For as the sufferings of Christ abound unto us, even so our comfort also abounds through Christ. (6) But whether we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or whether we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which works in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer: (7) and our hope for you is steadfast; knowing that, as you are partakers of the sufferings, so also are you of the comfort. (8) For we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning our affliction which befell us in Asia, that we were weighed down exceedingly, beyond our power, insomuch that we despaired even of life: (9) yea, we ourselves have had the sentence of death within ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God Who raises the dead: (10) Who delivered us out of so great a death, and will deliver: on Whom we have set our hope that He will also still deliver us; (11) you also helping together on our behalf by your supplication; that, for the gift bestowed upon us by means of many, thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf.

It is obvious that the theme of this passage is the subject of affliction. For the very thing which triggers this eulogy, this blessing of God the Father, is that the Apostle and his companion, Timothy, have experienced a peculiar measure of the consolation and comfort of God in the midst of affliction. So the Apostle begins with those words, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, The Father of mercies, The God of all comfort, Who comforts us in all our affliction.” It opens up the whole subject of affliction in which there are given to us some very helpful perspectives concerning the experience of all the people of God.

Introduction

In introducing our study of the passage, it is necessary to understand several things about affliction.

First of all, the meaning of the word affliction, as it is found here in the passage before us. The word itself literally means, that which is pressing or pressure. Hence it is come to speak of oppression, affliction or tribulation. It refers to distress brought upon men and women, particularly by outward circumstances which in turn create this inward distress. It’s translated numerous ways in the New Testament. In some places it’s translated tribulation, in others, as it is here, affliction; sometimes persecution; other times trouble; but it is that which God reveals is the portion of all of His people. This pressure, this oppression, this tribulation, this inward distress brought about by outward circumstances, our Lord says, will be the portion of all of His people. 

John 16:33 “In the world you shall have [and this is the same word in the original] affliction. You shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” One of the very elementary messages that the Apostles used to give on their missionary follow up tours, concern the whole subject of affliction. 

We read in Acts 14:21-22, “And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, and to Iconium, and to Antioch, confirming the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that through many tribulations [afflictions same word in the original] we must enter into the kingdom of God.”

AFFLICTION IS ONE OF THE COMMON DENOMINATOR’S OF THE PEOPLE OF GOD

The Apostles were very, very concerned that believers understand, early in their Christian lives, that affliction and tribulation were part and parcel of normal Christian experience. It is for this reason that our Lord in His parting words spoke the words previously quoted, in the world you shall have tribulation. He had given them some tremendously encouraging promises about the coming of the Holy Spirit. Some promises concerning His ministry of comfort and consolation and illumination; and the impartation of gifts and graces in power, but less they misunderstand this, to think that they would come to some level of experience in the Holy Spirit that would either immunize them from, or totally lift them out of the realm of tribulation and affliction, our Lord says, toward the conclusion of those wonderful words of John 14, 15, and 16, In the world you shall have tribulation. 

John was so confident that tribulation was as much a part of the Christian life as faith in Christ, that when he addresses the believers of Asia Minor in Revelation 1 this is how he addresses them: Revelation 1:9 “I John your brother and partaker with you in the tribulation and kingdom and patience which are in Jesus.” He looks upon all believers as fellow partakers, not only of the kingdom and the steadfastness that are in Christ, but also of the tribulation, the affliction, the persecution, that are in Christ. So it is not surprising that our Lord tells us in the parable of the sower that some apparent converts are caused to wither in their profession, when they come into contact with their first real affliction. In Matthew 13:21 Jesus said, when tribulation, and persecution, when affliction and persecution arise because of the Word, they stumble. It was affliction that caused the consternation of the Psalmist in Psalm 73. He was afflicted and he saw the people of God afflicted, and it didn’t make sense to him, because the people who were not committed to the worship of Jehovah and to the law of God seem to be wonderfully insulated from affliction, and this he could not understand.

And so in the light of the fact that the Scripture teaches, that affliction is one of the common denominator’s of the people of God, and that affliction can be the occasion of stumbling and consternation, it is necessary for every Christian, to learn how to confront affliction.

One of the great problems that we face, as in many other areas, we carry over into the Christian life worldly, carnal views of affliction. You see the unbeliever looks upon affliction as his or her greatest enemy. Every affliction that comes into their life is a roadblock in the pursuit of their carnal and temporal goals, and therefore affliction is always their enemy. They can never hug affliction to themselves and say welcome, my God-sent friend. He looks upon affliction says, “Who are you? My enemy!” They do all within their power to get affliction, out of the way. The unbeliever looks upon it as enemy, all enemy, and nothing but enemy and yet sad to say, many children of God, to some degree or another, have absorbed that mentality and do not understand the purpose of God in affliction. But now, for the child of God, there should be a totally different perspective concerning the subject of affliction.

In this study as we consider this passage in second Corinthians we will seek to layout THE DIVINE PURPOSE OF GOD IN AFFLICTION which, when understood by the child of God, will help them to embrace their afflictions rather than to run from them as an unwanted enemy.

ILLUSTRATION

Let me illustrate the difference that this perspective will make. Try to picture a little child who’s been involved in a serious accident. He’s been knocked unconscious and has a compound fracture. He’s got a bone sticking right through the skin which will demand not only the setting of the bone, but also some sutures, and the first time that he awakes out of his unconsciousness he looks up, and there is a man with a mask on his face, and a skullcap on his head, a big needle in his hand and a scalpel in his other hand, and the poor child coming to consciousness thinks he’s awaken in the midst of a horror movie. He’s scared and he screams out and begins to fight to get himself off that table until he is quieted down. His mom or dad, with a nurse or the doctor, explains to him that the person standing there with the needle is going to put the needle in so that he won’t feel any pain when he takes the scalpel and begins to patch him up and put the arm back in place. Once the child understands, that which in his first reflex looked so foreboding, something to be resisted, then he will welcome that which upon first sight he utterly rejected. In the same way, the child of God many times –when they wake up as it were and see afflictions standing before them with his long needle and with his scalpel– their reaction is one of wanting to run. It’s at that point that they need to be still and to understand what God is saying, “This is the purpose that I have in this affliction for you.” Then the heart of the child of God is stilled to submit to that affliction.

FIVE DIVINE PURPOSES IN AFFLICTION

What then, according to 2 Corinthians 1: 3 – 11 is the divine purpose in affliction?

I would suggest that the Apostle indicates that there are at least five divine purposes in affliction, and we’re limiting our observations just to this passage. We could range far and wide in many other portions of Scripture, but we want to stick with this portion and lay out these aspects of the divine purpose in affliction. Our purpose is that you, as a child of God, may recognize this, so that when affliction comes, and it will come, you may be able to confront it biblically, and not look upon affliction as your foe, but as your friend.

What is the first purpose of God in affliction? It’s set before us in verse 1:3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort;” As the Apostle Paul breaks out in praise to God, he praises God with specific reference to the revelation of God’s character that has come to him in the context of affliction, therefore:

(1) THE FIRST PURPOSE OF GOD IN AFFLICTION IS TO GIVE US A FULLER REVELATION OF THE CHARACTER OF GOD.

In this text God is called three things: first, He is called the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, secondly, the Father of mercies and thirdly, He is called the God of all comfort.

When the Apostle addresses Him as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, he is indicating that God has been revealed to him in the saving revelation made, in and through, Jesus Christ the Lord.

In other words, when the Apostle thinks of God, he not only thinks of Him as the God of creation, not only as the God of Providence, but he thinks of Him particularly, as the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. He thinks of Him as the God Who has revealed Himself and His way of salvation in the Person and Work of the Lord Jesus. Therefore, whatever follows in this text, whatever other revelation is made of God, it’s made in the context of that fundamental revelation of God as a saving God, in Jesus Christ, the Lord. That’s the starting point. If you do not stand in a saving relationship to God, through the Person and Work of the Lord Jesus Christ, this message is not for you. This is God’s Word to believers who know God as 

(i) The God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Apostle further says in verse five, as the sufferings of Christ abound unto us even, even so our comfort abounds through Christ. All of the consolation of God to His suffering saints is in terms of their vital union with Jesus Christ. But now notice, the Apostle not only knows Him as the God and Father of the Lord Jesus, but he calls Him, in this place, and it’s the only place that I know of in the New Testament where God is addressed in these terms, the Father of mercies, or literally the Father of the mercies, or the compassions and the God of all comforting. Let’s look at those two ascriptions of God for a moment.

(ii) The Father of all compassions or mercies. The word mercy, means pity to those who are in distress. Remember in the life of our Lord and in His ministry needy people would encounter Him and cry out, ‘Son of David, have mercy upon me. Look upon me with Pity.’ In Psalm 103:13, like as a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those that fear Him. The Psalmist addresses God in terms of God’s inward disposition in the face of the afflictions of His people. 

When God beholds the afflictions of His people, ordered by His own divine providence, how does He behold them? He doesn’t behold them with a stoical indifference saying, ‘Well I’ve decreed it, and it’s for their good. Let them work it out.’ No. In all their afflictions, the Scripture says, He was afflicted. He is not only the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who’s revealed a way of forgiveness and acceptance through the Lord Jesus, but He’s the God Who, having brought us into His family and given us the Spirit of adoption, is to us the Father of mercies and the God of all comforting. Where the reference to mercy focuses upon the disposition of God’s heart, the reference to comforting points out the activity of God. He not only has an attitude of pity and compassion, but He puts forth that attitude in positive comfort of His people. In the midst of the pressure of their distress, He is the God Who comforts them.

How did the Apostle Paul come to know God as the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ? That revelation was made to him in the way that it’s made to all sinful people. He must first of all be brought to a sight of his sin. He must be brought to a sight of the mercy that God extends in the Lord Jesus. You can see that in Romans 7. I had not known sin unless the law said you shall not covet and he details how God dealt with him to show him that in spite of all his external morality and religiosity, he was lost and undone. Then he came to know God as the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

You see, just as no one knows God as the God and Father of the Lord Jesus, apart from the experimental knowledge of sin and of grace [inward moral transformation] so you cannot really know God as the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, unless you are in the experimental crucible of affliction. You don’t have pity upon those who are well off. You don’t need to extend comfort to those who are completely at ease. Pity, is for the afflicted. Comfort, is for the distressed, and the Apostle tells us in this passage, that the first purpose of God in affliction, with reference to His children, is to give them this further unfolding of His Own character. To bring them into an experimental awareness, of the God that He is, and so if you pray as a Christian, ‘O God, help me to know You better.’ Perhaps you find yourself praying in the words of Philippians 3, ‘that I may know Him’. Would you have further revelation of the character of God? Not in the abstract, but in the real stuff of human experience? Then child of God don’t look upon affliction as your enemy. It’s in the context of affliction that you will come to know Him as the God of all mercies and the God of all comfort, and if you’re going to be so self-sparing that you say, God, don’t touch me with affliction what you’re saying is, I want no further revelation, experimentally, of the depth and the breath, the height and the length of Your Infinite Character. So the first purpose of God in affliction is to give us a fuller revelation of His Character.

The second purpose is laid out in verses four through seven of 2nd Corinthians. 1:4 “Who comforts us in all our affliction, that [here’s the purpose] we may be able to comfort them that are in any affliction, through the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. 5 For as the sufferings of Christ abound unto us, even so our comfort also abounds through Christ. 6 But whether we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or whether we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which works in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer: 7 and our hope for you is stedfast; knowing that, as you are partakers of the sufferings, so also are you of the comfort.” The Apostle is saying that:

(2) THE SECOND DIVINE PURPOSE IN AFFLICTION, FOR THE CHILD OF GOD, IS TO EQUIP US FOR A MORE USEFUL MINISTRY TO THE PEOPLE OF GOD.

Notice that thread of thought, God comforts us, that we may be able to comfort others. Sufferings abound in us, comfort abounds through us. If we are afflicted for your sake, if we are comforted for your sake, and you can reduce the basic thought of verses four through seven to this simple equation, all that happens to us happens for your sakes. All that comes to us, issues in blessing to you. In the context, the primary reference to this is to the Apostle and his companion Timothy. 

Whatever particular trials they were passing through by virtue of the problems at the church at Corinth and in the light of their overall ministry, the Apostle wants the Corinthians to know that what is happening to them is for their sake, but in the light of passages like Romans 15:14, in which the Apostle speaks in such broad terms of the ministry that believers have one to another, we cannot give this an exclusive reference to the Apostle. He said, Romans 15:14 “And I myself also am persuaded of you, my brethren, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another.” 

He says of the Romans, I’m confident that as brethren, you’ve come to sufficient experimental knowledge, that you are able to admonish one another, and so we see the second aspect of the divine purpose in affliction. How is God going to equip you for a more useful ministry to others? I’ll tell you what He is going to do. He’s going to put you into the fires of affliction that in those fires of affliction, as you experimentally become acquainted with the comfort of God, you in turn, may be an instrument of consolation and comfort to others. 

We do not exist in the body of Christ for our own sake. God has placed us in the body of Christ that we might be an instrument of maturity and development in the lives of the other members of that body. 1 Corinthians 12 deals with this very clearly. When one member suffers, all the members suffer with it. When one member is comforted all are comforted with it. Ephesians 4, the body is built up by that which every joint supplies. It makes increase of itself in love. How are we going to be made more useful in our ministry to others? It’s going to be in the midst of affliction. If affliction is the common experience of all the people of God, in all ages, then one of the great needs that they have, is for people to be able to console them and comfort them in their affliction. Who is going to be able to do it? Those who themselves have proven the consolation of God in the midst of affliction. Those who have experimentally learned how to face the needle and the scalpel, and instead of screaming and ranting and raving to get off the operating table, say instead, Lord, put in the needle and do your work with the scalpel. 

May I prove you to be the God of all comfort, the Father of all mercies, to the end that I may have a more useful ministry unto others. There are few things which reveal the depth of our selfhood more clearly than the quickness with which we reject affliction. We complain, ‘Lord, this is doing this, and that, and the other to me.’ 

Instead of just saying, ‘O God, if this is the price that I must pay to be an instrument in Your hands, to be a blessing to others, I am willing to submit to anything that I might be an instrument of consolation to my fellow believers.’ Isn’t that the true mark of divine love? Love seeks not her own. Isn’t that our big problem? The moment affliction comes all we think about is what it’s doing to me, to my name, my comforts, my plans. The Apostle Paul didn’t look upon it this way. When afflictions came tumbling in upon him he said, ‘Well hallelujah, there’s a lot more people out there that are going to be helped!’ As the afflictions abound so the consolations abound and he welcomed affliction knowing that it was going to equip him for a more useful ministry to the people of God. 

So let me encourage you, Child of God, some who may, this very instant, be in the midst of an unusual discipline of affliction and tribulation, and you found it so difficult, you’ve cried out, ‘Lord is there something in me? Is it some chastisement? Is it some sin?’ You’ve been open and honest before God and you’ve drawn a blank. Perhaps this is the perspective that you need to bring into the total picture, ‘Lord there are no accidents with you. You know every single person to whom I must be an instrument and means of grace all along the way from here to glory. Lord I embrace all of your disciplines to me that I might be a source of blessing to others.’

The Apostle goes on to give us a third purpose in affliction that helped him to look upon affliction, not as a foe, but as a friend. 2 Corinthians 1:8-9, “For we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning our affliction which befell us in Asia, that we were weighed down exceedingly, beyond our power, insomuch that we despaired even of life: yea, we ourselves have had the sentence of death within ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God Who raises the dead:” What was the third divine purpose in affliction according to the Apostle?

(3) THE THIRD DIVINE PURPOSE IN AFFLICTION IS TO SHUT US UP MORE FULLY TO THE POWER OF GOD.

Notice his words; ‘I don’t want you to be ignorant, you Corinthians, concerning this tremendous affliction which came to us in Asia.’ What he’s referring to nobody knows for certain. The commentators all make their guesses and most of them disagree, but whatever it was, it’s not important what the trial was, but what the purpose of God was. Notice, he says here what was God’s purpose. We had this affliction come upon us that brought us to the place where we despaired even of life. He said yes, we had the very sentence of death within ourselves. We were as good as dead. To what purpose? That we should not trust in ourselves, but in God Who raises the dead. In other words, the Apostle Paul says, we were brought to a place, where the only way out of that circumstance of affliction was a manifestation of divine power equal to the power that raises dead men to life. In any other kind of exercise of divine power there may be great divine assistance, but there may be already something there to work with. If a lame man came to the Lord Jesus, He straightened out a leg that was already there. If a blind man came, the Lord gave sight to eyes that were already there. But when the Lord Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb there was nothing there. There was a direct intrusion of life from without, and Paul said we were brought to the place where our confidence was in an exertion of divine power that was equal to the power that raises men from the dead. Therefore, he says, this affliction was not our foe, but our friend, because it shut us up more fully than ever to confidence in the mighty power of the living God.

We can have a very romantic view of the Apostle Paul as though he didn’t have to wrestle with indwelling sin and corruption, yet Romans 7 is an eloquent testimony to the fact that this was not true. Look at 2 Corinthians 12. Paul had a tendency to be proud and God, seeing that tendency to be proud, said lest you be puffed up beyond measure because the revelations given to you I’m going to allow this messenger of Satan to buffet you. And Paul says, ‘Lord, I can’t complete my ministry with this thing. It hinders me, it cripples me, it weakens me.’ The Lord said, ‘No. If I take it away your pride would weaken and cripple you, therefore, I’m going to allow this affliction so that in the midst of your physical weakness you’ll be conscious of where your dependence is; and in the midst of your weakness the power of Christ will be manifested.’ So the Apostle needed, as we do, to be constantly pushed away from the subtle temptation of self-confidence and to look more upon God’s work as the work of Him assisting us in the exercise of our own cleverness and our own abilities; so when this affliction came, Paul said this was the divine purpose: that we should not trust in ourselves but in God.

If the Apostle Paul needed affliction to shut him up more fully to confidence in the power of God, who are you and who am I to think that we will be shut up by any lesser means? That which God brings upon us that makes us consciously embrace our weakness and comes like scissors to cut the cords and the nerves of creature confidence and carnal confidence, these things, the Apostle says, are the divine purpose in affliction.

Sometimes the Lord has to do it with regards to monetary things. It is pretty hard for some of us to pray ‘Lord give us this day our daily bread’ and really mean it. We’ve collected our check week in and week out, month in month out, until suddenly we are laid off. Affliction comes. And then we begin to know what it is, as we never knew before, to look to God to supply our daily bread. Suddenly those words are no longer pretty words in a prayer that you memorized as a child; they become the experimental petition of our own hearts. ‘Loving Father, look down upon us and our family in our need; give us this day our daily bread.’ And what happens with that affliction? It shuts you up to the power of God and the intervention of God.

Sometimes it comes with health. Some of us know weeks and months and years of getting out of bed with two sound feet and a sound mind and a body that can carry us to our work. Though we halfheartedly say, ‘Lord give me strength for this day’ and at the end of the day thank the Lord, it really doesn’t come from the heart. We pretty well think we can get along on our own steam until God allows that strength to be shriveled. Then we know what it is to lay there on a bed of weakness or sickness and say, ‘Oh God, if I’m to even get through half this day, You must sustain me. You must strengthen me.’ Then we are shut up to the exercise of divine power for our daily strength in a way that we never were before. How did this come about? Affliction was Gods means to shut us up more fully to His power.

So it is with the matter of wisdom or with the matter of patience. God puts us in situations where all of our natural resources are utterly depleted and we say-–as far as that duty is concerned and what I must have to perform it–-I’m as good as a dead man. The sentence of death is upon me. And God says, ‘It’s about time that you understand what I’ve said. All along, without Me, you can do nothing, but you didn’t believe Me. I told you right along, cursed be he that trust in man and makes flesh his arm but you didn’t believe Me.’ Now affliction has come and what has been its effect? To shut us up to the exercise of divine power. Christian, don’t look upon affliction as your enemy. That which shuts you up more fully to the exercise of divine power is your friend.

The fourth divine purpose of affliction is found in 2 Corinthians 1:10. Having spoken of this trust in God Who raises the dead, he goes on to say, 1:10 “Who delivered us out of so great a death, and [now he makes a prophecy] will deliver: on Whom we have set our hope that He will also still deliver us.” Do you see what Paul is doing? He’s left the realm of testimony and now he’s making an affirmation of faith. Looking back upon this circumstance, whatever it was, that shut him up to the exercise of divine power, he says:

(4) THE FOURTH FUNCTION OF AFFLICTION WAS TO INCREASE HIS FAITH IN THE PROMISES OF GOD.

Way back when God called the Apostle Paul, He made a promise to him and we read that promise in Acts 26:16 “Arise and stand on your feet for to this end have I appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness, both of the things wherein you have seen Me and of the things wherein I will appear unto you, delivering you from the people and from the Gentiles unto whom I send you, to open their eyes…” Here was the promise of God: ‘Paul I’m commissioning you with this gospel commission, and in the accomplishment of it I will deliver you from every opposition until my purpose for you is accomplished.’ And again and again the Apostle Paul was brought into circumstances where it seemed his life was going to be snuffed out. One time he was stoned, other times plots were laid to take his life, but again and again when these afflictions came and God fulfilled His promise, what did it do? It increased his faith in the promises of God, for faith is strengthened in two ways: 

1st – IT’S STRENGTHENED BY LOOKING TO THE GREATNESS OF THE GOD WHO MADE THE PROMISE, and

2nd – IT’S STRENGTHENED BY EXPERIENCING THE REALITY OF THE FULFILLMENT OF THAT PROMISE.

Faith is strengthened in those two ways. Beholding the God Who makes the promise. That’s the emphasis of Paul in Romans 4. Abraham waxed strong in faith. How? Being fully persuaded that what God had promised He was able to perform. As he conceived in his mind the character and might and power of God, he could look at his own body that was as good as a dead body and say, this body will yet father a child because the God Who made the promise (in Isaac shall your seed be called). God is able to father a child through the dead body of Abraham. And He’s able to do something with Abraham’s body to make it able to father a child.

But the Apostle in this passage is focusing upon the second way in which faith is strengthened. Faith is also strengthened by the experiencing of the reality and the fulfillment of those promises. So the Apostle says, ‘When we had the sentence of death in ourselves, we despaired of living unless God put forth the mighty arm of resurrection power.’ Once He did, Paul said, ‘We have confidence that the God Who has delivered, will still deliver, and continue to deliver, until His purposes for us are accomplished.’ Notice how that faith became even stronger when, as he’s about to lay down his life in 2 Timothy 4, he makes a similar reference to the delivering power of God. 2 Timothy 4:16-18, “At my first defense no one took my part, but all forsook me: may it not be laid to their account. But the Lord stood by me, and strengthened me; that through me the message might be fully proclaimed, and that all the Gentiles might hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. The Lord will deliver me from every evil work, and will save me unto His heavenly kingdom: to Whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”

Paul said, ‘This past deliverance strengthens my faith to believe the Lord will yet deliver me from every evil work and will save me unto His heavenly kingdom to Whom be glory forever and forever.’ Your faith is not strengthened by pulling your promises out of a promise box. Your faith is strengthened when that promise in the promised box goes with you into the fires of affliction. That’s when your faith is strengthened. You prove God in terms of His promise in the midst of affliction. Then you’re able to come forth with that ringing affirmation, the Lord has delivered, He will deliver, He shall deliver from every evil work. It’s quite easy to pray, ‘Lord increase my faith.’ Then when God begins to put you in the context of affliction you say, ‘Lord this doesn’t have anything to do with my prayer.’ But that’s the very answer to your prayer. It’s by affliction that our faith in the promises of God and the God of the promises is strengthened.

The fifth divine purpose in affliction is found in 2 Corinthians 1:11, “You also helping together on our behalf by your supplication; that, for the gift bestowed upon us by means of many, thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf.” Now, whether the Apostle is referring to the past prayers of the people of God [the grammar in the original is uncertain] or whether he is saying, ‘In the light of what I’ve told you, you will now have a renewed prayer involvement with Timothy and myself in our ministries’–- whether he’s looking to a past deliverance or thinking of future deliverances in which their prayers will have a part–-the end result will be this: Thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf. In other words, as Paul is delivered from affliction, preserved in the midst of affliction:

(5) THE 5TH DIVINE PURPOSE OF AFFLICTION IS TO PROVOKE CORPORATE PRAISE AND THANKSGIVING TO GOD FOR THE DELIVERANCE WROUGHT FOR HIS SERVANTS.

One of the great delights of being a child of God and scripturally identifying oneself with a visible community of God’s people (the visible church) is that when we enter that affliction we do not enter it alone. We have not only the presence of our Lord Jesus by the Spirit, but we have the presence of the Lord Jesus in the members of His body and Christ and His union with His body is not a mere theological concept. That union is so vital that Paul says, if you sin against the weak brother, you sin against Christ. The weak brother is a member of His body like a finger is a member, and Christ is saying, ‘If you touch My finger you touch Me. That’s a part of Me. When you hammered that finger, you hammered Me.’ The Lord Jesus said, to Saul, ‘Saul, why do you persecute Me?’ when Saul was persecuting the church. When he touched the church he was touching the Lord. The concept of this organic life union between Christ and His people was so real in the mind of the Apostle Paul that he says, when we are afflicted and in answer to our prayers deliverance is wrought and we are preserved, then the end result will be corporate praise to God for the comfort and consolation ministered unto us.

The testimony of the people of God who have entered into unusual periods of affliction is almost always at the top of the list. They’ve said this: The concept, the biblical principle of the unity of the body of Christ, has become precious to me in my affliction in a way I’ve never experienced it before that affliction came.

With a couple who lost their little girl, this concept came through so clearly, the sense that when they passed through this trial of their faith, this affliction, they did not pass through alone. There was not only the Lord Jesus ministering His own grace directly by the Spirit to their heart, but there was the Lord Jesus ministering through His body that supportive role of love and intercession and sympathy and understanding. There’s a realization that the body of Christ is not just a theological term. It’s not just that we meet under the same roof to hear the same sermons and sing the same hymns. There is a bond of identification of love and compassion which when God is pleased to undertake, results not just in the person who was afflicted and has received comfort rendering praise to God, but as the whole body of God’s people entered into that affliction, by their supplications. So, now they enter into praise and rejoicing and God is magnified not by just the one, but by the many. Notice how that is the clear emphasis of the text, “You helping together on our behalf by your supplications to this end, that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf.” This scripture says, ‘Whosoever offers praise glorifies Me, and if God is glorified by the praise of one of His people, He’s glorified more intensely by the whole body of His saints rendering praise onto Him.’

So we learn from this passage that there are at least five distinct divine purposes in our afflictions. In light of these, can that which gives you a fuller revelation of the character of God be your enemy? or is it your friend? Can that which equips you for a more useful ministry to God’s people, can that be your enemy? or is that your friend? Can that which shuts you up more fully to the power of God be your enemy? or your friend? Can that which increases your faith in the promises of God ever be conceived of as your enemy? or your friend? Can that which provokes corporate praise and thanksgiving to God be your enemy? or is it your friend?

Child of God, be done with carnal views of affliction, looking upon affliction as a dreaded enemy. Look beyond the temporal, beyond the immediate and oft times flesh weathering disciplines of affliction, and realize that through affliction you will come to know God experimentally in a way that you could not otherwise know Him. That through affliction you will be made a more fit instrument of blessing to God’s people. That through affliction your faith will be strengthened by your sense of the certainty of the promises of God. Then your involvement with the people of God in praise will be increased. This is the divine purpose in affliction. So, if you are presently in the midst of affliction, may God help you to view that affliction scripturally. If you aren’t presently in the midst of it, don’t breathe too easy, for in the world you shall have affliction that through many afflictions we must enter the kingdom of God. If you’re a child of God, as sure as you sit here, you’re going to pass through affliction. May God help you and may God help me to view our afflictions in the light of divine revelation.

To those who do not know God as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, then you cannot know Him as the God of comfort. You cannot know Him as the Father of mercies. It will not do in the next affliction to go whimpering to God and say, ‘Oh God, Whoever you are, wherever you are, comfort me!’ No. If you’re indifferent to God’s demands with reference to your sin, to repent and believe the gospel, that you acknowledge yourself to be undone and standing in need of His mercy; if you live in impenitence and unbelief and despise the gospel, do not think you can come crying to God and somehow snatch to yourself the comfort that He has pledged to His children. No. If you would know Him as the Father of mercies, the God of all comfort, I entreat you first of all, to know Him as the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Repent of your sin. Believe the gospel. Embrace His gracious promise, “Come unto Me all you that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”

But thank God if, in grace, He has brought us to know Him as the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the God of all mercies and the Father of all comfort to us. May we prove Him to be that in our experience and all of the theory that we have of these things God will make real to us in the crucible of affection.

When we begin to scream and holler and jump off the table when we see the syringe and the knife, may God help us to quiet one another down and remind one another of the principles of this passage, the divine purposes in affliction that we might know that affliction is not our foe, but our friend in the purpose of Almighty God.

Whether it is the death of a loved one, having an unsaved child, marital issues, loss of a job, etc. It’s all made to increase our awareness of the frailty of life and press us further into Him so that when these same things hit others we can understand and help them through with a real compassion and understanding.

About Albert Martin: Pastor Albert N. Martin concluded 46 years of ministry at Trinity Baptist Church in Montville, New Jersey, in June 2008, and he and his second wife Dorothy relocated to Michigan (he lost his first wife Marilyn in 2004 after 48 years of marriage and a six-year battle with cancer). A recognized evangelist, counsellor, pastor and preacher, Al Martin had his first experience of street preaching before the age of eighteen, under the guidance of elders at the Mission Hall he attended. He taught all the courses in Pastoral Theology in the Trinity Ministerial Academy for 20 years until it closed in 1998. He went to be with the Lord in 2017. Al Martin is the author of four booklets published by the Banner of Truth Trust – A Life of Principled Obedience, Living the Christian Life, The Practical Implications of Calvinism, and What’s Wrong with Preaching Today? He has also written several helpful books: The Forgotten Fear: Where Have All the God-Fearers Gone?; You Lift Me Up: Overcoming Ministry Challenges; Preaching in the Holy Spirit; Grieving, Hope and Solace: When a Loved One Dies; and Two Volumes on Pastoral Theology entitled: Vol. 1: The Man of God: His Calling and Godly Life & Vol. 2: The Man of God: His Preaching and Teaching Labors. In a labor of love Pastor Brian Borgman wrote a book on Albert Martin’s Theology of Preaching called: My Heart For Thy Cause.

An Encouraging Sermon by John Piper on Today’s Mercies for Today’s Troubles

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“Today’s Mercies for Today’s Troubles; Tomorrow’s Mercies for Tomorrow’s Troubles.”

A Sermon By Dr. John Piper

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” ~ Matthew 6:34

“The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” ~ Lamentations 3:22-23

Sometimes I have reinforced a sermon by following it up with a STAR article (The STAR is Bethlehem Baptist’s weekly newsletter). Today I want to reinforce a STAR article with a following sermon. The STAR article last week was called, “Today’s Mercies for Today’s Troubles; Tomorrow’s Mercies for Tomorrow’s Troubles.” There were several points. One was this: 

(1) Every day God appoints a measure of pleasure and pain for that day—like the old Swedish hymn says:

He whose heart is kind beyond all measure,

Gives unto each day what he deems best—

Lovingly, its part of pain and pleasure,

Mingling toil with peace and rest.

Kind beyond all measure, the Lord gives pain and pleasure to each day as he deems best. We don’t always agree enthusiastically with what God deems best for us. It is hard for us to feel that he is kind beyond all measure when he gives us pain. Causing pain is not generally equated with showing kindness, especially if God’s measure for one day is a lot more than another day. But it’s true, as we will see more fully in a moment. God gives each day his wise and loving measure of pain and pleasure. That was the first point of the STAR article.

(2) The second was that there is fresh mercy from God for each day’s appointed pain. 

Today’s mercies are not designed to carry tomorrow’s burdens. There will be mercies tomorrow for that. Today’s mercies are for today’s burdens. But tomorrow? What about tomorrow? What will become of our children? Will they believe? Or will they forsake the way of righteousness? What will become of our health? Will we go blind or deaf or lose our memories? Who will take care of us? Will we spend the last 10 years of our lives out-living all our friends and family, abandoned, slumped over in a wheel chair at a rural nursing home? What will become of our marriages? Will we ever trust again? Will we laugh and play and pray and talk in peace? Will we be there for the children? Will we be there for each other? Will it be sad and strained and dissatisfying for 30 or 40 more years? What will it be like tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow? What will become of our church? What will tomorrow bring? Or Wednesday? Or next Sunday? Or a year from now? Or ten years from now? Will we be together? Will we be winning the lost, and standing for righteousness, and delivering the oppressed, and sending more and more missionaries to the unreached peoples, and resting in the care of 17 district elders, and worshiping with white-hot zeal for the glory and grace of our great God? What about tomorrow? Will we have the strength to live tomorrow when it comes? And to live it well and wisely and even joyfully, no matter what God’s measure of pain and pleasure?

The point of the STAR article was that the strength to live tomorrow will be given tomorrow, not today. And it will be given. Our task today is not to have the strength needed for tomorrow’s burdens. Our task today is to live by the mercies given for today, and to believe that there will be new mercies for tomorrow. Today’s mercies do not include strength for tomorrow; they include faith that tomorrow’s unseen mercies will be sufficient for tomorrow.

I can’t express how important I believe this is for the living of the Christian life—for children, for teenagers, for college students and young adults in the work world, for middle-aged people facing major life changes, for older people with tremendous uncertainties before them, for single people and married people. It’s important because of how natural and strong is the impulse in our hearts to want to feel sufficient today for tomorrow’s challenges. We don’t like it when the gauge reads “empty” at the end of the day, and we have to go to sleep— if we can—not feeling the power for tomorrow’s troubles.

The Christian’s Secret of Dealing with Trouble

There is a secret to the Christian life here that I want you to get a handle on. If you don’t—if you go on desperately needing to feel today the strength for tomorrow, then it seems to me that either you will cave in under the pressure of excessive anxieties, or you will find a worldly strategy for developing immense ego strength and persuade yourself that you really are sufficient for tomorrow’s troubles. Neither of those is God’s way. God’s way is summed up in two passages of scripture. One is Matthew 6:34, “Do not be anxious for tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (The other text is Lamentations 3:22-23. See below.)

Let me tell you what I think that text does not mean. It does not mean: Make no preparations for tomorrow’s needs. If you’re a farmer, the thought about tomorrow’s empty silos should cause you to sow your field with corn months before you need the corn. Almost everything that is worth doing requires some forethought, planning, and preparation. Jesus said, “Which of you desiring to build a tower does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” (Luke 14:28). The point of Matthew 6:34 is not—don’t make wise preparations. The point is—don’t bring the troubles and uncertainties of carrying out those preparations tomorrow into today. “Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

What does Jesus mean by “enough”? Or as the old Authorized Version says, “Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.” What does he mean by “sufficient”? He means that your sovereign heavenly Father, who is kind and wise beyond all measure, lov- ingly gives unto each day what he deems best, including both its pain and pleasure. Each day’s troubles are “enough”—they are “sufficient”—because God determines their limit. God decides what is enough and what is sufficient (cf. 1 Cor 10:13).

You can know some of the pressures that are coming tomorrow. And part of your job may be to make some preparations for them. Those preparations are part of today’s “sufficient” trouble. But how those preparations will turn out tomorrow, and whether you feel strong enough today to do your part tomorrow—that is not something God wants you to carry today. Those are tomorrow’s burdens. God does not give mercies today for bearing tomorrow’s burdens.

For example, we on the staff must now plan and design worship services ahead of time. It’s like the farmer: we know that if there is going to be a harvest of corporate worship on Sunday, there needs to be some plowing, sowing, and watering earlier in the week. That’s OK. Jesus wants us to do that.

But what about the questions that start to arise from the flesh: How will it go on Sunday? Will the people be there? Will God meet us? Will it be real and deep and earnest and life-changing and soul-winning and Christ-exalting? Will the people be disappointed? With these questions we can cross the line from faithful preparation to unfaithful anxiety. We cross over from dealing with today’s sufficient burden (preparation) and begin to borrow tomorrow’s troubles (how will it be received?). And that is spiritually very dangerous because today’s mercies are given by God for today’s burdens not tomorrow’s.

Or the danger can happen another way. Not only can we start to fret about how our preparations will turn out, but we can start to fret over whether we will have the resources to handle all the preparations after this. What about Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday and Easter and then April and May and June and July and August? Will the spiritual resources be there? That too can be a crossing over the line between faithful planning and unfaithful anxiety. The strength to plan worship for July 10, will be given on July 5th and 6th. And probably not before.

Now where in scripture do I get this confidence that God not only gives the trouble to each day that is sufficient for that day, but also the mercies which are tailor-made to carry that day’s trouble? I get it from (among other places) Lamentations 3:22-23, “The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Thy faithfulness.”

It’s the phrase “they are new every morning” that gives me this great confidence that each day’s mercies—each day’s kindnesses—are given specifically for that day. Ponder that with me. Let it sink in. “His mercies . . . are new every morning.”

Why are they new every morning? Why does God do it that way? It’s not because yesterday’s mercies were bad or weak. It’s because they were yesterday’s. Yesterday’s mercies were for yesterday’s burdens. Today’s mercies are for today’s burdens. They are new every morning. They are like the manna in the wilderness: you can’t keep it overnight. Enough comes for each day. You live on God day by day, or you don’t live on God.

The Swedish hymn gets it right again. The second verse says, “Every day the Lord himself is near me, With a special mercy for each hour.” A special mercy for each hour. The mercy to carry you through this hour is given in this hour. This truth will save your life again and again, if you grasp it and live it. Because how many times in life do we come to the end of our resources and say. “There isn’t anything in here anymore. I am depleted. One more straw and this camel’s back will break.” And we despair that tomorrow will just be rolled on to today’s depleted condition. And at that moment we desperately need this truth: God will not expect you to carry one more straw with these present mercies. When the next straw is added the mercies will be new.

So we must not compound today’s load with fretting over tomorrow’s. We must not doubt God and say, “I have no more strength; so tomorrow will be impossible to live.” That’s not true. You will not be asked to live tomorrow on today’s strength. What you need today is not tomorrow’s strength, but today’s faith that tomorrow’s mercies will be new and will be enough.

And there’s something different between the experience of faith for tomorrow’s power, and the actual experience of that power itself. Faith stands on the promise of God and waits and hopes in weakness and peace. And, of course, that waiting and hoping is part of today’s mercy. Part of today’s mercy is the ability to trust that there will be sufficient mercy for tomorrow. And we trust in that because God promises it in Lamentations 3:23 (cf. Phil 4:19; 2 Cor 9:8-11).

But in spite of all the peace that faith can bring about today, it is not yet tomorrow’s mercy or tomorrow’s power. There’s a difference. And that’s why there is such a battle that goes on. We want the feeling of adequacy today for what we will have to go through tomorrow. But God says, “Trust me. I will give it to you when you need it.”

Let me illustrate what I am saying by the following story. In 1931 a missionary named John Vinson was working in North China. An army of bandits swooped down on his village looting, burning, and killing. They took 150 Chinese and Vinson captive. When the government troops pursued, the bandits offered Vinson his freedom if he would write a letter to the commanding officer of the government troops asking him to withdraw.

Vinson said, “Will you let the Chinese prisoners go free?” “Certainly not” was the reply. “Then I refuse to go free,” he said. That night the bandits tried to flee, taking Vinson with them. Many bandits were killed, and many of the captives escaped. Vinson could not run because of a recent surgery. A little Chinese girl later reported that a bandit pointed a gun at Vinson’s head and said, “I’m going to kill you. Aren’t you afraid?”

Now at this point how do you feel? Are you projecting yourself into Vinson’s place? If so, do you feel rising within you the power to respond with great serenity and to die with peace? The point of what I have been saying is this: you don’t have to feel that right now. What God wants from you now as you sit there is not the strength to die that death. That is not today’s trouble for you. It may be tomorrow’s. What God calls you to now is not to have the power to do what Vinson did, but to have the trust in God that when your time comes he will give what you need.

Vinson looked up and said, “No, I am not afraid. If you kill me, I will go straight to God.” Which he did (This story is taken from The Elizabeth Elliot Newsletter, March/April 1994).

Today’s mercies for today’s troubles; tomorrow’s mercies for tomorrow’s troubles. “As your days so shall your strength be” (Deut 33:25). Don’t be anxious about tomorrow. The troubles and the mercies are appointed day by day.

*This sermon as well as all of John Piper’s sermons are available at desiringgod.org 

Tim Keller Answers 10 Preaching Questions

Tim Keller Interview Conducted with Colin Adams

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In great faith, I have written to a number of better-known preachers on both sides of the Atlantic. Each of them has been sent ten questions on the subject of preaching. The following is Tim Keller’s response. For those of you who don’t know, “Timothy J. Keller is an author, a speaker, and the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City, New York.”

1. Where do you place the importance of preaching in the grand scheme of church life?
It is central, but not alone at the center. Pastoral ministry is as important as preaching ministry, and lay “every-member” ministry is as crucial as ordained ministry. I wouldn’t make a hierarchy out of these things—they are interdependent. But pastoral ministry and lay ministry are not substitutes for strong preaching.

2. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching?
I preached about 200 different expositions a year for the first nine years of my ministry (when I was age 24 through 33). During that time I was considered interesting and good but I never got a lot of feedback that I was anything special. I’ve grown a lot through lots of practice.

3. How long (on average) does it take you to prepare a sermon?
I pastor a large church and have a large staff, and so I give special prominence to preparing the sermon. I give it 15–20 hours a week. I would not advise younger ministers to spend so much time, however. The main way to become a good preacher is to preach a lot, and to spend tons of time in people work—that is how you grow from becoming not just a Bible commentator but a flesh and blood preacher. When I was a pastor without a large staff, I put in six to eight hours on a sermon.

4. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallize it?
I don’t know that I’d be so rigid as to say there has to be just one Big Idea every time. That is a good discipline for preachers in general, because it helps with clarity. Most texts have too much in them for the preacher to cover in one address. You must be selective. But sometimes a preaching-size text simply has two or three major ideas that are too good to pass up.

5. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid?
He should combine warmth and authority/force. That is hard to do, since temperamentally we incline one way or the other. (And many, many of us show neither warmth nor force in preaching.)

6. What notes, if any, do you use?
I use a very detailed outline, with many key phrases in each sub-point written out word for word.

7. What are the greatest perils that a preacher must avoid?
This seems to me too big a question to tackle here. Virtually everything a preacher ought to do has a corresponding peril-to-avoid. For examples, preaching should be Biblical, clear (for the mind), practical (for the will), vivid (for the heart,) warm, forceful, and Christo-centric. You should avoid the opposites of all these things.

8. How do you fight to balance preparation for preaching with other important responsibilities (e.g., pastoral care, leadership responsibilities)?
See my remarks on #3 above. It is a very great mistake to pit pastoral care and leadership against preaching preparation. It is only through doing people-work that you become the preacher you need to be—someone who knows sin, how the heart works, what people’s struggles are, and so on. Pastoral care and leadership are to some degree sermon prep. More accurately, it is preparing the preacher, not just the sermon. Prayer also prepares the preacher, not just the sermon.

9. What books on preaching, or exemplars of it, have you found most influential in your own preaching?
British preachers have had a much greater impact on me than American preachers (Dick Lucas, Alec Motyer and Martyn Lloyd-Jones). And the American preachers who have been most influential (e.g., Jonathan Edwards) were essentially British anyway.

10. What steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers?
I haven’t done much on that front at all, and I’m not happy about that. Currently I meet with two other younger preachers on my staff who also preach regularly. We talk specifically about their preaching and sermon prep.

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Colin Adams is the pastor of Ballymoney Baptist Church, Northern Ireland. For six years he had the privilege of serving as an Associate Pastor with Charlotte Baptist Chapel in Edinburgh. Before coming to Edinburgh he studied theology for four years at International Christian College in Glasgow.

More from Colin Adams or visit Colin at unashamedworkman.wordpress.com/

Source: http://www.churchleaders.com

Tim Keller: No One Seeks God – Romans 3:9-20

SERIES – Bible: The Whole Story—Redemption and Restoration #9

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Preached in Manhattan on March 1, 2009

What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. 10 As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands; no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” 14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 ruin and misery mark their ways, 17 and the way of peace they do not know.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” 19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. – Romans 3:9-20

The Bible, we say every week, is not so much a series of little disconnected stories, each with a moral. The Bible is actually a single story about what’s wrong with the world and the human race, what God has done to put that right in Jesus Christ, and finally how history then, as a result, is going to turn out in the end. That is the story of the Bible. What we’re looking at in Romans 1–4 is Saint Paul’s version of that entire biblical story, which is also called the gospel.

We are coming here, in this passage, to the very end of his analysis of what’s wrong with the human race, which, though it’s a tiny little word, is fraught with profound meaning. The Bible’s answer to the question “Why? What’s wrong with the human race?” is the word sin. Paul here is giving us a kind of summary statement of the biblical doctrine, you could say, of sin.

When I was a new believer and just trying to work my way around the Bible, I want you to know this particular passage gave me fits. It was a tough passage for me. Some of the statements seemed over the top. It bothered me, and I wrestled with it, but eventually it revolutionized my way of thinking about life and about myself and about the world.

I’ll share a little bit of what I learned back then with you now. This is perhaps the most radical, the strongest of all the statements the Bible gives us about what’s wrong with the human heart. We’re going to learn three things about sin here: the egalitarianism of sin, the trajectory of sin, and the cure for sin.

1. The egalitarianism of sin. We’re going to work pretty much through the passage. In the very beginning, in verses 9 and 10, Paul is making a statement. He’s making a point that I’m going to call the egalitarianism of sin. He says over and over again there’s no one righteous, there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks for God, but it’s in verse 9 that he says the most amazing thing. He says, “Jew and Gentile alike are under sin. Are we any better? Not at all!”

Now you have to remember Paul is looking back to Romans 1, where he’s talking about the pagan Gentiles rolling in the streets … sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. There’s a long list of sexual practices and evil corruption practices, civil and corporate and individual. Then Paul identifies himself as a God-fearing Jew who is trying to obey the Ten Commandments in chapter 2, and he says, “Are we any better than them? Not at all.”

Moral and immoral, religious and secular, he’s saying there is no difference. In fact, in the beginning he says, “… alike are under sin.” What does that mean? If you want to understand what that means, you can scroll to the bottom of the text, where it says in verse 19, “… the whole world [is] held accountable to God.”

The word accountable means liable. It’s a judicial word. It means liable for punishment. What he’s saying is, no matter who you are, no matter what your record, no matter whether you’ve lived a life of altruism and compassion and service or a life of cruelty and exploitation, we’re all alike. We’re all condemned. We’re all lost. We all deserve to be rejected by God. That’s what he’s saying.

How could that be? That’s actually getting to the next point. Let me remind you of what we even know from last week in looking at Romans 2. Paul is saying a criminal robbing and murdering people and a moral, religious, upright Pharisee who thinks because of his good deeds and his righteousness God owes him blessing and people owe him respect …

Paul is saying as different as those look on the surface, underneath those are both expressions of the same radical self-centeredness, radical self-absorption, that is sin. Now how that can be we’ll get to in a second, but here’s what I want you to see. When Paul says “all alike,” and, “Are they any better than us? Not at all!” this is radical egalitarianism. I want you to see the implications of this. Let me give you two implications.

The first implication is if you’re looking at Christianity, and I know some of you are, if you’re thinking about Christianity like, “Well, what is this about?” if you’re exploring it, if you want to know more about it, almost always you come unconsciously with a preliminary model already determined in your mind for how this is going to work.

Basically, most people come to Christianity saying, “We’re going to explore this,” and you start to say, “Okay, somehow there’s some things, this and that, I must do for God, and if I do this and that for God, then God will be obliged to do this and that for me. That’s how spirituality works. If I do this and that for God, God will do this and that for me.” That’s the model in your head. You kind of assume it. You think you’re exploring, though you’ve already assumed that model. What you’re actually exploring, you think, is what the this and the that are.

Most people think, “Well, spirituality works like this. There is some kind of life that is considered a good life, and I must adopt it. There is a kind of life that is a bad life, and I must reject it. Then if I adopt a good life and reject and abandon the bad life, then God will do this and that. I’m just trying to find out what is a good life, what do I have to stop doing, what do I have to start doing, what will God do.”

That’s what you think of exploring. But I want you to see the model is wrong. Hear me. Whatever Paul is talking about when he calls people to become Christians and receive salvation, whatever Jesus is calling us to do when he calls us to take salvation, they can’t be calling us to simply stop bad living and start good living, because he’s saying here the people who live good are no better than the people who live bad. They’re all spiritually lost. Spiritually speaking, they’re in the very same place.

So if you think what it means to become a Christian is, “There are certain things I have to stop doing and certain things I have to start doing, then God will bless me,” you’re wrong. What is it then? I’m just trying to get you to see that because you come in with a grid, it doesn’t actually understand or accept this, because there’s nobody who believes this except Christians. No other worldview, no other religion, no other philosophy says anything like this.

The fact is that whatever it is Jesus and Paul are calling you to in order to get salvation, it’s nothing like anything you can conceive of. You’re going to have to listen really carefully, because it’s not on your mental map. Whatever it is, it is a category-buster. I just want you to recognize that. It’s unique. It’s different. It’s not what you expect, and you’re going to have to listen carefully.

The gospel doesn’t really fit into other human categories. So first of all, please keep in mind that Paul and Jesus and I … When I call you to become a Christian, I’m not just saying, “Stop living like this and start living like this.” Of course I want you to change your life. A changed life is absolutely important, but it can’t be the main thing. It can’t be the chief thing. It can’t be the central thing. Why? Because people who live good lives and people who live bad lives are all alike, according to God.

Now the other implication is, let’s just say you have embraced Christianity. You say, “I am a Christian.” Do you realize the radical nature of the statement, “Are we any better? Not at all!”? There was nobody who ever lived, probably, who was more dedicated and upright and moral, and dedicated to his God, to his principles, to the Scriptures, than Paul.

It’s just amazing if you read all the way through Romans. Paul goes through the list of sexual practices and various sorts of corruption in chapter 1, and then he gets to chapter 3 and says, “Am I any better than them? Not at all!” For Paul to say, “I have come to the conclusion, through the gospel, that the criminal who is killing people and robbing people and raping people in the street is equal to me. I am no better than that person,” is unbelievable.

I want you to think about this. Paul was a Pharisee, and as a Pharisee he would have considered Gentiles as spiritual dogs and unclean. Yet here he is now, dedicating his life to living with them, to living with these racially other people. Is it possible, before the gospel came to Paul, that he could have looked at heretics and infidels and said, “We’re equal.” Could he have looked at pagans and at libertines and immoral people and said, “We’re equal”? Not on your life!

But now here’s what’s going on. A group of people, big swaths of the human race, that he would have looked down on, that he would have scorned, that he would have written off, that he would have showed no love and respect for … The gospel, the doctrine of sin, has radically re-humanized the human race for Paul.

Do you hear me? Radically re-humanized. There are all kinds of people he would have looked down on, caricatured them, thought, “Who has anything to do with them?” But now, “I’m no better than them.” These people are radically re-humanized in his mind. Now do you think this doctrine of total depravity …

That’s an old theological term for this doctrine, the idea that the world is not filled with good people and bad people, but all people are lost, all people need salvation, all people are sinful. Total depravity … Do you think the doctrine of total depravity will make you look down on people? Not at all. Look what happened to Paul.

If you believe in this doctrine of total depravity, and you think it out, and you take it to the center of your life, it re-humanizes the human race. All kinds of people that you would have never given the time of day to, you now love and respect. Why? Because I’m no better. Wherever you are socially, your social location, makes you prone to look down your nose at people of certain races, certain classes, certain nationalities.

Even your vocation does. You’re an artist. “Look at the traditional, middle-class bourgeois.” You’re a traditional, middle-class bourgeois. “Look at these freaky, stupid artists.” You’re conservative, or you’re liberal. You really feel about your politics … Do you really look at the other side and say, “I’m no better”? No, you don’t say that. You say, “We’re a lot better.”

It’s true. Any place you are in the world, whatever your racial or your cultural group, your national grouping, you have a history with another kind of person, another kind of grouping, that your social location makes you tend to despise. But if you believe in the doctrine of sin, you’re no better. Do you see the radical egalitarianism of the biblical doctrine of sin?

2. The trajectory of sin

We also learn here about the trajectory of sin. We have to now deal with the fact that a lot of people say, “This is just over the top.” I did as a young Christian. I looked at this and I see Paul saying no one seeks for God. It sure seems to me there’s an awful lot of people spiritually searching and seeking to please God. Then it says no one does good. “Wow, wait a minute. What do you mean, nobody does good?”

But if you look more carefully, you will see what Paul is giving us here is a definition of sin that goes deep. He’s showing us that sin is relational before it ever becomes, if it ever becomes, a behavioral thing like breaking the law. Why? Look at the word turn away. “All have turned away …” Even look at the word seek. “… there is … no one who seeks God.”

These are directional words. What it’s talking about is trajectory. It’s talking about direction. Your aim. Therefore, sin is not so much a matter of whether you’re doing bad things or good things. Sin is mainly a matter of what you’re doing your doing for. We’re being told sin makes you want to get away from God. Not go toward him; get away.

Sin makes you want to get out from under his gaze, get out from under his hands, get out from under his control. You want to be your own savior. You want to be your own lord. You want to keep God at arm’s length. You want to stay in control of your own life. That’s what sin makes you want to do. As we have often said, but we have to say it now again, there are two ways to be your own savior and lord.

There are two ways to keep God at arm’s length. One is to be a law to yourself. Live any way you want. The other is to be very, very, very good, and go to church and obey the Bible and do everything you possibly can and try to be like Jesus, so that God has to bless you, so God has to save you, in which case you’re trying to get control over God. In that case you’re not seeking God. You’re seeking things from God.

The text doesn’t say, “No one seeks blessing from God.” Of course they do. “No one seeks answers to prayer from God.” Of course they do. “No one seeks forgiveness from God.” Of course they do. “No one seeks spiritual …” Of course they do. But no. Paul’s saying no one seeks God. All your so-called serving, and all your so-called doing good, is really for yourself. It’s away from God. It’s away from others. It’s toward self-centeredness. That’s the trajectory.

Let me give you an example of how what looks like selflessness and sacrificial love and service is not. AA can tell you. People who are involved in AA know about this sort of thing. What I’m about to describe to you happens all the time. I’m going to describe to you a married couple in which one spouse is an alcoholic.

By the way, it could be the woman rather than the husband, but I’m just going to make it this way. I’m going to have the husband be the alcoholic and the wife not. Here’s how it often works. Often the husband is an alcoholic. So what does the wife have to do? Over the years, she has to bail him out. She has to make excuses for him. She has to clean up his mess. She has to constantly rescue him.

Then of course, she turns on him and says, “Do you know what I’m doing for you? I’m not leaving you. I’m staying with you. I’m trying to keep this marriage together. I’m trying to keep our family together. I’m trying to keep our family economically afloat, no thanks to you. I have to do this, and I have to do that, and I have to do all these things. Look what you’re doing to me! I suffer so much for you. I give so much to you, and yet you do this over and over and over again.”

So she seems to be the one who’s serving. She seems to be the one who is giving of herself. Yet AA will tell you how often this will happen. If the husband gets into rehabilitation and begins to get better, very often the marriage will fall apart. She won’t like it. She won’t be able to deal with it. Why not? If she really loved him, she’d want the best for the person she loved. If you love a person, you want the best for the person. The best thing for an addict is to go sober. If she really loves him, she should love to have him sober, but she doesn’t.

Do you know why? Here’s what usually happens. She needed him to be a mess so she could rescue him, so she could feel good about herself, so she could feel worthwhile, so she could feel in control, so she could demand things of him and other people, so she could feel very noble about herself. She wasn’t seeking him. She wasn’t loving him. She was loving herself. She wasn’t serving him. She was serving herself. She wasn’t seeking him. She was seeking things from him. She was seeking power. She was seeking control.

Underneath all that selflessness, and underneath all that service, she was serving herself, and she was being radically selfish. She was doing all the right things, but she was doing it for herself. Paul is saying that is the case with all of us actually. Unless the Holy Spirit comes in to change your heart, nobody serves God for God.

Nobody is really seeking God. They’re seeking things from God. Nobody even serves others, because you always serve people, you always serve God, as long as it benefits you, so you can feel good about yourself, so you can make demands, so you can feel noble. No one seeks for God. No one does good.

It doesn’t mean nobody formally does good things. Of course it is better to give to the poor, of course it is better to forgive somebody than it is to harm somebody or to spend all the money on yourself. Of course. I’m not saying there aren’t such things as virtuous deeds, but we’re looking at the heart. We’re looking at trajectory.

I want you to know (I’ll just finish the little personal story here), that early on in my Christian life, when I was struggling with Romans 3 and figuring, “This just seems over the top. I feel like I do good. I feel like I sought God before I became a Christian too.” I just thought Paul was just being over-the-top.

But I remember sometime in my early Christian walk, and it would have been in my early 20s, I had a very bad patch. Everything was going wrong in my life. I suppose looking back on it … I don’t even remember the circumstances. For all I know, looking back on it, it might have been pretty weak tea, but at the time it seemed like the end of the world.

I was sitting there and praying, and I actually began to say, “Why should I be praying? What am I getting out of this relationship with God? He doesn’t answer my prayers. There are all these unjust things happening around me. I’ve worked my fingers to the bone for this man. What am I getting out of it?”

I had a thought. I’ll never forget the thought. Because I’m a Presbyterian, I figured it was a hunch. If I was a member of some other denominations I would have said it was God speaking to me. Now in my mature theological position, as I think about it, it was probably God speaking to me through a hunch. The thought was this. “Now, only now that everything is going wrong in your life … now we’ll find out whether you got into this faith to get God to serve you or in order to serve God. Now we’ll know.”

I began to realize, maybe Paul was right that really every single part of my heart either did bad things, or now that I was doing good things I was doing good things for myself. No one seeks for God. No one is righteous. No one is really doing good for goodness’ sake, or for God’s sake, or even for other people’s sake, but for your own sake. That radical self-centeredness is what’s making the world a mess. I came to see that I was running from God even in my good deeds. Do you? I hope you do.

3. The cure for sin

Now lastly, how are we going to cure this? I mean, this is a problem. In fact, this middle part of the passage says, “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.”

Whenever I look out on a Manhattan crowd, many of you look quite marvelous, but this is what you look like to God. Night of the Living Dead. Look at it. It’s amazing. Spiritually speaking, this is the case. Underneath all of our doing good, underneath all the good deeds and working for charity and trying to do the right thing and trying to honor your parents, all the good deeds … there’s anger. There’s touchiness. There’s turning on people if they harm you.

There’s a great deal of discouragement and unhappiness because, “God is not doing what he ought to be doing in my life.” Inside, it’s all a mess. It’s like a kind of spiritual leprosy. You may look great on the outside, but inside you’re falling apart. It’s like spiritual leprosy. What will cure us? Paul here at the end tells us two things that are the keys to the cure. The first thing is, at the very end, “… every mouth may be silenced …”

When Paul says that, you must remember this is the end of his exposition of why we need salvation. Starting in verse 21, he begins to open us up to salvation. He says, “But now a salvation or righteousness …” But he’s bringing us to this point. This is his way of saying you’ll never be able to receive Christ’s salvation unless you shut up spiritually, unless your mouth is silenced.

What does it mean to be shut up, to shut up spiritually? To have your mouth silenced means no excuses, and no Plan B. See, if you say, “Oh, I know I did wrong, God, but I can do better next time. I know I’ve done these things wrong, but I can turn it around. I see my motives are bad, but I can change my motives …” Shut up.

As long as you’re still saying, “I know I can do … I know I can do …” Paul says you haven’t shut up and you’re not ready for salvation. You can’t receive the cure for this sin unless you realize you can’t fix yourself, you realize that even trying to fix yourself makes yourself worse, because every effort to somehow put it together and be a better person and really try harder is really just another effort in self-justification, self-salvation, self-sufficiency. You’re just making yourself worse.

This condition of spiritually shutting up and just being quiet so you can receive the cure doesn’t mean, by the way, beating yourself up. “Oh, I’ve done so wrong.” Shut up. You’re still centered on yourself. You have to get to the end of yourself. The only way to begin to get pulled out of the radical self-centeredness of sin is to get to the end of yourself.

That means not just saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry for my sin. I’ll try to do better.” You have to not only be sorry for your sin but even sorry for the reason you did anything right in your whole life, which means you have nothing to do but receive. There is nothing you can do now. You just have to wait and listen.

John Gerstner puts it like this. Because of the gospel, “… the way to God is wide open. […] No sin can hold him back, because God has offered justification to the ungodly. Nothing now stands between the sinner and God but the sinner’s ‘good works.’ ” Now listen carefully. “All they need is need. All they must have is nothing.” But most people don’t have it. They have, “Well, look at the good things I’ve done.” Shut up. “But look at how bad these are. I can …” Shut up.

See, what he’s saying here is all you need is need. All you need is nothing. But most people don’t have it. He’s saying the way you open yourself to salvation, in fact the only way you can receive God’s salvation is not just simply to repent of your sins. Pharisees repent of their sins. When they do something wrong, they say, “Oh, I did wrong, and now I’m going to do better.”

They repent of their sins, and they’re still Pharisees. If you want to become a Christian, you don’t just repent of your sins, but you also begin to repent of the reason you did anything right. Now you’re in a position to say, “I need something completely different than just help to live the right way.” So first of all, shut up. Spiritual silence.

The second thing you need for the cure is the fear of the Lord. Actually, the cure is there. I never realized it until I started studying this passage and getting ready to teach it to you. Look at this. “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. […] Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery …” Why? “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Do you see? If they had fear, they wouldn’t have all those things. The fear of God is the antidote. It’s the cure. The fear of God is the opposite. The reason they do all those things is there’s no fear, so if you put in the fear, you have the cure. What is that? See, here it is. What is the fear of the Lord? All through the Bible, fear of the Lord is a major concept. It sure is.

Do you know how often it says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom? It says it in Job. It says it in Psalms. It says it in Proverbs. What does that mean? Wisdom means until you fear God, you can’t even begin to think straight about reality. “Well then, what is this fear of the Lord if it’s so important, if it’s the cure for my sin?”

The trouble is, for us, the fear of the Lord sounds like being scared of the Lord. It doesn’t. Do you know why? First of all, if you actually start to look at the way the texts use the words fear of the Lord in the Bible, you hear things like this. Deuteronomy 10 says, “What does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, love him, and serve him with all your heart and soul?” To fear God is to love him with all your heart and soul.

Well then, why do they call it fear? Let me go on further. Psalm 119 says, “Because you fulfill your promise to me, I fear you.” What? “Because you’ve been so good to me, I’m filled with fear.” Then Psalm 130:4, which is maybe the classic text. “But because you have forgiven me, therefore, I fear you.” Whatever the fear of the Lord is, it is increased when you see and experience God’s salvation, his grace, his goodness, his love. It increases.

“Well,” you say, “why would you call it fear? It sounds like you should call it joy. Why fear?” The fear of God is joyful, humbling awe and wonder before the salvation of God. It’s called fear because it’s not just happiness. When you really see the salvation of God and what it is, on the one hand it affirms you to the sky, but at the same time it humbles you into the dust. That’s why it’s called fear. Let’s call it the joyful fear, awe and wonder before the greatness of God’s salvation.

It turns you out of yourself. It turns you away from the being curved in, the self-centeredness, because on the one hand you’re too humbled to just be self-centered, and you’re too affirmed to need to be. Therefore this joyful fear is the cure, and it happens when you see his salvation. You say, “Well, what does that mean? See his salvation? What does that mean?” I’ll tell you what it means. Just think like this, and let’s conclude like this. Because you don’t seek for God, because I don’t seek for God, because nobody seeks for God, God’s salvation has to be God seeking for us.

There are a lot of religions that say human beings can seek for God. If you just try hard, you can find him. So God sits there and says, “Here are the rules, and here are all the things you need to do. If you pick them up and you do them, I’m sure you can find me.” In other words, in most religions, salvation is you finding God. But in the Christian religion, in Christian faith, it’s the opposite. Salvation is God seeking and finding you. If you know what he did to do that, it will fill you with this joyful, humbling, sin-curing fear.

Let me just give you one story to tell you about it. In the Old Testament, God goes to one prophet named Hosea, and he says, “Hosea, you see this woman over here named Gomer? Marry her.” So Hosea says, “Sure. I’m a prophet. You’re God. You spoke to me. I’ll marry her.” It’s not long after he’s married to her he begins to realize she has wayward feet, she is not being faithful to him, she is being sexually unfaithful to him. As she begins to have children, he realizes they’re not his children. In fact, he names one of them “Not Mine.”

Finally her unfaithfulness gets worse and worse and worse, and eventually she leaves him. She just leaves him and leaves the kids and goes off to one man, then goes off to another man, then goes off to another man. She gets what she deserves, because she’s so faithless. She’s breaking every promise, and she’s lying. Finally the last man sells her into slavery.

Hosea turns to God and says, “Remind me why you asked me to marry her.” God basically says, “So you will know something about my relationship to you. Now you’ll know what it’s like for me. Now you know what it’s like to be me.” “Here’s what I want you to do, Hosea,” he says. “I want you to go where she is being bid on, and I want you to purchase her freedom. I want you to take her back. Then you’ll know what it’s like to be me.”

So there’s poor Gomer. From what we can tell, she’s being bid on as a slave. She’s probably stripped naked, because they were, so the buyers could see what they were buying. She’s standing there, and suddenly to her shock she hears her husband’s voice bidding. He purchases her freedom.

He walks up to her, and instead of berating her, he takes his cloak off and covers her nakedness and says, “Now you will come home and be my wife.” Wow, how moving that is! It’s nothing compared to what God has done for you. Do you know what God is saying to you through Hosea? Poor Hosea. He had to do it so I could use this sermon illustration. It ruined his whole life.

But guess what? It was worth it, because God is trying to say, “Hosea just had to go to the next city, but I had to come from heaven to earth to find you. You weren’t seeking me. I had to seek you. I had to find you. I didn’t just have to reach and dig down in my pockets to get the money out to purchase your freedom. I had to go to the cross. There I had to suffer and die. I had to pay the penalty for your sins. Look at this sin. Somebody has to pay for it. I was stripped naked on the cross so I could clothe you with a robe of righteousness and say, ‘You come home with me.’ ”

When you see, not that “Oh, we all have the ability, if we really try hard enough, to go find God,” but that the salvation of the gospel is God seeking us, finding us, coming to us at infinite cost to himself, that will fill you with a holy fear, a joyful fear. You will find the cure has begun. Let’s pray.

Our Father, we thank you that now as we take up the bread and the cup and take the Lord’s Supper, we’re in a position where you can drive even closer into the center of our being the cure for sin. We see you sought us because we didn’t seek you. You had to do it, because if you had sat and waited for us to come find you, we never would have. We thank you, therefore, that it’s such a moving story, what you have done for us.

But most importantly is the objective work of Jesus Christ on the cross that opened a way for us, so now the only thing standing between us and you is this belief that we still have control of our lives, that we can earn our salvation. Help us now to set aside our sin and even set aside our righteousness and receive your free salvation. Cure our sin. Cure our hearts. Begin the cure now. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

 

Tim Keller: The Failure of Religion

Series Part 8 – Bible: The Whole Story—Redemption and Restoration

Tim Keller preaching image

Preached on February 22, 2009 in Manhattan, New York at Redeemer Presbyterian Church

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?

Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance? But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will give to each person according to what he has done.”

Let’s continue in verse 12.

12 All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.

14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15 since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) 16 This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.

17 Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal?

22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

25 Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26 If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? – Romans 2:1-2, 12-26

We’re trying to trace out the storyline of the entire Bible. We started in Genesis, where we learn what’s wrong with the human race, and then we’ve gone now to Romans 1–4, where we’re learning what Paul says God has done about it through Jesus Christ. We’ve been going through Romans, and here at the beginning of chapter 2, Paul does a turnaround.

It’s so surprising and shocking that if I begin to … I don’t even have to introduce too much introduction here. I will start to explain it, and it’ll draw us right in. Please see, however, this chapter talks about three things: the failure of religion because of the terrible beauty of the law and, therefore, the need for a regenerated, new heart.

1. The failure of religion

Paul starts this chapter by saying, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you … do the same things.” This only makes sense if you go back and see what was in chapter 1. Right? Because “the same things” refers to chapter 1.

If you remember, Paul has been talking about Gentiles, pagans, idol worshipers worshiping, bowing down to figures of wood and stone and metal, sexual orgies … That has all been in Romans 1. All of a sudden, Paul turns and says, “Hey, you out there listening, sitting in judgment, you do the same thing.”

Paul knew this letter was going to be read. This letter would’ve been read out loud to the Roman congregation, and who was in the Roman congregation? Gentile Christian converts and Jewish Christian converts. Who would’ve been out there sitting, thinking, “Oh yeah, those pagans, those orgies, that bowing down to worship idols … That’s just awful”? Who would’ve been sitting there condemning? Who would’ve been sitting there passing judgment on all of that? It would’ve been the Jewish Christians, but now keep this in mind.

In this case Paul is actually speaking to people who essentially represent anyone who’s religious, anyone who has tried very hard not to be pagan, not to have orgies, not to bow down to little figures of wood and stone. He says, “Hey, you people out there, you people who all of your lives have been trying to obey the Bible, all of your lives have been relying on obedience to the law and feeling pretty good about it, saying, ‘I obey the biblical law,’ you out there, when you condemn those pagans, you condemn yourself, because you do the same things.”

It’s very surprising, and how could that be? He was talking about orgies and bowing down to idols. How could he turn to the good, Bible-believing people who have been trying to obey the Bible all their lives and say, “You out there, smug people sitting around there saying, ‘Yes, that’s awful. That stuff is awful,’ you condemn yourselves because you do the same things”? How could that be?

If you go down a little deeper into the text, he actually talks about it. In verses 21 and 22, he says, “… you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?”

At that point the reason he’s saying, “You condemn yourselves,” is he’s talking to moral people, and he says, “Though you say publically you don’t commit adultery, a lot of you do commit adultery.” Any moral community, any church, any synagogue is going to have hypocrites in it, people who say, “This is what I believe,” but in private they’re doing the opposite.

That’s partly why he’s able to say, “Hey, you religious people, you Bible-believing, Bible-obeying people, looking at all these awful pagans out there, rolling in the streets together in their drunkenness and their orgies, you’re feeling superior to them. You’re doing the same thing.” Some of it is hypocrisy, but that’s not all he’s saying here, because then he says, “You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?”

He’s talking to Jewish Christian believers as you can see from the title of the paragraph. This is completely inexplicable at first sight, because there is absolutely no record of Jews running a kind of operation where at night they would go out to temples and rob them and sell the idols on the black market. Is that what he’s talking about? There’s absolutely no evidence Jews did anything like that. What in the world is he talking about?

The answer is he must be talking metaphorically. By the way, he hints at that in verse 5, because when he says to them, “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart …” this is something you could never tell by looking at it in English, but he’s using two Greek words that in the Greek translation of the Old Testament were always associated with idolaters.

What he’s actually saying is, “You’re religious, you’re obeying the Ten Commandments, and externally it looks like you’re complying with all the rules and regulations, but though you may not have idols of the hand, you have idols of the heart. You may not have idols you can pick up and move around, but you have idols in your heart.

You abhor idols, and yet essentially you’re no better than the idolaters, because though you’re obedient, the thing you really live for, the things that really give you meaning in life, the things you really are worshiping are career or achievement or power. Therefore, you stand condemned.”

How can he really say this, that the good, Bible-believing people are every bit as condemned, every bit as lost as the Gentiles and the pagans? How can he say that? We’ll get to that under point two, but first I’d like to stop. I want you to think about the amazing point one, because this is what he’s saying. He’s saying something that will show you, if we think about it, the unity of the Bible and the uniqueness of the gospel.

By the unity of the Bible, I mean this. If you were here in the fall, do you remember we talked about Jesus’ great parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15? We spent six weeks going through that parable, and in the parable Jesus gives us a father with two sons: a younger brother, who loves sex with prostitutes and takes away all the father’s money and squanders it … He’s materialistic. He’s licentious. He’s disobedient to the father.

Then he has a second son, and the older brother is very obedient and very compliant to the father and obeys everything the father says, and yet the point of the parable is they’re both lost. They’re both alienated from the father, and they both need salvation. That’s Jesus, but now here you have Paul. Paul is giving his greatest exposition of the gospel, and he’s saying exactly the same thing. In Romans 1 he’s talking about younger brothers. He’s talking about how they’re condemned.

He’s talking about how they’re lost, bowing down to idols of the hand, rolling around in drunkenness and sex. Okay, sin, the kind of sin everybody thinks of as sin, but now he turns to Romans 2. He says, “You elder brothers, you people who are trying so hard to be good and you think God owes you a good life because you’re so good, you are every bit as lost. You’re every bit as in need of salvation.” Isn’t that amazing? Paul is saying exactly the same thing Jesus was saying. Do you see the unity of the Bible?

Also, let me show you how unique the gospel is. For Paul to be saying, “You good people are condemned. You bad people are condemned. You’re all lost. You moral people, you immoral people, you’re all lost …” In the 1970s was this enormous best seller, as some of you may have heard. It has actually kind of passed into the language a little bit. It’s a book by Thomas Harris called I’m OK—You’re OK. It was a little self-help book. It was on the top of the New York Times best-seller list for two years.

In the 1990s a woman named Wendy Kaminer wrote a devastating critique of the self-help movement, and the name of her book was I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional. It’s a tremendous critique. Basically, she shows how narcissistic the whole idea was.

She says, “How in the world can you say this is mental health to say, ‘I’m okay. You’re okay. We’re all okay,’ yet out there in the world there is all the blood of the innocent crying out from the ground for justice? There’s genocide. There’s terrorism. There’s all this awful stuff. How in the world can you say it’s the sign of mental health to go out into the world and say, ‘Everybody is okay. You’re okay. I’m okay. We’re all okay’? That’s silly. That’s narcissism.”

She just hilariously deconstructed it. About 10 years later, after she really showed how silly it is to say, “I’m okay. You’re okay. We’re all okay,” she came back with another book that showed she was a bit in a bind, because her whole point was, “Hey, with all the injustice, with all the innocent blood crying out from the ground for justice, how can you say everybody is okay?”

She came back with another book in which she was very critical of what she called the “hard right,” because she saw a lot of people saying, “Yeah, there is evil out there, and we have to bring back the death penalty. We have to go to war.” She suddenly saw all these people saying, “I’m okay, and the rest of you are no way okay.” In fact, that was the subtitle of her book. The New York Times gave the book a subtitle: I’m okay, and you’re nowhere near okay.

She says the trouble with that … She says, “ ‘I’m okay. You’re okay. We’re all okay,’ was narcissistic. That’s narcissism, but to say, ‘I’m okay, and I have the truth. You all are evil, and I’m going to punish you,’ that’s how you get death camps. That’s how you get, ‘I’m the superior race. You’re the inferior race. I’m the superior person. You’re the inferior person.’ ”

She says that’s moralism, and that’s as bad as narcissism. Narcissism is, “We’re all okay. You’re okay. I’m okay,” and moralism is, “I’m okay, and you’re not okay.” Wait a minute. So she was just saying, “I’m okay. Everybody is okay,” is narcissism, but then moralism is bad. What’s left? There’s masochism: “I’m not okay, and everybody else is.” Of course, that’s not right. What’s left?

In the 1970s a minister and a great Bible teacher, who is now passed away, named John Gerstner, was speaking, and he referenced the book I’m OK—You’re OK. He says, “How does that compare to the message of the Bible?” Then he told a story. It was about the fact that he and his wife were on a trip to Asia. They were actually in Cashmere, and at one point they went on an excursion in a little boat. It was he and his wife and a boat man who didn’t know much English and his grandson.

On their way back from the excursion, as they were starting to near shore, they actually bumped another boat. When they bumped the boat, there was a fair amount of water that kind of splashed in and got everybody wet up to the knees. The boat man started getting very, very agitated, and John Gerstner said, “Okay, it’s a little bit of water,” so he said, “It’s all right. We’re okay. Don’t get upset. We’re okay.”

A couple of minutes later, the man was still getting even more agitated, and John was thinking he was very superior. He said this poor man either had an ego problem, or he … He said, “Don’t worry. We’re okay.” Then finally as they got almost to the dock, he got really agitated, and John Gerstner said, “We’re okay.”

The man looked up at him and said, “You not okay. I not okay,” pushed them out of the boat onto the dock, threw his grandson, jumped out onto the dock, and at that minute the boat was sucked down into the water and came up about six boats to the right on the other side. It turned out there had been a hole in the hull. The boat man had seen it. John Gerstner had not seen it, and if he had stayed in there one more second, they would’ve gone down with it.

Gerstner said, “I realize that’s the message of the Bible. I’m not okay. You’re not okay.” Do you realize what this means? It’s not the moralism of saying, “I’m okay, and you’re no way okay,” not the narcissism that says, “I’m okay. You’re okay. Everybody is okay,” not when there’s injustice out there in the world, and not the dysfunctionality, the masochism of saying, “I’m not okay, and everybody else is.”

No, what the Bible says is we’re all sinners. We’re all lost. Nobody has the right to look down at anybody else. We’re all in trouble. We’re all alienated from God. No one has the right to be trampling upon or exploiting anybody else. We all need God. I’m not okay. You’re not okay. If you don’t know that, you’re going to go to the bottom. That’s what’s so unique about the gospel. There really isn’t any other position like that, and it’s the right one. Why is it religious people stand condemned? The reason is, according to Paul, because of …

2. The terrible beauty of the law

What we see here, when Paul talks about the fact that judgment is going to be according to the law, is he shows us why nobody can stand in the judgment, no matter how religious and good you are. He shows us both the inwardness and the intuitiveness of the law. Let me give it to you here briefly.

A. The inwardness. Do you remember how I mentioned in verse 1 Paul actually says to the religious people, “You condemn all those Gentiles and those pagans out there for all those … But you do the same.” It says, “… you who pass judgment do the same things.” What are the things? They’re the things that are not on the page. They’re listed in the last verses of chapter 1.

He made a list of sins, and then he says, “You religious people do the same things.” What was that list? Here are some of the things on the list: evil, greed and depravity, envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice, gossips, slanderers, insolent, arrogant and boastful, senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

If you look carefully, you’ll see almost all of these are not behavior but inner attitudes of the heart. Greed, envy, malice, insolent … By the way, that’s the Greek word hybris. Have you ever heard of that word? Arrogant, heartless, meaning not able to put yourself in other people’s shoes. Ruthless, obviously meaning exploitative.

Here’s what Paul is doing, and this is very important. Paul does what Jesus does. When we read the law, “Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal …” because we’re trying to justify ourselves, we actually read just the surface. We read only about the external behaviors. We see only the external behaviors, and when you go away from the law of God in the Bible, you can feel like, “I’m not so bad.”

What Paul does, and what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount, is what we all should do. The law of God is getting at a kind of person, a kind of heart. When you read the law, you need to actually be reading through it, because the law of God is actually an outline of the kind of beautiful character, kind of incredibly beautiful heart we should have, and the law of God is getting at it.

It is absolutely wrong of us to read the law in the most self-justifying way. “Oh, I don’t kill. That’s one law I’m not breaking.” When you get to the Sermon on the Mount, you’ll see Jesus does exactly what Paul does here. What does he do? For example … listen … Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount actually expounds the Ten Commandments but shows the kind of heart and the kind of spirit the commandments are getting after.

Let me just give you one case. Jesus says, “You’ve heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but I say unto you anyone who looks at another person and says, ‘Raca,’ has broken this commandment.” What does raca mean? Does it mean, “You fool. You imbecile”? Is it an insult? No, it’s actually a word that means nobody. It means, “You nothing. You nobody.”

What Jesus is saying is if you look at any other human being and feel like this person isn’t important … in fact, you can barely pay attention to them because they’re nobody … if you look down your nose at anyone and disdain them or are indifferent to them or don’t treat them with importance, he says that’s like breaking the commandment. How could that be like murder, for crying out loud?

Do you know what Jesus is saying? He’s saying murder is a tree. Trees grow from acorns (at least oak trees do). What is the acorn? What is the seed of the tree? What does murder start with? Superiority, hubris, arrogance, a disdain, a contempt, a treating a person not as a person but as a thing, looking down, using people.

He says the only difference between a murderer and you is unless you welcome every human being that comes into your life, every human being who is presented to you, unless you treat that person as infinitely valuable, unless you treat every person as a person of infinite value and worth, if you just disdain certain people, ignore certain people, just don’t even care about certain people, he says that’s a seed.

The only difference between you and a murderer is the murderous seed has been watered and fertilized. Therefore, the commandment of God is getting after someone who cherishes people, cherishes every person. Even the persons the world considers unimportant, of no consequence, you treat as if they’re kings and queens. That’s the kind of heart Jesus says the law of God is trying to get after.

Then he goes through all the … If you read the Sermon on the Mount, what does he say? You should be so honest that you don’t ever have to swear an oath. He says every yes and every no, every interaction should be as honest as if you had sworn on a stack of Bibles in a courtroom. Then he says you should be so loving that if someone wrongs you, you don’t just refrain from revenge.

You forgive them in your heart, and even when you go and confront them and even when you go and seek justice, you do it with no ill will at all, filled with love in your heart for your enemy. He says you should be so generous to the poor that you give and give and you don’t even care if you get any thanks. That’s all in the Sermon on the Mount. He says you should be so trusting of God you don’t worry no matter what the circumstance is.

Some years ago a woman who was teaching literature at a university decided to have all of her students read the Sermon on the Mount. None of them had, and half of them hadn’t even heard of it. It was all fresh for them. They read it, and they all absolutely hated it. This is a typical comment she got in the response papers. “I did not like the Sermon on the Mount. It made me feel I had to be perfect.”

They all hated it. They said, “This is absolutely ridiculous. Nobody can be like that.” Then she said, “That’s okay.” She listened to them, and then she asked them a question. “Aren’t these, though, the kind of people you want around you? Don’t you want people who are so loving they don’t resent and they’re never indifferent, so generous they’re always grateful? Aren’t these the kind of people you want around you? Aren’t these the kinds of things you want in other people and you demand of other people?” They all got very quiet.

In other words, “I’m very angry if you hold me to this standard. On the other hand, actually I hold everybody else to this standard.” Therefore, you’re condemned from your own mouth. That’s exactly what Paul is saying, because the law of God, if you learn how to read it, is after a kind of person, a kind of heart, a life of absolute beauty, not just the external behavior, but the heart, the motivation, the attitude. When we see that and we see how we really demand it of other people but we refuse to demand it of ourselves, we’re condemned.

B. The intuitiveness. It’s not just the inwardness Paul talks about here. Do you know what is so amazing about this middle section where he says, “You are condemned from your own mouth” and then down in verse 12, he says, “All who sin apart from the law will perish apart from the law. Indeed the Gentiles, who do not have the law, show they do understand something of the law, and they will be held accountable for that”? What is that?

Some years ago a man named Francis Schaeffer summed this up beautifully and said something like, “Do you know what Romans 2 is about? Romans 2 is about the invisible tape recorder. Romans 2 is saying even though you don’t know it, there is an invisible tape recorder God has put around everybody’s neck. No, you can’t feel it or see it, so don’t try. It’s there. Romans 2 says it’s there.

On judgment day all of a sudden you’re going to appear before God, and a lot of people are going to say, ‘I didn’t even know you existed. Wait a minute. You can’t hold me responsible for the law of God.’ Other people are going to say, ‘Oh, I’ve heard of the Bible, but I’ve never read the Bible. You can’t hold me responsible for this law. I didn’t realize the God of the Bible is the real God. Okay, here you are, but you can’t hold me responsible. You can’t judge me for something I didn’t believe in.’

Then what is God going to do? He’s going to reach around the back. He’s going to unclasp, and he’s going to get off your invisible tape record. It’ll become visible, and you’ll say, ‘I didn’t see that there.’ He’ll say, ‘No, you couldn’t have felt it. It was invisible.’ Then he’ll say, ‘I want you to know I am the fairest Judge you could possibly imagine. I am not going to judge you according to the Bible because you didn’t know the Bible. I’m not going to judge you according to Christ because you never heard of Christ.

I’m going to judge you by your own words, because this tape recorder only recorded throughout your life whenever you said to someone else, ‘You ought’ or ‘You should.’ This tape recorder has only recorded your standards for the people around you. Therefore, I’m not going to judge you by anything other than the standards by which you judged people your entire life.”

Nobody in the history of the world will be able to stand in the judgment day, because you’re not going to even be able to stand before your own words, before your own standards. Therefore, we are all absolutely lost. Where is the hope? Is there any hope? Of course, the answer is yes. The failure of religion because of the terrible beauty of the law means now at the very end there’s a need for a new heart.

3. The need for a regenerated, new heart

Suddenly at the end, Paul begins to talk about circumcision. This is almost the end of the chapter. He says, “Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, it has no value. If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirement, they will be regarded as though they were circumcised, will they not?”

Then he goes on. Let me read you the end. “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit … Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.”

Here’s what Paul is saying. He is saying, “Do you know? You religious people …” Of course, in this case, the Bible-believing, religious people were Jewish Christians. He says, “Do you know? All of your life you’ve been trying to obey the law of God, and circumcision was a sign of being a Jew who was trying to obey the law of God. What you really need is circumcision of the heart. What you really need is a new heart, not obedience outwardly. You need to have a regenerated heart, or you will never, ever do what the law requires.”

Why does he bring up circumcision? What’s the big deal? Here’s the big deal. When God entered into a relationship with Abraham, that was the first time God showed up and said to a man and his family, “I want to have a personal, intimate, covenant relationship with you.” As a sign of that relationship, he says to Abraham, “I want you to be circumcised.”

The circumcision was a sign of the relationship the way baptism is a sign of being in the church. Why circumcision, though? I think most people understand baptism, kind of like death and rebirth and the Spirit and all, but what was the symbolism of circumcision? I don’t want you to think about it too long, but that’s the point.

Why did God choose circumcision as a sign of this intimate, covenant relationship he had with Abraham? He said, “I want you to walk blamelessly before me, and if you walk blamelessly before me, if you follow my covenant, I will bless you. But if you disobey the covenant, if you enter into a covenant with me and then you go your own way and you disobey me, then you’ll be cut off from your people. You’ll be cut off from the Lord. You’ll be cut off from me.” That’s the natural punishment. Do you know what circumcision was?

In those days you didn’t sign a contract to bind a contract; you acted out the curse. In other words, when a person would enter into a covenant with someone else, he might pick up some sand and he might drop it on his head and say, “If I don’t do everything I’m saying I will do today, if I disobey the covenant I just made you today, may I be as this dust,” or a person would cut an animal in half and walk between the pieces and say, “If I don’t do absolutely everything I have said today in this contract, may I be cut into pieces myself.”

What God was saying to Abraham was, “If you want to enter into a relationship with me, you need to be circumcised. That means you are admitting, if you disobey the covenant, you’ll be cut off.” Here’s my question. Did Abraham really obey the covenant? Did Isaac really obey the covenant? Did Jacob? Has anybody ever obeyed the covenant? Has anyone ever walked before God blamelessly? That’s the covenant.

No, of course not. Why in the world does God have any people at all? Why is there anybody called the people of God? Why is there anybody who God says, “You are my people, and I am your God”? How could anybody be in a covenant relationship with God? The answer is in Colossians 2, there is a little verse that almost always when you go by it … If you’re reading through Colossians, it’s one of those verses you read and you say, “What was that about?” and then you just go on. “I’ll ask Tim about it someday, but right now I don’t get it.”

In Colossians 2:11 and 12, Paul is talking about the cross. He’s talking about Jesus dying on the cross, and then he says, “In him you were also circumcised …” He’s talking to Gentiles, by the way, who weren’t literally circumcised. He says, “In him you were also circumcised … not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ …”

Here’s what he’s saying. On the cross Jesus was cut off. That’s why he calls it a circumcision. On the cross Jesus Christ said, “My God, my God, I can’t see you. I can’t feel you. Where are you?” Isaiah 53 says he was cut off from the land of the living. Why? He was getting what circumcision represented. He was being cut off. He was going under the knife. It was bloody. It was violent. He was getting the curse we deserve, because we can’t stand in the judgment. We can’t stand before the law.

That’s not all. It doesn’t just say he was circumcised on the cross. It says, “In him you were circumcised, not a circumcision made with hands,” he says, because the Gentiles weren’t. “You have a new heart. You have new life.” Why? “Because you’re circumcised with Christ.” What does that mean? It means now you stand in him in this way.

When you read the law properly, when you read the Sermon on the Mount, and you see what the law is getting after, the love, the peace, the generosity, the integrity it wants, instead of saying, “Oh my goodness! I hate this. I’ll never be like this,” instead realize what that is describing. It’s describing a person. Whenever you read the law of God and you see this incredible, perfect standard, do you know who it’s describing? It’s describing Jesus.

Don’t be crushed by the standard. See the beauty of Jesus. According to the Bible, when you believe in Jesus Christ and you give your life to him, then all of your sins and what they deserved are transferred to him. He’s cut off for you, and all of the beauty of his law-keeping, all the beauty of his life is transferred to you, and in Christ we’re told, “… there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus …” Once you understand that, it pricks the heart.

The idea of a circumcised heart is pretty weird. It’s quite a metaphor. It’s intimate and it’s tender and it’s scary. What it means is your heart of stone begins to be a heart of flesh, and you have a new attitude toward the law, because when you see God sent his Son to die so the requirements of the law were fulfilled, you never look at the law of God and say, “Oh, I’m saved, so it doesn’t really matter.”

The law is so important Jesus died to fulfill the requirements of the law. You don’t look at the law as a Christian and say, “It doesn’t matter how I live because, after all, I’m not condemned.” Jesus died because the law was so important, so you try like crazy to live according to the standards of the law. Yet when you fail, you don’t get crushed with guilt. You’re not crushed like, “Oh, what an awful person I am,” because you know what he did for you.

There’s this paradoxical attitude toward the law. We’re absolutely, fastidiously, diligently seeking to obey it and never crushed into the ground by it, nor hopeless when we disobey it. We get back up on the horse. It’s fascinating. In other words, we’re not saying, “I’m okay. You’re okay. Everybody is okay. After all, we can live any way we want,” or “I’m not okay. Everybody else is okay,” or “I’m okay, and you’re not close to being okay.” It’s none of those things.

“I’m not okay. You’re not okay. I’m no better than you. Yet in Jesus Christ I’m a beauty when God sees me. I’m beautiful.” As a result, I don’t judge anybody because God is the Judge. When somebody wrongs me, I leave that to God, and I forgive them. I don’t even judge myself. “Oh, how bad I am!” No, I’ve been judged in Jesus.

Don’t you see that at the center of your life ought to be Jesus Christ, the Judge of the earth but the Judge who was judged? If you bring into the center of your life the Judge of all the earth who was judged in your place, you have both a healthy respect for moral absolutes, and you know there’s right and there’s wrong. You know there’s injustice. You know it’s important to seek justice. You know it’s important to be a good person and a morally upright person.

On the other hand, you are not judgmental toward people. You forgive people. You’re not down on yourself, judging yourself when things go wrong. Oh, the uniqueness of the gospel! The uniqueness of a Christian! Bring the Judge who was judged in your place into the middle of your life. Let’s pray.

Thank you, Father, for giving us the bad news about judgment day, the bad news that no one can stand in the judgment, and the good news that your Son Jesus Christ was circumcised for us on the cross. He was cut off for us so now in him we have new hearts, and we thank you for all that.

Oh my word, Father, we thank you for it, and we ask would you please help us to live in accordance with it, to appropriate it, to have the joy and the poise and the power that would come with what we believe and what we know? We ask that you would grant it for Jesus’ sake. In his name we pray, amen.

Tim Keller Sermon: The Power of The Gospel

SERIES – Bible: The Whole Story—Redemption and Restoration – Part 6

Tim Keller preaching image

Prached on February 8, 2009 in Manhattan, N.Y.

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God—the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.

Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

14 I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15 That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome. 16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” – Romans 1:1-7, 14-17

Every week we start by saying we are tracing out the storyline of the Bible, because the Bible is not so much a series of disconnected, individual stories, each with a little lesson or moral telling us how to live. It’s primarily a single story telling us what’s wrong with the human race, what God has done to make things right, and how it’s all going to work out in the end.

We’re drilling down into three places in the Bible. We’ve drilled down into Genesis 1 to 4, where we learned something about what the Bible says about what’s wrong with us. Now we’re going to drill down into Romans 1 through 4, perhaps the single most comprehensive and packed place where, through a letter of Saint Paul, we learn what God did about it.

All scholars and students of Romans believe verses 16 and 17 are Paul’s way of putting the gospel in a nutshell, his message in a kind of thesis statement. Therefore, it’s an extremely important statement. I want to meditate on it with you to help you break through. That’s kind of an odd statement (break through). Let me tell you why I use the phrase.

Martin Luther, founder of Protestantism, actually, later in his life told a story. In the preface to one of his collections of writings, he wrote a little reminisce of a great experience he had (it’s also called the “Tower Experience”) as a young man. Many people would call it his conversion experience. It all had to do with Romans and Romans 1:16 and 17.

He wrote, “I greatly longed to understand Paul’s epistle to the Romans, and nothing stood in the way but that one expression ‘the justice of God,’ because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him.

Therefore, I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. […] Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that, ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that … through gift and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.” “When I saw that Law meant one thing and Gospel another, I broke through.”

That’s interesting. He had this breakthrough. What he means is he was completely transformed … his thinking, his heart, his life, everything … by these verses because he pondered and pondered until he broke through. I would like to help everybody here break through. That is to say if you haven’t, if these two verses have never done to you what they did to Luther, I’m going to try to show you three factors you have to grasp if you’re going to break through.

If it has, if the ideas here of these verses have transformed you, I’d like to give you by telling you the same three things (of course, since you’re all in the same room together) how you could help other people who are open have a breakthrough. There are three factors that have to do with breakthrough.

You have to grasp, according to, I think, this text, the form of the gospel, the content of the gospel, and the power of the gospel. The form, the content, and the power. I’ll give you tests along the way. I’m being very focused. How do we break through? You have to understand …

1. The form of the gospel

You can see, especially if you read all the way through Romans 1:1–17, the word gospel shows up more here than any other place in the book. In fact, I think it may be the word gospel shows up more in these verses per phrase than any other place in the Bible. We have to ask ourselves, “What is so important? Why this word?”

The word gospel, as most of you know, is a Greek word we transliterate euaggelion. That is, eu, the good, and aggelos, an angel. We look at the word angel in English, of course. Right away we think of wings and things like that, which is wrong, because the word aggelos means a herald. What actually is at the very heart of the word gospel is the news media. Did you know that? News media? Okay.

How did news about great historic events get distributed back in those days? What was the news media? No print paper. No audio, video, radio, television. Well, then how was news …? What was the media for the news? The answer is it was heralds. That is, everybody is back in the town because they know there’s a great military battle that’s being fought miles away, so they’re behind the barricades. They don’t know what’s going to happen.

What happens when the general achieves a great military victory? How do we spread the news? He would send heralds. The aggelos. An aggelia, which is a message or a herald. The news. The herald would come in to the town and declare the news, “Victory!” Then he would run to the next town square and proclaim “Victory!” Then everyone would go back home with joy.

If that’s at the very, very heart of the word gospel, if that’s what the message is, the essence of the Christian message is news … good, joyful news … then this is the difference between the gospel and every other philosophy or religion. The gospel is not good advice about what you must do. It’s primarily good news about what’s already been done for you, something that’s already happened.

See, other religions say, “If you really want to meet God, do this, this, and this.” It’s good advice. Only Christianity is not good advice but primarily good news about something that’s already been done for you. This is test one. We’ve talked about this actually not too many weeks ago, so I won’t belabor it, but it’s crucial. One of the breakthroughs is to realize how utterly different Christianity is because it’s good news, not good advice.

If I ask somebody here in New York, “What do you think the essence of Christianity is? What does it mean to be a Christian?” the average person on the street would say, “Well, I think it means to try to live like Jesus and try to love your neighbor, try to live by the Golden Rule.” I want you all to know I think that is an incredibly great idea. Let’s all do that. I’m all for it, but that’s not news. That’s not the heart of Christianity. It can’t be, because it’s not news.

Is that news? Is that news about what has been done for you … outside of you, for you … that inflicts in you such joy that you finally can live according to the Golden Rule? See, that’s Christianity. Something has happened outside you, something momentous. It’s happened outside you for you, and that’s what inflicts into you life-changing joy. Now I can live according to the Golden Rule.

To say being a Christian is the Golden Rule, that’s not news. Therefore, there’s no breakthrough. See, breakthrough, transformation, comes like this. If you say to somebody, “Here’s the essence of the Christian message. You need to live like Jesus and love your neighbor according to the Golden Rule,” there are only three responses to that. One is you say, “Sure, I knew that.” Shrug. Indifference.

The second, like Luther, is, “Oh, that’s very hard. I can’t do that.” Crushed. Discouraged. The third is the Pharisees say, “I do that all the time.” So either shrugged or bugged or smug. No breakthrough. No breakthrough! No, “Oh my word! I never thought of that.” See, that’s what happened. When Luther broke through, he said, “This is a paradigm shift.” Sorry, it’s cliché, but it’s far more than that but it’s not less.

Here’s my question. Here’s the first test. I don’t know what you believe, but whatever you believe about God or how you ought to live, is it mainly about you, or is it mainly about what he has done? Is it mainly about you and what you must do, or mainly about him and what he has done? Which is it? See the breakthrough? The gospel is news, not advice.

2. The content of the gospel

The content of the gospel is that very spot where Luther meditated and meditated, where he says, “For in the gospel, a righteousness from God is revealed. A righteousness that comes by (dia, through) faith. Just as it is written, the one who is righteous through faith, that’s the person who lives.” He was thinking and thinking about this until suddenly he realized, “The righteousness of God is a righteousness that comes to me, and I receive by faith.” That opened everything up.

If we want to understand this term, which isn’t a very ordinary term … It’s a technical term in a way. It’s a term Paul uses, though, so we need to try to figure it out. It changed Luther’s life. It changed mine. We’re justified by faith. Let me use two illustrations to show you. The second one is considerably more poignant than the first.

The first one, though, think about this. Whenever we talk about being justified, we’re talking about not a change in the object but a change in the relationship to the object. Not a change inside the object, but relationship to the object. For example, if you’re speaking to me, and you say something, and I say, “Hmm. Justify that statement,” what do I mean?

I’m not saying, “Change the statement.” What I’m actually saying is, “It’s hard for me to accept that. Do something. Say something to change my relationship to the statement, to change my regard for it so I can accept it.” I’m not saying, “Change the statement.” “Help me get into a new relationship with it because I’m about to reject it.” “Justify that statement” means, “Change my regard for it. Do something.”

That is actually what the word means, especially at certain points here but also in Romans 5 where Paul says in verse 2, “Since we’re justified by faith, we have access to this grace in which we stand.” The word stand there means to stand in the presence of a great God or a great king or judge. This is what Paul is saying. Jesus has done something so God, looking at us, in spite of everything wrong with us … Jesus has done something to change God’s regard for us, his relationship to us.

Something has been done. See, that’s the news. Something has been done so now the Father looks at us and loves us and delights in us and accepts us. Our relationship has been changed. It’s not so much something happened inside, because then that would all be about us. That wouldn’t be gospel. It would all be, “Well, you have to do something.” It’s about something that’s happened outside of us that has changed God’s relationship to us. What is that?

To me, the second factor in what brings a breakthrough over the gospel is when you realize the gospel is about more than just forgiveness. Follow me, please. It’s about more than just forgiveness. Please don’t think I’m saying there’s anything wrong with forgiveness, but most people think that’s what this is. That’s what salvation is. That’s what Jesus did.

The idea is because Jesus died on the cross, when I do something wrong, I can ask God for forgiveness, and I’m forgiven. Isn’t that wonderful? Yes, of course it’s wonderful. It’s more than wonderful, but I want to show you here for a second it would not be enough. It’s way less than what’s being promised here. Yeah!

Because, see, if it’s true that that’s really salvation, that because Jesus died on the cross, now when I ask for forgiveness, I’m forgiven … God forgives me, wipes the slate clean. Do you realize what that means? It means that even though he has forgiven me for what I just did wrong, my relationship with him is still up to me because actually, in a sense, God says, “Hey, I just forgave you for what you did. I’m not going to hold that against you, but now you’d better get it right.” If that’s all forgiveness is, it’s not enough.

You know, for example, here’s a man, let’s just say, and he is in prison. What is going to get him a new life? Well, you could say the first thing that’s going to get him a new life is pardon. The governor writes a pardon, and he is out. Wow! He has a new life. No. He is just back to where all the rest of us slobs are. He is not in prison. Now he has to get a job. Now he has to work. It’s a long haul. He doesn’t have a new life yet.

You say, “Well, what more do you want?” I’ll tell you what’s more. The salvation of the gospel is not so much like simply getting a pardon to get out of prison. It’s besides getting a pardon, forgiveness. It’s also like getting the Congressional Medal of Honor on top of it. It’s a negative and a positive.

There’s a TV series called NCIS. It’s about Naval Criminal Investigative Services. It’s a cop show amongst military and criminal investigators. There’s a really great episode that was done about four years ago. The main character was played by Charles Durning, the great actor. The episode is about a poor broken-down old man, a former Marine, played by Charles Durning. He is in his eighties. He is broken down. He is kind of dowdy, and he is accused of murder. He is accused of murder!

At one point, two big, beefy Marines and a snarling Navy lawyer come after this poor little old man. They’re about to arrest him. They’re overshadowing him. Here he is standing in their presence accused. As they stand and they’re about to cuff him, actually, a friend of the old man pulls his tie aside. Under it is the Congressional Medal of Honor, because on Iwo Jima, he had done acts of extraordinary valor and bravery beyond the call of duty and had been given a Congressional Medal of Honor.

When he pulled that aside, the Marines and the snarling lawyer immediately saw what it was. Instead of looking at the poor little old man, the accused, condemned man, they saw that medal of honor, and they immediately snapped to attention and saluted. They were in awe. Just like that. It’s very, very good drama, and it’s very, very kind of moving to see. It is just an image, however faint, of what Paul is talking about here.

You know, one of the verses I always quote to you but I never explain is 2 Corinthians 5:21. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” What does that mean? “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Well, think.

On the cross, what does it mean to say Jesus was made sin? God made him sin. Does that mean God made him sinful, God put sin in his heart so he became greedy and angry and violent? No! He was up there forgiving his enemies. I mean, no! He was up there loving his Father, even when his Father was turning on him. Absolutely it didn’t mean he became sinful. It means he was treated as our sins deserve. He was given the treatment our record deserves.

So what does it mean to say that when you give your life to Christ, our sins are put on him? “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” In him! What does that mean? It can’t mean that automatically the minute you become a Christian, you become righteous in your heart any more than he became sinful on the cross. No, no, no, no.

What it must mean is we are covered with his medals. We are covered with his glory. We’re covered with all the awards and the medals of his valor and his cosmic bravery because he took on evil and he went down to death. All that he deserved is now on us. Here’s where the illustration doesn’t quite work because that old man basically was suddenly given all this … Even though he was condemned, they suddenly saw his medal, which he had won in a former life. In our case, the medals on us were won by Jesus in a former life.

Now the whole universe salutes us. Now God himself delights in us. We have become the righteousness of God in him. Now do you see the test? Do you see where the breakthrough comes? The first breakthrough is when you see it’s not advice but news. The second breakthrough is when you see it’s not just forgiveness, but it’s being clothed in the righteousness of Christ. It’s a righteousness from God given to me by a gift.

No wonder Luther said, “Oh my word! That’s incredible.” It is incredible. When you ask somebody (I do all the time), “Hey, are you a Christian?” and the person says, “Well, I’m trying,” that shows they have no idea about what Christianity is about because Christianity is a standing. We have access to this grace in which we stand. See? It means you have no idea about what it means to be a Christian. You’re still stuck back in the idea it’s good advice.

Some people say, “Well, I hate to call myself a Christian, because I don’t feel worthy of the name.” Of course you don’t feel good enough, but you’re in him if you understand the gospel. He is always good enough. He is utterly good enough. Covered with his medals. Covered with his trophies. Covered with his badges and banners and ribbons in glory.

You know, some people will say, “That’s interesting. I guess the Luther types, religious people … Gosh. He was a monk. How much more religious can you get than that? I guess there are people who are always filled with guilt and shame. They’re religious, and they need this. They need this idea.” No, it’s not just them. Oh no!

I have talked to an awful lot of people recently who have lost an awful lot of money. Do you know what? One of the things you can see (in fact, sometimes they tell me) is it was a lot more than money. They didn’t know. They didn’t know! There’s a disorientation at the center of their being. They’re not sure who they are. There’s a complete loss of identity. There’s a complete loss of confidence. Do you know why? Because that money was their righteousness.

See, irreligious people don’t use the word righteousness. As we said a couple of week ago when we were talking about Cain and Abel, no human being can assure themselves … We cannot assure ourselves of our value and worth. We have to get somebody outside approving us, acclaiming us, declaring us worthy, declaring us a people of value.

Some people do it through, “I want to look beautiful.” Some people say, “I want to make money.” Some people say, “I want to achieve.” Whatever. The fact is, everybody is desperately struggling for righteousness. Here’s the weird thing. Everybody’s righteousness, if it’s not God’s, is going to be blown away. Recession is one way, but it’s going to happen. Old age is another way. Everybody’s righteousness is going to blow away unless this is upon you.

The second breakthrough then that you see is not just forgiveness, wiping the slate clean, but getting the cosmic Medal of Honor. You know, being accepted in the beloved, having the righteousness of God put upon us in Jesus. Being legally righteous even when we’re actually unrighteous. We’ll see more about that. Thirdly, the last thing you have to do if you’re really going to understand and break through is you have to have a sense of …

3. The power of the gospel

Not just the form, not just the content, but the power. Paul says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation …” I guess in my case, of all these … You know, even though it’s brief (verses 16 and 17 are brief), this is my favorite part of this nutshell.

Because, see, it’s not saying that the gospel brings the power of God or it results in the power of God or it’s a means to the power of God, does it? Well, no, it doesn’t. What does it say? It says the gospel is the power of God in verbal form. Therefore, when I believe it, when I hear it, when I understand it, when I grasp its propositions, its meanings, its words, to the degree that I actually get this gospel into my life, the power of God is coursing through me.

It is the power of God! Therefore, the way you know you’re beginning to understand the gospel and breaking through is instead of it just being a set of ideas, you begin to sense it being a power. How is that so? Well, here are a couple of ways. First of all, one of the ways you know you’re breaking through (or perhaps breaking through or have a chance of breaking through) is you feel its offensiveness.

Notice connected to this idea of the power of God, he says, “I am not ashamed. I am not ashamed of the gospel.” When you say something like that, “I am not ashamed of her. I am not ashamed of him. I am not ashamed of that,” that means there are whole lot of other people who are, or you wouldn’t have said that. Okay? There are a whole lot of other people who are offended or they think it’s crazy.

I want you to know everybody who hasn’t broken through or isn’t on the verge of breaking through thinks the gospel is crazy. Everybody! I’ve had two churches: one in a very blue collar, traditional, conservative place (a small southern town) and the opposite place. Here’s what’s so interesting. Everybody is offended by the gospel.

In Hopewell, Virginia, where I was pastor, everybody was hard working. They’re all religious. Even the atheists are Baptists. Everybody! I mean, even the atheists, the God they don’t believe in is the Baptist God. Everybody is religious. Everybody is very traditional. Everybody is hard working. Everybody is conservative. They’re offended by the gospel because they think it’s too easy.

I’ll never forget one of the first people I shared the gospel with was a woman. Right across the parking lot behind our church was a very broken down area. You know, rental property. Bad rental property, by the way. Trailers and things like that. There was a woman there. She was a very unhappy woman. Her name was Joy. In a southern town in the late 70s, she was divorced. She had two children. One was, I think, with no husband. One was with her former husband.

She was living essentially in poverty. She was a mess. She was disgraced. She was ashamed. We went in there. Three of us sat down, and we shared what I just shared with you, almost exactly the same thing. She couldn’t believe it. She said, “You mean, in spite of everything, he can accept me?”

I remember one of the things we talked about was I said, “Well, you know, if you really understand the gospel, that means the minute you believe in Christ and ask God to accept you because of what he has done, the minute your sins are put on him and his righteousness is put on you, God loves you and delights in you as much this very second as he will a billion years from now when you’re perfect and glorious and someone can’t even look at you without sunglasses. You see?” I said, “He won’t love you any more then than now, any less now than then.”

She couldn’t believe it. She cried. She thought it was the greatest thing. She embraced it. She believed it. A week later, we came back. You know, followup. We sat down. She was really upset because she had called her sister. Her sister was a very hard-working woman. She had a husband, three or four children. They were upstanding citizens. They went to church. They were good people.

When Joy called her older sister up and told her she was born again, she was saved, God loved her and all that, the sister said, “What are you talking about? It can’t be that easy. You have to work for this sort of thing. You have to work very hard, years of self-discipline, years of moral effort. I don’t know what kind of God that pastor is talking to you about, but I have no respect for him that he would just take somebody like you like that. It’s too easy.”

You see, it sounds really very dignified to say, “I can’t believe in a God. I have higher standards than that,” except do you know what? That sister had built her identity on being the good daughter, and Joy was the bad daughter. It was incredibly self-justifying to say, “It can’t be that easy.” You know, the gospel was in danger of destroying that wonderful dysfunctional family system in which Joy was the sick one. See?

So we had to go right back with the gospel. It did. I think it did. You see, in a traditional conservative culture, it’s too easy. Now we come up here where everybody is liberal and sophisticated and secular. Up here, it’s offensive not because it’s too easy but because it’s too simplistic. Here’s why. Because, you see, everything here is ambiguous and difficult. Nobody is sure.

See, we like philosophy here. We like ethics. We like discussions. Here are the pros and the cons. We get together, and we have discussions and forums. Everybody is a little bit right, and everybody is a little bit wrong. Nobody is really sure. Then we can go home and live anyway we want. It’s a great, great system, because who is to say. The clarity of the gospel, the absolute clarity of it, you know? They even like religion better because in it, you’re always trying, and you’re trying. You’re never quite sure whether you’ve done it. The clarity of it.

Here’s this first-century carpenter. He dies. Everything changes if you believe in that. You believe in that, and then you’re in. You don’t believe in that, and you’re out. Oh my gosh! The clarity of it! The simplicity of it! Don’t you see? Liberal or conservative, blue collar or white collar, north, south, east, west. The gospel is absolutely unique. It’s absolutely on its own. Everybody hates it. It makes absolutely no sense to anyone. It contradicts every system of thought in the world. It contradicts the heart of every culture in the world, every worldview.

It’s completely on its own. It offends everyone. See, whoever you are, you have to come from somewhere. You have to come from north or south or east or west or conservative or liberal. Something! You’re human beings. Therefore, unless you’ve felt the offense of the gospel, you don’t know yet what it even claims. Unless you’ve wrestled with it, struggled with it, you don’t even know what’s in it. You couldn’t know what’s in it.

When you begin to feel it and you begin to wrestle and struggle, then you at least have the possibility of breaking through. By the way, the gospel is not an academic thing. It’s not a set of bullet points we’re trying to get you to memorize. It’s from a person to a person. Therefore, it feels personal. When you’re really beginning to hear the gospel truly and understand the gospel, you start to sense there’s a power dealing with you, disturbing you, upsetting you. Maybe during this sermon, I hope. Maybe when you think about it or talk to a friend about it.

Do you find the gospel upsetting you, kind of dealing with you? Are you wrestling with it? Is it bothering you? I would rather somebody came to Redeemer for a couple of weeks and was so revolted that they had to leave. At least they were feeling the power rather than just saying, “Well, that’s interesting, but I don’t have much time for that.” Then you’re absolutely, absolutely in no position to ever have a breakthrough.

You have to feel the power of it. You have to feel the offensiveness of it. Here’s the other way in which is the power. Some people would say, “Well, all that matters, I suppose, is that you … Now that you’ve received the righteousness of Christ, that’s all that matters. Now you’re fine. It doesn’t matter how you live.” No, no, no, no, no. You know, what’s so amazing about Paul is he is able to get sound gospel theology everywhere.

Look at verse 7. “To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints …” At the beginning of the memo: “To, From, Re:” He already has the gospel in there. Do you know why? He says, “What is a Christian?” “To all … who are loved by God and called to be saints …” Look at that. What is a Christian? Not primarily someone who is living in a certain way. The first is you’re loved by God. Your relationship has been changed. Something has been done to justify you.

You’re loved, but if you’re loved and if you know you’re loved, then you’re called. That means you’re invited. That means you’re attracted to be saints, which means to be holy. You never, ever, ever have the righteousness of God put upon you without, at the same time, finding it’s beginning to develop in you. You never, ever, ever, ever are loved by God in spite of your bad character without that starting to change your character.

You’re never justified except that you automatically begin to get sanctified. The righteousness of God will never be put upon you without it developed within you. If it’s not developed within you, then you haven’t really received it upon you. That’s the reason why Paul could look at Peter in Galatians 2, where Peter’s old racist sensibilities have begun to come back. He is not eating with Gentile Christians. He won’t even eat with them.

What does Paul say? Paul doesn’t say, “Peter, you broke the ‘no racism’ rule.” (Even though there is a ‘no racism’ rule; Christians shouldn’t be racist.) What he says is, “Peter, you say you’re justified by faith, not by works. You say you’re a sinner saved by grace. How can you be superior to any other race? You say you have the righteousness of Christ on you, but you’re not living in righteousness. Therefore, it’s not upon you if it’s not beginning to develop within you.”

If you are loved, then you are called, you’re attracted, into holiness. You want it. You long for it because, “I want to look like the One who did this for me. I want to please the One who did this for me.” If you don’t want to please, if you don’t want to look like the one who did this for you, then it’s still not personal. You really still don’t know what’s happened.

One of the great things I love about … There’s a passage in Matthew 11 where John the Baptist, in prison, about to be beheaded, sends some messengers to Jesus. The messengers say, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” John the Baptist is doubting. I can understand why. You know, he declared Jesus the Messiah. He said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” but everything is going wrong. He is in prison.

“Wait a minute. You’re the Messiah, and I’m with you. I’m about to get my head chopped off. Are you really the one who is to come, or should we be looking for somebody else?” He is doubting. Jesus so nicely says, “Go back and tell John the Baptist, ‘The blind see … the poor have good news preached to them.’ ” He gives him some arguments why he is the Messiah. Then he says, “Say this to John: ‘And blessed is he who does not take offense at me.’ ”

What I loved about that is instead of Jesus saying, “How dare you question me! I’m the Messiah,” he says, “Let me give you some answers. I want you to know I am not offended by people who are struggling with my offensiveness. Good luck. Hope you get through it. It’s not very easy. I hope you get the blessedness of people who finally get through that offensiveness and break through.”

What a man. He is not offended that we struggle with his offensiveness. He is not at all upset about the fact that it’s hard. He says, “Here are some answers to questions. If you have any more, please come back.” What a Savior. What a man. Go to him. Let us pray.

Our Father, we thank you for the gospel. We thank you that we’re able to look these few weeks together at what Saint Paul has said that has changed so many lives. It’s changed mine. It’s changed so many here. We ask you would help us to break through. We ask you would help us to grasp the form, the content, and the power of the gospel in such a way that we do so that we, knowing we’re loved by you, sense your calling into a whole new life. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

ABOUT THE PREACHER

In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting.  Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.

Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal Christo-centric books including:

Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (co-authored with Greg Forster and Collin Hanson (February or March, 2014).

Romans 1-7 For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (2014).

Encounters with Jesus:Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. New York, Dutton (November 2013).

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York, Dutton (October 2013).

Judges For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (August 6, 2013).

Galatians For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (February 11, 2013).

Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.

Center ChurchDoing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.

The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.

Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.

The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.

King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (Retitled: Jesus the KIng: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God). New York, Dutton, 2011.

Gospel in Life Study Guide: Grace Changes Everything. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010.

The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.

Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2009.

Heralds of the King: Christ Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney (contributor). Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.

Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.

Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.

 

Tim Keller: Sermon “A Tale of Two Cities” – Genesis 4:10-26

SERIES – Bible: The Whole Story—Creation and Fall – Part 5

Tim Keller preaching image

Preached in Manhattan, New York on February 1, 2009

10 The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. 11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. 14 Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.

16 So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden. 17 Cain lay with his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch. 18 To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad was the father of Mehujael, and Mehujael was the father of Methushael, and Methushael was the father of Lamech.

19 Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah. 20 Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock. 21 His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play the harp and flute. 22 Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron. Tubal-Cain’s sister was Naamah.

23 Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. 24 If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” 25 Adam lay with his wife again, and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth, saying, “God has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him.” 26 Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh. At that time men began to call on the name of the Lord.

In this series of sermons, we are trying to trace out the single storyline of the Bible. Each week we’ve started by saying the Bible is not primarily a disconnected set of little stories each with a moral, each with a lesson, on how to live. Primarily, it’s a single story telling us what’s wrong with the human race, what God has done about it, and how history is going to turn out in the end.

We’ve started by looking at the beginning of the biblical story, what’s wrong with us. The Bible continually tells us what’s wrong with us here in Genesis 1–4. We’re at the end of the section of Genesis. This particular part is neglected somewhat. It’s not preached on a great deal. There are a couple of reasons why. One of them is a question that bedevils the reader, at least the modern Western reader.

Here’s Adam and Eve, and they have two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain kills Abel. So there’s this young man (Cain) who’s run out into the world. He says, “Oh, I’m afraid now the people will attack me.” Who? “Cain lay with his wife …” Where did she come from? “Cain was then building a city …” Hmm. Populated by whom? If you take the text seriously and historically like I do (a lot of other people do), there are actually all sorts of possibilities, but here’s what I think would be helpful to help you be good readers of biblical narrative.

Biblical narrative is incredibly selective and spare. If you read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John together, you’re constantly surprised. Having read maybe an event or an incident in Mark, when you get to Luke, which will tell you about the same event, Luke will very often give you more details. You’ll see there was a lot more going on in that event than Mark told you about. Mark is very spare.

You’ll say, “Well, why didn’t Mark tell me there was another angel there, or this person was there, or someone was coming with that?” The answer is the reason why the biblical narrator (writer) doesn’t tell you all kinds of information that you sit there and want to know about is it doesn’t help him get his point across. The point of Genesis 4 is to teach us some things. If it doesn’t tell us things we want to know about, it’s because it’s not necessary in order to understand the point, the teaching, the truth.

So you just have to be a little bit willing to recognize the point of reading this text is to learn what the Lord, who is the ultimate author of every part of the Bible, wants to tell you. I don’t know where all these other people came from. However, here’s what we do learn. There are three very important things. They’re rather broad, but they’re extremely important. We learn here about the ruin of Cain, the culture of death, and the future city of grace. It’s very important. The ruin of Cain, the culture of death, and the future city of grace.

1. The ruin of Cain

Let’s start with the ruin of Cain. If you remember last week, when Cain kills his brother Abel, the first thing God says is, “Where is your brother Abel?” Not that God doesn’t know, but he asks Cain. Then Cain gives a very cold answer and says, “How do I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?” Ooh! “I’m not his nursemaid. Why ask me?” Now God comes back and says, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”

That’s a strong statement. You would think when God says, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground,” the next thing he would do would be to smite him to the ground himself, to kill him, to take his blood. But as we see, God doesn’t do that. He doesn’t do it. God is doing absolutely everything he possibly can to give an opportunity for Cain to repent. That’s one of the things I think we’re supposed to get here.

God is doing everything so Cain can repent, giving him every bit of space, every opportunity. Why? Martin Luther has a great definition of sin. His definition of sin in Latin was, “homo incurvatus in se,” which means literally, “Sin is man curved in upon himself.” What Luther means by that (and this is absolutely right) is the Bible defines sin as always focusing on yourself, always choosing yourself over God or others, always placing yourself in the center. Always!

What that means is yes, of course you do bad things, but what’s brilliant about that and cutting and penetrating about this definition is sin determines that even when you do good things, even when you help the poor, even when you enter into friendships, even when you come to church and study the Bible and try to obey the Ten Commandments, it’s always about you. You always relate to God.

Sin determines you relate to God and other people only in such a way and only to the degree that it furthers your agenda, that things are going your way, that God or other people you’re relating to are doing things the way you think they should be done, as long as it gives you the self-image you want to have or you want to project. As soon as it becomes something that’s very costly, as soon as a relationship with God or other people is very costly, we’re out of it. Why?

Because even when it looks like we’re serving God and other people, we’re actually serving ourselves. That’s how insidious sin is. But repentance goes to the root of that. Repentance goes absolutely to the root of it. It means you get out of yourself. You take yourself out of the center, and you begin to get the favor of God, and you begin to heal the blindness and the hardness and the pride sin brings into your life.

Therefore, there is nothing more important than repentance. Nothing! Look what Cain does. Notice what he says? He is crying, in a way. You see? He said to the Lord … He cries out. He is upset. He is sorrowful. Maybe he is weeping. I don’t know. He says … What? “My punishment is more than I can bear.” Here’s the tragedy. There’s a kind of sorrow, there’s a kind of weeping (“Oh, I’m so sorry for what I’ve done”) that is just as self-absorbed, just as self-centered as the sin you’re crying about.

Notice he is not saying, “Oh, what it cost you, oh Lord, and your honor and glory. Oh, what it cost my brother Abel. Oh, I can’t bear the thought of my brother lying there in his own blood.” No. What he is saying is, “I’m really upset about what’s going to happen to me.” He is sorry for the consequences of the sin, not for the sin. He is obsessed with the cost to himself, not to God or other people. In other words, he is sorry for himself. He is not sorry for his sin.

There’s a kind of sorrow, a kind of apparent repentance, a kind of weeping and weeping over what you’ve done wrong, which actually makes you more self-centered and self-absorbed than ever. It makes it worse. This is the first point. We have to move, because these points are actually so broad and so important and yet we could talk about them forever. Here’s what this means.

If repentance is at the bottom of the ruin of the human race, if repentance was so important that God was giving Cain every opportunity, and if repentance is something so easy to miss and think you’re doing it when you’re not, then you should do everything to foster the skill of repentance in your life.

When people point a finger at you or come to you and say, “You’ve done this wrong,” what is our first instinct? What’s our first instinct? “What are you talking about? You don’t understand. What are you talking about? How dare you! You’re the one to talk!” Instead, the first thing our hearts should be saying is, “Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.”

If repentance is that important, that crucial and that slippery and that difficult, we should be a community of people who help each other repent, who do it very, very quickly, who are quick to say, “Well, here’s what I can say I did wrong.” At the heart of the ruin of the human race is the inability to repent. That’s the first point. It seems to go away, but we’ll get back actually to that.

2. The culture of death

The second point we learn about is sin doesn’t just ruin the individual life. It ruins the culture. It doesn’t just ruin our individual little lives; it ruins human society and culture. What we see here in the descendants of Cain from verses 17 on to the bottom is extremely telling. On the one hand, we see, even though human beings are sinful, they’re still in the image of God. Do you know why? They’re creating culture.

Let me scroll you back to Genesis 2. If you were here when we were in Genesis 2, we saw we are made in the image of God. That means we reflect God. Well, who do we reflect? We’re reflecting a creator God. Because we reflect a creator God in whose image we were made, we ourselves are creative. How does that work itself out? When God put Adam and Eve into the garden and said, “Be fruitful and multiply and have dominion,” gardening is neither leaving the ground as it is nor is it ruining it.

Gardening is creatively rearranging the raw material of the ground so as to bring about produce, to produce things, to produce food and flowers and other kinds of plants that help human beings flourish and grow and live. We’ve said that’s what culture is. Gardening is the kind of paradigm for what … What is culture? Culture-making is this. You take the stuff, the raw material, of the world, and you produce things for human life and flourishing.

So when you take the raw material of sound and human experience and you produce music and narrative, that’s the arts. When you take the raw material of the physical world, you produce technology and the sciences. When you take the biological raw material and rearrange it for human flourishing, that’s medicine and other things.

Even though Cain and his descendants are twisted by sin, they’re still producing culture. So you have down here animal husbandry in verse 20. You have harp and flute, music, in verse 21. We have technology, tools, bronze, and iron in verse 22. They’re producing culture, but this culture is now a culture of death.

See, originally when God put Adam and Even in the garden and he said, “Be fruitful and multiply and have dominion,” what he was actually saying was, “I want you to rearrange things. I want you to create a culture that supports life by producing products that serve people.” Life through service. That’s the meaning of culture, but look what we have here.

First of all, we have the culture of oppression and secondly, violence. Here’s oppression. Verse 19. “Lamech married two women …” Now Genesis 2:24 tells us the original plan was for a man to leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, not wives. That’s Genesis 2:24. So polygamy was not the design of marriage at all. All through the rest of the Bible, pretty much all you have is polygamy.

Robert Alter, the great Jewish expert on biblical literature says if you know how to read the book of Genesis, you will know that one of the main subtexts of the book of Genesis … If you read all through the stories from here down through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, etc., one of the main subtexts and, therefore, one of the main points of the book of Genesis is polygamy is an absolute disaster.

If you don’t see that from reading the book of Genesis, Robert Alter says you just don’t know how to read a text. It is a disaster for everybody involved, but especially for the women who, by definition, are disempowered. They’re oppressed. What we have is cultural forms that now lead to oppression here.

That’s not all. Down here it says, “Lamech said to his wives, ‘… listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.’ ” Oh my word. Look at this. First of all, the word wound and injured is the word for bruise. Just bruise, scratch. The word for young man is actually best translated lad. It means a boy or, at best, an adolescent.

Lamech is boasting that if even a kid scratches or bruises him he’ll take his head off, literally. When he says, “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times,” seven was a symbolic number of perfection. Therefore, to say, “I will be avenged 77 times,” 7 times 70 or 77 times (depending on how you translate it; it’s actually hard to translate), what Lamech is trying to say is, “I will never give up revenge. I will never lay aside my anger. I will never, ever, ever forgive anybody for ever wronging me.”

He is boasting about it, and he is proud. Look at the violence, and look at the pride. This is not, “My life to serve you,” which is the whole idea behind gardening, but, “Your life to serve me.” It’s amazing, and it’s violent. What you have here is the human culture is twisted by sin. You no longer have a culture based on life through service, on power and exploitation. The other thing we see (and this is very important to recognize) is the culture flows out of the city.

The very, very first time the word city is used anywhere in the Bible (and therefore, the first time it’s actually mentioned in history) is in verse 17. “Cain lay with his wife …” He began to produce progeny. “Cain was then building a city …” Now this Hebrew word city does not mean a place filled with lots and lots of people. When you and I think of city versus town or village, we think of numbers.

The word city meant a fortified settlement. It’s extremely important to understand that culture begins to develop. The first time the Bible talks about human culture, the first time the human culture begins to develop … The thing God told Adam and Eve to do is build (develop) culture, civilization. The first time it develops is after a city is built.

Henri Blocher, the French Christian scholar, says something like, “It is no doubt significant that in Genesis 4, progress in the arts and engineering comes from the city of the Canaanites. Nevertheless, we are not to conclude from this that civilization, as such, is the fruit of sin. Such a conclusion would lead us to the views of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Bible condemns neither the city, for it concludes all history with the vision of the city of God, nor art and engineering.”

What’s Blocher saying? Why did he bring in Rousseau? Here’s why he brought in Rousseau. In the eighteenth century, Rousseau and the romanticists tried to understand why there was so much violence and oppression in the world. They decided to blame the city. What they said is, “Human beings, human nature, is basically pristine and beautiful and wonderful and good, but society teaches people to be violent and selfish.”

Therefore, the idea of Rousseau and the romanticists was that savages, actually, natives, people away from cities, would be much more likely to be good and peace loving. Benjamin Franklin, being the very cagey man he was, was trying to get during the Revolutionary War … He went to Paris to do diplomacy, trying to get the French on our side. He was very, very careful to wear coonskin caps and rather hairy breeches.

In other words, he tried very hard to look like a savage or a native to make sure people thought there would be some more virtue here. Of course, we all know now … everybody knows now … that what Rousseau said there was an absolute crock. Cities are not necessarily places of more savagery than native tribes in the bush or the wilderness. That’s just not true at all.

Many scholars have pointed out the romanticists’ idea that somehow cities are breeders of sinful behavior and people who live in the country are more virtuous is actually something that’s been passed into the American psyche and actually into the American Christian psyche so that we have a tendency to have a very negative view of cities. The Bible does not have a negative view of cities at all. At all!

When God sends the people of Israel from Egypt into Canaan, he will not let them be exclusively agrarian. He commands them to build cities in the book of Numbers. When God sends the people of Israel out into exile in Babylon, that pagan, awful city that actually took them prisoner (and they were prisoners), what does he say? He says, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city. Pray for it. Love it. Care for it. Make it a good place to live.”

When God sends Jonah, his prophet, to the big, bad pagan city of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the greatest city in the world at the time, at the very end, he looks at Jonah, and he says, “Look at 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left. I love the city. How could you not love a city that size with all those needy people? Why don’t you love the city?”

Of course, the most amazing thing of all is that when you get to the end of the book of Revelation, the end of history … Actually, we’re going to go there at the end of this series. When God has the world in the condition he wants it in, when he finally has the world exactly the way he wants it, it looks a lot like New York, without the graffiti and a few other things. It’s a city!

The Bible is amazingly positive about cities. Why? The reason it’s positive about cities is that when God made Adam and Eve creative, when he made them creative, it was inevitable that they would build cities. Cities are places of creativity. Cities are places where culture is forged. That’s the reason why culture does not begin to happen until there’s a city. Why? Well, I can give you a historical reason, but I can also give you a logical reason.

The historical reason is, the fact is, a city was any settlement with a wall. That wall created stability. It was out there when somebody did something wrong, people just did blood feuds back and forth, and they killed each other back and forth. They revenged each other. It was in the city you had jurisprudence. It was in the city you could have cases heard by judges, and things could be dealt peacefully. You could have rule of law develop.

Out there, it was subsistence living. You made your own clothes. You grew your own food. You did everything. In cities, some people are better at making tools. Some people are better at making food. Some people are better at making clothes. Now you have an economy. You have specialization. You have goods and services.

It’s not the size of the settlement but the stability of it. It was in cities that human culture was able to develop at all. You say, “Well, that’s fine now. We don’t need a wall. We don’t have walls around cities. Where there are walls, they’re great tourist attractions, but we don’t do that anymore. We don’t need that. Cities aren’t important for culture anymore.”

Oh yes, they are. They’re still the places, by their nature, from which culture flows. So as cities go, so goes the culture. You say, “Why?” Well, because cities are places of density and diversity. Cities are places where there are more people like you than anywhere else and also more people unlike you than anywhere else.

For example, let me show you how it works on culture. First of all, there are more people like you than anywhere else. Let’s just say you’re a violinist, and you’re the best violinist in the state of (pick a state). You won the state competition. You’re the best. You get off the train in Penn Station or Grand Central Station. To your horror, you walk by some person playing the violin on the platform. People are throwing money into the little violin case.

She is better than you. You go, “Oh no.” You start to practice, and you dig down deep. Everybody feels that way. Cities are places of masses, zillions of people like you, more people like you than anywhere else. That makes you dig down deep. It’s also true that cities are places of more people unlike you than anywhere else. There is a diversity here you’ll never see anywhere else. You’ll meet people you never otherwise would have met unless you went to a city.

As a result, you’re questioned. Everything you do is questioned. Everything you do, you have to compare and contrast. It makes you think creative thoughts you never would have had otherwise. Many of the things you came here thinking you were going to do, you continue to do, but only after you’ve done a lot more thinking about them now because you’re in cities.

Because of the density and because of the diversity, because of the zillions of people like you and the zillions of people unlike you, this is a crucible. This is a furnace out of which flow new and creative and innovative ideas. This is the result. What comes out of the city goes out into the culture. As a city goes, so goes the culture.

Yet cities are affected by sin. The density, the fact there are so many more people like you here competing with you, should be stimulation. It is stimulant. It’s great. Because of sin, it’s also exhausting. It’s dog-eat-dog, and it leads to burnout. The diversity (all the people who are very different than you) should be a stimulation to creativity, but … It is, but it’s also a place of constant conflict and fighting and division.

Most of all, at the heart of cities is a battle. Will the culture be a culture in which we make products, supporting life to serve others, or basically we’re doing our work, we’re making our products, we’re working in the city, and we’re creating culture to make a name for ourselves, to get our own glory, to accrue power, and to exploit other people? Is human culture mainly my life to serve yours or your life to serve me? That leads us to our final point.

It’s very hard to live in cities without being sucked into the culture of power, being sucked into burnout, being sucked into conflict. How are you going to get the strength to be in the city? By the way, if you want to make a difference in society, if you want to just have a happy life, you probably don’t want to be here because of … what? Because of the competition. Because of the conflict. Because of the density and diversity.

If you want to make a difference in society, if you want to make a difference in how human life goes, then you ought to be in cities. Yet it takes a tremendous power to avoid being sucked in, as it were. It takes tremendous spiritual power and poise to not be sucked in to the poisonous distorted heart of human culture, especially as it’s taking effect in cities. How do you get that power?

3. The future city of grace. Lastly, there is a future city of grace God is developing. How do we know that? Well, at the very, very end of this chapter, it says, “Adam lay with his wife again, and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth, saying, ‘God has granted me another child in place of Abel …’ Seth also had a son …” See, a new line. “At that time men began to call on the name of the Lord.”

The word name comes up twice in this text. When Cain built a city, he named it not after God (like Jerusalem or something like that, the city of God, it’s the Lord’s peace). He didn’t name it after God. He named it after his own son. In Genesis 11, the culmination of the line of the Canaanites built the tower of Babel, which is a skyscraper, which is a city. The reason why the Canaanites built this great city of Babel was to make a name for themselves.

Genesis 11:4. “… make a name for ourselves …” That’s what’s wrong with cities. That’s what’s wrong with culture. When you do work to make a name for yourself, when you go to cities to make a name for yourself … That’s, by the way, why almost everybody comes to New York. When work is really about you, not about producing products for human flourishing, when sex is really about you, not to enter into a relationship in which you serve and you form a family and you bring about children and human flourishing …

When it’s about you, when it’s to get a name for yourself, it creates the culture of death. The city is producing a culture of death. There’s a new line of people that God begins. They’re not there to make a name for themselves but to call on the name of the Lord, to live life for God’s sake, and to live life for their neighbor’s sake. That produces two kinds of societies: one based on power, one based on service. One based on making a name for themselves, and one saying, “All I want to do is honor the Lord’s name. I want to have his name put on me. I want to be like him.”

That’s pretty fascinating. Where do these two groups of people live? Well, they actually live in the same place, because Jesus says in his famous Sermon on the Mount to his disciples, “You are the light of the world. You are a city on the hill. Let your good works so shine that the pagans see them and glorify your Father.” What Jesus Christ is saying there is that the line of Seth, the believers in God, and then eventually the believers in Christ are supposed to be an alternate city in every city.

We’re supposed to create a human society in which we’re calling on the name of the Lord rather than trying to make a name for ourselves, in which case that it will transform everything: the way sex is used, the way money is used, the way power relationships are brought about, the way families work, the way business practices are conducted, the way we spend our money. Everything!

Jesus says, “I want you to be a city on a hill,” which means, “I want the city around you to see your good deeds.” Good deeds doesn’t just mean rectitude. It means service. In other words, the way you know you’re part of the line of Seth, the way you know you’re part of the city based on grace, the city of people calling on the name of the Lord, is whereas the city of Cain outside is suspicious of you because you don’t have the right beliefs …

But you inside the city love the people around you, even though they don’t believe at all like you do. You go to the mat for them. You sacrifice for them. See, that’s what God said in Jeremiah 29 when he says, “Yes, that city oppressed you. Yes, that city persecuted you. Yes, that city will persecute you, but I want you to live in love and service toward them.”

How do you get the power to do that? Do you know what this is actually saying? Because actually in 1 Peter, this same thing is said that Jesus says, only he is even more explicit. He says, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”

It doesn’t mean they might accuse you of doing wrong. They will! Jesus and Peter are saying if you want to be part of God’s city of grace, the alternate city in every city, the city based on the name of God instead of making your own name, the city based on life through service not death through power, then you are going to be constantly misunderstood. If we live the life we should in New York City, pouring ourselves out to make this a great place, we expect to be persecuted.

That is to say we expect at certain points to be misunderstood, vilified, maybe even attacked. We’re not going to get upset about it because we were told that’s part of what it means to not be part of the city of man, to not be part of the city of Cain, to not marginalize and use power over our opponents but basically serve them the way Christ served us. Where do you get the power to do that? Where do you get this power we’re supposed to have so we’re not sucked into the ways of the world?

Here. When Lamech at the end of his poem, his song, says, “… Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times” (or 70 times 7), does that remind you of anything? When the disciples asked Jesus, “How often do we have to forgive?” he said, “Not just 7 times but 70 times 7.” They said, “Lord, how could we get the grace and the power to forgive people infinitely?” Do you know what Jesus was doing? He was remembering the taunt of Lamech, and he was reversing it.

You see, Lamech was saying, “Endless anger. I will never, never let go of my anger. I will never let go of my anger. I will always hold my anger. Endless anger. Endless revenge.” Do you know what Jesus is saying? The endless anger of human sin will be met by the endless love of God. Jesus is saying Lamech, though he had no right, said he would never let go of his anger. He would be endlessly revenging.

Do you know what Jesus is saying? “I, the Lord, am the only one who has the right to say that. I have the right to be endlessly angry at the human race, but I won’t be. I’m going to be as merciful to you as to Cain.” One of the most interesting things … Nobody knows what the mark of Cain is. Okay, there we go. Biblical selectivity again.

Cain says, “I’m so upset.” He is not repenting. “I’m upset. Somebody is going to hurt me.” What does God do? He puts a mark on Cain. That mark somehow protects him. We have no idea what it is. Was it a tattoo? What was it? Was it a little dog? “Mark, sic ‘em. Get him!” No. Nobody knows. One commentator actually said that. “Maybe it was a dog named Mark.” You can’t follow all the commentaries.

All we know is that though Cain deserved to be smitten to the ground, he got mercy. How can a just God be merciful to Cain? How can a just God say, “I will be endlessly forgiving to you,” very much the opposite of what Lamech said? How can God give us endless love and mercy here? Because the three things Cain says are going to fall on him actually fell on Jesus. Do you see what those three things are?

It’s up here in verse 14. “I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” Who was the restless wanderer on the earth? Jesus said, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” “… whoever finds me will kill me.” Yes, in the garden they found him, and they took him to the cross and killed him. On the cross, he even lost the presence of God. “My God, my God. Why hast thou forsaken me?”

There’s the answer, first of all, how a just God can be merciful. Because God came to earth in Jesus Christ, and he took the curse that really should fall on us. See, curses came, and then he marks them for mercy because the real curse fell on Jesus and on God himself so the blessing could come to us. That’s how he can do it.

When you know that, when you know he did all that for you, that means you no longer have to prove yourself or make a name for yourself. When you get baptized, we put the name of the Lord on you. That means work now is just about work. It’s not about getting a name for myself. Sex is just a way of saying, “I love you” to the person you’re married to.

In other words, these things now become ways of serving others instead of ways of making a name for yourself. Now you’re part of the city of God by grace. Do you know where it all starts? Do you know how you can more and more make yourself a person who is really living like a citizen of the city of God instead of the city of man? Repent. Repent every time somebody gives you the opportunity. Repent, and you won’t be ruined. You’ll be restored and made a citizen.

Savior, if of Zion’s city,

I through grace a member am,

Let the world deride or pity,

I will glory in thy name.

Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,

All his boasted pomp and show;

Solid joys and lasting treasure

None but Zion’s children know.

Let’s pray.

Our Father, we thank you that you have given us citizenship in your city. We sit down now at your Table. We’re in your family. We’re members of your city. We pray you would show us what it means to live lives in accordance with these great truths of the gospel. It’s in Jesus’ name that we pray, amen.

 

ABOUT THE PREACHER

In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting.  Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.

Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal Christo-centric books including:

Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (co-authored with Greg Forster and Collin Hanson (February or March, 2014).

Romans 1-7 For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (2014).

Encounters with Jesus:Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. New York, Dutton (November 2013).

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York, Dutton (October 2013).

Judges For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (August 6, 2013).

Galatians For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (February 11, 2013).

Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.

Center ChurchDoing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.

The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.

Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.

The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.

King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (Retitled: Jesus the KIng: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God). New York, Dutton, 2011.

Gospel in Life Study Guide: Grace Changes Everything. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010.

The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.

Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2009.

Heralds of the King: Christ Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney (contributor). Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.

Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.

Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.