I appeal to you therefore, brothers,by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world,but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members,and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads,with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.
Last time we began our effort to understand and apply Romans 12:3. We saw that it is the beginning of an explanation of the renewal of the mind mentioned in verse 2. Verse 2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” The first thing Paul deals with in what is new about the new mind is the way it thinks about itself in relation to God and others. I think he deals with this first not because it’s the most important thing the new mind does, but the most dangerous. How we think about ourselves can’t save us, but it can destroy us.
So Romans 12:3 begins with a warning: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you [that includes you listening to my voice at this moment!] not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think.” There’s the danger. Inflated views of ourselves are very dangerous to our soul. In America we believe the opposite, especially advertising agencies. Exalting the self is not perilous; it is profitable. On the billboard behind our church on 6th Street you can read a McDonalds ad: “Me, myself and my salad.” Advertisers, educators, counselors, human resource managers, coaches, politicians, and pastors will give an account some day for how they exploited the suicidal tendency of the human mind toward pride.
Paul does the opposite. He does what love demands. He warns against it in verse 3: “I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think.” In other words, Paul makes the first task of the renewed Christian mind the obliteration of pride and the cultivation of humility. What’s new about the renewed mind? Pride is put to death; humility begins to grow.
Then in the second half of the verse he gives the positive alternative to thinking too highly of ourselves. He says: “. . . but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” So we asked the question: Why Paul, do you make faith, and its God-given measure, the standard for how the new Christian mind thinks about itself? What do you accomplish for us, by saying that sober judgment about ourselves comes from defining and assessing ourselves by our God-assigned measure of faith? And I said that I saw four answers to that question in the text. Two of them we dealt with last time. We will deal with one more today. The fourth that I mentioned really fits better as part of the series on spiritual gifts starting next time.
Why Does Paul Make Faith the Measure of the Self?
1. In summary, the first reason that Paul makes faith the measure of the self is that the essence of faith is that it looks away from the self to Christ and treasures him as infinitely valuable and significant and worthy of esteem. When faith stands in front of a mirror, the mirror becomes a window and sees on the other side the glory of Christ.
The measure of our new self in Christ—the renewed mind—is the degree to which we look away from ourselves to Christ as our treasure. If Christ is more to you, you are more. If Christ is less to you, you are less. Your measure rises and falls with your measure of him. Your valuing him is the value that you have. Your esteeming him is the esteem that you have. Your treasuring him is the treasure that you are. That was the first answer.
2. The second answer was this: Paul makes faith the measure of our self-identity and self-assessment because faith is a gift of God and therefore eliminates boasting. Romans 12:3b: “Think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” Our measure of faith is a gift of God. Therefore, no Christian can boast over a non-Christian as if the Christian has achieved something by his strength or wisdom or virtue. Oh, we believed. We responded to the call of God. We renounced sin and set our faces to follow Jesus. And even as we did it, we knew we were being carried.
’Tis grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
“By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8). If my fear and my relief and my faith are ultimately and decisively the work of God’s sovereign grace, then boasting is excluded. And so by making the God-assigned measure of faith the means of defining and assessing the Christian self, Paul cuts the nerve of boasting.
Now we come today to the third reason that Paul makes faith the measure of thinking soberly about ourselves, namely, that:
3. God assigns faith in different proportions to his people because it produces humble interdependence with all of us serving and being served, which leads to a unity in diversity that is more difficult and more beautiful and more God-glorifying than if we all had the same degree of faith.
If you come to this text with the typical assumption that you are an autonomous, ultimately self-determining, center of consciousness in the universe, then this may short circuit your brain. The Bible does not have that assumption. Let’s look carefully at Romans 12:3b, “Think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” The measure of faith that God has assigned differs from Christian to Christian. Indeed it differs from time to time in the same Christian.
Let me deal with three questions that this raises:
3.1 Do we experience faith in different degrees?
3.2 Does it help us or hurt us to know that this is ultimately God’s doing?
3.3 Why does God ordain diversity of faith in the church when his revealed will is that we all be strong in faith?
3.1 Do We Experience Faith in Different Degrees?
We all know the answer to this from experience. The answer is yes. If faith is a looking away from ourselves to the infinite value of Christ so that we are satisfied with all that God is for us in him—all his perfections and all his work as Prophet, Priest, King, Sacrifice—then we all know that our looking to Christ is often obscured by a hundred things, and our satisfaction in him rises and falls in seasons of our lives and even seasons of the day. Who can deny such a thing—except those perhaps who define faith so mechanically that it has no living, breathing responsiveness to Christ day by day? We know this from experience. Therefore, we do indeed experience faith in differing degrees from each other, and in our own selves.
But it will be good to test and confirm our experience from Scripture. So consider 2 Thessalonians 1:3: “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers,as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.” So there is a clear statement that faith is not static. It can grow. And by implication it can wither and grow weak. Right here in Romans consider chapter 14:1, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him.” In other words, some are weaker in faith and some are stronger in faith. So the answer is yes, we do experience faith in different degrees from each other, and in our own selves.
3.2 Does It Help Us or Hurt Us to Know That This Is Ultimately God’s Doing?
Let’s read it again. Romans 12:3b, “Think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” There are numerous objections that people raise to the Bible’s teaching that the measure of our faith is a gift of God, and that God remains sovereign over our lives even after we believe, so that the ultimate explanation of why I believe and how much I believe is always God. I am not ultimate; God is ultimate.
One of the objections is that knowing this will simply make me fatalistic and passive. Que sera sera. What will be will be. If God ultimately decides whether I believe and how much I believe, then the fight of faith (1 Timothy 6:12) becomes pointless. So goes the objection.
My response to this objection is that it is not true. If God is sovereign, and can bring to life those who are dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1-5), and can turn backsliders around again and again (Luke 22:31-32; Lamentations 5:21), then the fight of faith does not become pointless, it becomes possible. Without God’s decisive intervention, coming to faith and persevering in faith and growing in faith is impossible (Mark 10:27).
The problem with this objection is that it assumes we operate from a position of relative neutrality and can then decisively make ourselves believers or unbelievers, and then make ourselves strong or weak. But according to the Bible we don’t start from neutrality, we start from depravity. We are hard, rebellious, blind, and spiritually dead to the glory of Christ. If we are ever going to believe, God must soften, subdue, give sight, and raise us from the dead. If you have the slightest quiver of saving faith, that is what God has done for you.
So according to the Bible, believers don’t say that God’s sovereign power makes the fight of faith pointless, they say it makes the fight of faith possible. Here’s the way they talk:
Philippians 2:12-13, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God’s working and willing in us does not make our working pointless; it makes it possible. 1 Corinthians 15:10, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” God’s sovereign grace did not make Paul’s work pointless; it made it possible.
For those of us who know how fickle and fragile our wills are, it is a great comfort and a great confidence that our covenant God has pledged himself to sustain our faith and not leave it ultimately up to us. “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). Therefore it is not pointless when the disciples say to Jesus—and we say to Jesus—“Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). Jesus doesn’t hear that desperate prayer and say, “That’s not my work, that’s your work.”
And it is not pointless in the fight of faith to take up your Bible and read, or to hear a biblical exhortation from a spiritual counselor, or to sit under the preaching of God’s word, because God himself appoints these means when he says in Romans 10:17, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
God is the ultimate and decisive Worker in our spiritual life, and he has appointed means—like prayer and the word of Christ—to accomplish his work. It is very helpful and precious to know this.
3.3 Why Does God Ordain Diversity of Faith in the Church When His Revealed Will Is That We All Be Strong in Faith (Ephesians 6:10)?
Here we have to trust the wisdom of God when we don’t have the whole answer. I think I see part of the answer. I’ll read it to you from Romans 15:5-6, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Evidently God knows that a body of believers who not only have different gifts, but different degrees of faith, will bring more glory to him when they are enabled by grace to live in sweet harmony without pride for greater faith or despair for lesser faith—more glory than if everyone were simply identical in faith and spiritual strength.
Think of it this way. 1 Thessalonians 5:14 says, “We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle,encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” None of that particular, beautiful kind of love would be possible if there were no idle, and no fainthearted, and no weak. That admonition, that encouragement, that help, that patience would not be needed. All would be the same.
God has ordained that it be otherwise in the body of Christ until Jesus comes. In our natural depravity and sinfulness he ordains to transform us by degrees, and at different paces and different consistencies, and in different measures. And in this way he makes the very sin that he hates serve the beauty of the body of Christ. His way produces humble interdependence with all of us serving and being served, which leads to a unity in diversity that is more difficult and more beautiful and more God-glorifying than if all our faith were the same.
So I conclude with this summary exhortation:
- From experience and the Bible we have learned that faith grows and faith decays. And let us not be surprised or restful at the diversity of weakness and strength in the church and in own ourselves.
- We learn from the Bible that if we sinners were left to ourselves, our faith would only decay. Therefore rejoice that God does not leave us to ourselves, but “is at work in us to will and to do his good pleasure.” That you believe at all, and that you will be a believer tomorrow morning, is certain for one ultimate reason: God is sovereign, and God is gracious. Rejoice in this!
- Let us never be content with a low, weak condition of faith, since God commands, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Ephesians 6:10). But let us also turn every weakness and every strength into a beautiful occasion of love to serve or be served “according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”