A Pastor's Offering to God of Holy People
I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. 15 But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God 16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. 17 In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. 18 For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience - by word and deed, 19 by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God - so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; 20 and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, 21 but as it is written, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.”
About 1,200 pastors are arriving for the pastor’s conference that starts Monday. Many are here today. I chose to continue moving forward in our eight-year trek through Romans this weekend because I saw in Romans 15:14-18 Paul’s ministry goal as a true goal for all pastors. It has its application to all Christians as well, but I have in view here helping ministers of the Word clarify what our calling is and how all of our people are a part of it.
A Reason to Boast in Christ Jesus
So let’s go first to the main statement of the passage, and see our pastoral goal, and then look at how the other parts of the text shed light on it. Logically verse 17 is the main point of verses 14-18. Everything else supports it—that’s what I mean by “main point.” Notice the word “then” or “therefore” near the beginning of verse 17: “In Christ Jesus, then (=therefore—basing this on something he just said), I have reason to be proud of my work for God.” So you can see that what goes before this verse supports it and leads to it. That’s what “then” (or “therefore”) in verse 17 communicates.
Then the following verse (18) begins with the word “for” to show that more support (or argument, or foundation) for verse 17 is being given. “In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. For [=because] I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me.” So, if you consider only verses 14-18, verse 17 is the main point in Paul’s flow of thought. It is supported by what goes before and what comes after. Verse 16 and verse 18 are holding it up, so to speak.
So what is verse 17 saying? “In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God.” The point of verse 17 is not just that Paul has something to boast about, but that his boast is “in Jesus Christ.” He says, “In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God.” It’s absolutely crucial to see that Paul’s boast is “in Christ Jesus”—for two reasons.
First, because pride is an ugly thing in the eyes of God, and Paul himself says, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (2 Corinthians 10:17). And: “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14). And: “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded” (Romans 3:27).
That’s the first reason we must be clear that Paul’s boast in verse 17 is “in Christ Jesus.” Boasting in self is sinful. O how subtle this is! It’s not just a matter of words. A pastor can use God-exalting language to boast in himself by simply talking about himself and his ministry way to much. Paul is taking a risk here in verse 17, but consider how utterly God-focused this book is and do not assumed the worst.
The second reason we need to see that Paul’s boast is “in Christ Jesus” is that the whole passage is built on the truth that God graciously works through people, so that when ministry prospers it is God who has done it through the Spirit of Christ. We will see this in just a moment.
So Paul’s goal and our goal as pastors should be to boast in Christ Jesus in all our work. That is, we should aim to do our work in such a way that Christ gets the glory. When Paul says in verse 17, “In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God,” he means, “Christ has worked in such a way for me and in me and through me that my work has become his work and my boast in it, is a boast in him.” That is our goal in life and ministry.
An Acceptable and Sanctified Offering
But it’s too general. Paul’s work, and the goal of his work, is defined much more precisely in these verses. So we need to look backward to verse 16 and forward to verse 18 to see what Paul’s goal was in more concrete terms—and what ours should be. The same goal is mentioned in both verses but in different words. Let’s read them both and you see if you can see the one common goal in both verses.
Verses 15-16: “But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” So here Paul’s goal is to offer the Gentiles to God acceptable and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Paul believes that his ministry is an instrument in the hands of God to prepare a people for God who are acceptable and sanctified.
Now verse 18: “For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience.” So here Paul’s goal is to bring the Gentiles to obedience. He believed that his ministry was an instrument in the hands of Christ to bring about a people who are obedient to God.
Now put the two goals side by side. Verse 16: the goal is a people who are acceptable and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Verse 18: the goal is a people who are obedient to God through Jesus Christ. I think those are essentially the same goal: a people sanctified by the Spirit, a people obedient through Jesus Christ. A holy people and an obedient people—conformed to the holiness of God, and conformed to the will of God.
So now we can say the main point of this passage with specific focus. Verse 17 says that Paul’s crowning experience is exulting or boasting in Christ and what he has done through Paul’s ministry. And verses 16 and 18 tell us what he has done: he has brought into being a sanctified and obedient people that Paul brings to God as an offering of worship.
So we can say the main point like this: Paul’s crowning experience is exulting or boasting in Christ and his work through Paul to prepare an offering for God, namely, a holy and obedient people.1
Exulting in God’s Work
I don’t think the calling of a pastor is any different than this. Our aim is to exult in Christ and his work through us to prepare for God an offering of a holy and obedient people. You might ask, “Why don’t you just say that our aim is to prepare for God a holy and obedient people? Why do you say that our aim is to boast or exult in Christ and his work through us to prepare an offering of a holy and obedient people? Why stress that we aim to exult and that this boast is in Christ working through us?”
There are two answers. One is that this whole passage is built on the truth that God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit are working through us to bring about the holiness and obedience of God’s people. And we need to say our goal in a way that takes that into account.
And the other reason is that the sanctification and obedience of God’s people is a thrilling thing. It is a glorious thing. It is a miraculous thing. It is a deeply joyful and satisfying thing. To watch a people grow in radical obedience to Jesus, and to watch them fall out of love with the world and into love with Christ, and to see them seek the kingdom first and let material things go, to see them become bold in their witness, and compassionate toward the poor, and respectful toward ethnic diversity, and devoted to sexual purity, and committed to world missions, and a wartime lifestyle that maximizes resources for the global cause of magnifying Christ—to see this happen in our ministry through Jesus Christ is the greatest thing that can happen to a pastor.
This is why verse 17 is not stated in terms of mere facts: “In Christ Jesus, then, my work has been fruitful.” It is stated in terms of a deep experience of the soul. “In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud—I have reason to exult, I have reason to boast, I have reason to glory—of my work for God.” The aim of the pastoral ministry is therefore not merely to prepare an offering to God of a holy and obedient people. It is to exult in it, and boast in it, and glory in it. God will not be honored in our work if we are not thrilled by his glorious work in our work.2
God at Work in All Our Work
So turn now to this foundational truth that runs all through this text, namely, that in all our work it is God who is at work so that when we exult or boast we must exult and boast in him. You see it in at least four places. Let’s go backward and end in verse 14 and the application of all this to the people who are being prepared as an offering for God.
In verse 18 it could not be clearer: “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience.” The only thing Paul will talk about is what Christ did through him. Notice two things: first, Paul worked, but, second, it was Christ working through him. This is how God gives us significance but keeps all the glory for himself. 1 Corinthians 15:10, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” And Romans 11:36, “From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” So we see that in all our work to prepare an offering for God, it is God who is at work.
Then verse 16. At the end the key phrase is “sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” That means that the Holy Spirit is the decisive cause in preparing a holy people for the Lord. The Lord is preparing a people for the Lord. But Paul’s instrumentality is seen when he describes his role as “the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” That means that Paul’s application of the gospel—his teaching and preaching and writing and exposition and application of the gospel—is essential for the sanctification of the offering he is preparing for God. The Holy Spirit does not do his sanctifying work in isolation from the gospel of Christ (John 16:14). He came to exalt Christ. He works to sanctify a people where Christ is lifted high in all his work and wonders. So again we see that in all our work to prepare an offering for God, it is God who is at work.
Then in verse 15 Paul says, “But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God.” Here is Paul actively working to prepare an offering to God that is holy and obedient—how? By writing a long letter to the Romans. But as soon as the words are out of his mouth he says that this letter is only possible because of “the grace given me by God.” In other words, I am not writing on my own authority or in my own strength. In all my work to prepare an offering for God, it is God who is at work.
Finally, in verse 14 Paul says, “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.” This may look disconnected from the other verses—as though it were merely a way of softening Paul’s long and difficult teaching and exhortation—”I know I have written a long and heavy letter, but it’s not really because you are weak and foolish.”
But I think more is going on here. Look carefully at this. If they are all “full of goodness” and they are all “filled with knowledge,” then what need do they have of being instructed—or literally, admonished—by each other? “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.” Which is it? Are they full of goodness and knowledge? Or do they need to be admonished by each other to grow in goodness and knowledge?
I think Paul would say: You can tell from what I have written that fullness does not mean perfection. Because then there would be no need for you to admonish or instruct each other. What fullness means is that God has given you abundant goodness and abundant knowledge to the point where you can overflow with admonitions and exhortations and instructions and warnings and encouragements to each others, so that where one is lacking the other can provide—and so we make progress together toward complete holiness and obedience. And all this with a fullness that God himself provides (see verse 13).
A Surprising Twist
Which means that we end with a surprising twist for pastors and their people. Until now we have said that our goal is to boast in Christ and his work through us to prepare an offering of holy and obedient people. We have stressed that the great foundational truth underneath this goal is the truth that in all our work to prepare an offering for God, it is God who is at work.
Now we see in verse 14, perhaps to our surprise, that the people themselves—the offering itself that we are preparing for God—are supposed to take the measure of goodness and knowledge that they have and use it to admonish each other. In other words, in their ministry to each other, they are utterly crucial in preparing themselves as a holy and obedient offering to God. Which means for us pastors that our aim is now this: to exult in Christ and his work through us to prepare an offering of holy and obedient people by preaching and teaching and praying and applying the gospel of Christ in such a way that the people themselves will be filled with goodness and knowledge to admonish and instruct and exhort and warn and encourage each other.
And underneath that goal lies the great God-exalting truth: In all our work—and in all their work—it is God who works. From him and through him and to him be glory, for ever. Amen.
1 See 1 Thessalonians 2:19, “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you?
2See the exultation in Romans 6:17, “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.”