I remain with the book of Romans this morning, but depart from our sequence in chapter one, and ask you to focus with me on chapter twelve, especially verses 3–8. The reason for this is that we put a tremendous weight on participation in small groups at Bethlehem, and this is Small-Group Sign-Up Sunday.
We think that living the Christian life calls for small groups. And we think that shepherding the church calls for small groups. The elders are committed to overseeing the small group leaders, and the small group leaders are committed to helping a small flock — a small group — care for each other. We believe in the New Testament teaching about the eldership and the priesthood of all believers.
All Christians are ministers, but not all are overseers. The ministry of the church does not belong to the elders; it belongs to the body, the flock, the saints, the believers. Overseers exist to equip and to protect and to guide; but all of this is done to liberate and empower (Ephesians 4:12) the priesthood of the believers (1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 1:6; 5:9).
So my aim today is to take you into the mind of the apostle Paul and the mind of God in regard to the kind of mutual, one-another ministry that we believe small groups are all about. My prayer is that you will love what you see, and that you will join a small group that exists, or get the training to start your own. Staying with the book of Romans, this meant going to Romans 12:3–8.
Righteous Through Faith
Let me begin by connecting the great gospel truths of Romans 1:16–17 with Romans 12:3–8, about the mutual ministry of believers in the body of Christ. We have seen that all of us are ungodly and unrighteous and under the wrath of a holy and just God. In ourselves, there is no hope for us. We are sinners and our hearts are rebellious against God.
There is only one hope: that the righteousness that God demands from us, he himself will give to us. Not because we have earned it with good works, but because we receive it by faith. That is what the book of Romans is about: this great salvation of sinners by the free grace of God imputing to us sinners a righteousness not our own, so that a holy God may not only now receive us into his presence, but devote his infinite energy to saving us from every enemy and giving us every blessing imaginable.
“The faith that unites us to Christ, also unites us to the body of Christ, the church.”
“Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies! Who is to condemn, it is Christ Jesus who died” (Romans 8:33–34). In other words, “the gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). “Having been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved from the wrath of God through him” (Romans 5:9).
Now the danger with all this is that a person might begin to think that God’s purposes are very individualistic. Each is a sinner. Each is guilty and under condemnation. Each must believe. And each will be saved if he or she does believe. That is all very true. The gospel is addressed to individual sinners. No one can believe for us.
United to Christ — United to His Body
But when we believe, we are united to Christ in a way that also unites us to each other. That is what needs to be stressed today. Romans 8:1 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” So the gift of God’s righteousness comes to us and takes away our condemnation “in Christ Jesus.” That is, in relation to Jesus. In spiritual union with Jesus, created and preserved by the Spirit through faith.
Now notice the link with Romans 12:4–5: “For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ [note the phrase], and individually members one of another.” So the faith that unites us to Christ, also unites us to the body of Christ, the church.
Now consider this carefully. You may have never thought about how utterly crucial the local church is to your life in Christ. Verse 5 says that “we are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” What does that last phrase mean, “individually members one of another”? It means that in belonging to the body, we belong to each other. Connection with Christ means connection with each other. If one arm is bleeding badly, every limb in the body will grow weaker, not just the arm. If one arm is working hard to feed the mouth, every limb will be strengthened.
But think about the importance of this for your relation to Christ. What would it mean if one limb of the body said to the other limbs, “I don’t need you and I don’t like you, so I choose not to be attached to you; I want no relationship with you”? What would that mean? Well, that limb would be saying: I choose not to be in Christ. You can’t have it both ways. Paul says, “In Christ we are individually members one of another.” That is a reality. We don’t make it a reality. It is a reality. And if we reject the reality, we reject Christ. In other words, the reality of the church — the local body of believers — is crucial.
Why a Body, a Church?
Now why is this? Why would God set it up this way? Why not just a great multitude of individuals all justified by faith and relating with Christ directly and only dependent on the Holy Spirit and not on each other? The answer is given in Romans 15:5–7:
Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God.
Notice that two times Paul explains what the aim of Christian unity and mutual acceptance is, namely, the glory of God. God has ordained that a church be a unified body of diverse individuals and not just a collection of isolated individuals. Verse 6: “[Strive for unity] . . . so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify God.” God gets more glory through a body of believers functioning in a unity of truth and love than he would through a host of supposedly holy individuals who don’t relate to each other or minister to each other or worship with each other or do missions with each other.
Then he says it again in Romans 15:7: “Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God.” Christ accepted us in our sin and misery, and loved us and saved us. Why? To glorify his Father (John 12:27–28; 17:4–5). So Paul says, let that be your motive as well. That is why God designed salvation the way he did. Being united to Christ means being united to a body of believers, because this way God will get more glory than if he had saved us another way. God does everything to magnify his glory. That is why the church exists, and that is why small groups exist.
“Small groups are a great work of sovereign grace.”
A group of people learning how to love each other in the power of the gospel and in the power of the Spirit glorifies God more than single individuals relating to Christ in isolation. That’s not hard to understand. It’s easier to stay at home and watch TV than to get together with people different from you and carry their burdens in prayer and minister to them with your gifts and strategize with them to reach the lost. But God doesn’t get more glory when you just do the easy thing. He gets more glory when you depend on him to help you do the hard thing — and especially when you do it with the joy of hope.
Spiritual Gifts and Faith Are Both from God
Now that idea of depending on God to help us minister to each other brings us to a very crucial teaching in this text — the idea that ministry to each other in the body of Christ is done with spiritual gifts and by faith that are both the work of God’s grace in our lives. And the reason for this is so that God gets the glory.
So I want to show you that we must trust God’s grace for the gifts we need to help each other in our small groups, and that we depend on God’s grace for the very faith we need to receive and use our gifts. In this way, God gets all the glory, and the ultimate purpose for small groups and the church and the universe is fulfilled.
First, consider a principle that runs through the whole Bible: Working in our own strength magnifies us, shows that we have too high a view of ourselves, and gets the glory for us. But working in the strength that God supplies magnifies him, and shows that we have a sober, dependent view of ourselves, and gets the glory for God. This principle is stated most clearly in 1 Peter 4:11: “Whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”
You see the principle: the giver gets the glory. If you go to your small group not in your strength, but utterly dependent on God’s strength to help you and use you for the good of others, then God will get the glory in your ministry and in the group. And that is the goal.
Now this helps makes sense out of the amazing emphasis in Romans 12:3–8 where Paul really emphasizes that not only are spiritual gifts a work of God’s grace, but even the faith that depends on God’s grace is a work of God’s grace. In other words, small groups are a great work of sovereign grace. Let’s see this in the text.
In verse 3, the first thing Paul does is call attention to his own dependence on grace in the use of his apostolic gift: “For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think.” He’s saying, in other words, is, I could easily begin to think too highly of myself as an apostle were it not for one thing: All my calling, all my gifts, all my authority is a work of free grace in my life. I don’t deserve it. I didn’t muster it up. It isn’t owing to my self-wrought abilities and skills. It is all of grace.
Then he calls attention to the same thing in regard to all of our spiritual gifts. Verse 6: “Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly.” The phrase is almost identical with the one in verse 3: “according to the grace given to us” (verse 3: “through the grace given to me”). We don’t choose our gifts, and we don’t design the body of Christ so that it has the diversity that it has. Paul says that God’s grace is what does that. We have gifts and they differ not according to our will, but according to God’s grace. This is because God means to get the glory for all things, including the ministry of small groups. We get the gifts and the help and the blessing, but God gets the glory.
Thinking too Highly of Ourselves
But now comes the final remedy to thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, which is what Paul is very concerned about (Romans 12:3), since it robs God of his glory. One might be tempted to say, “Well, yes, our gifts are a work of grace and we cannot boast in them. But the use of the gifts is up to us and, and so there is some reason for pride in whether we use our gifts or not.” What is the remedy for this final vestige of pride in our small groups?
The final remedy is stated in verse three at the end: “For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think [so the issue is clearly pride; but what is the remedy? He goes on. . . ]; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.”
There’s the remedy. Sound judgment about yourself is based on the recognition that the measure of faith you have to receive and use your gift is “allotted” to you. Varying measures of faith to use our gifts, as well as differing gifts themselves, are the work of God’s grace. God allots differing measures of faith to each of us from time to time (see also Ephesians 2:8–9; Philippians 1:29; 2 Timothy 2:25).
If God Is Working, Why Do I Need To?
Therefore all boasting is excluded. But a great danger looms just over the horizon — namely, the danger that we will become passive and say, “Well, if I am to do my small group ministry by faith, and faith is a work of God’s grace, then there is nothing for me to do, and I will just stay at home and watch TV.” Now that is an unbiblical and irrational response.
We know it is unbiblical because, right here in the text, the whole point of verses 6-8 is to exhort the Roman Christians to do something. “Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.” In other words, exercise your gift. Don’t let it lie dormant. Take hold of it by faith and use it.
Resist passivity and look to God and say: “Lord, I know that you have given me a gift. I am tired, and I am anxious that I will not do a good job. But, Lord, I trust you, not me and not my gift. I trust your enabling grace. In fact, I trust you now to help me trust you more. And I go tonight to my small group in the strength that you supply, so that in everything you might get the glory” (1 Peter 4:11).
“Exercise your gift. Don’t let it lie dormant. Take hold of it by faith and use it.”
We also know that passivity is unbiblical because of Paul’s own testimony in 1 Corinthians 15:10: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” He labored more than all of them! That is not passivity! But look at the conviction beneath it: “Nevertheless it was not I but the grace of God with me.”
The great words, “Not I but grace” are not energy-destroying words, but energy-producing words. Listen to Paul again from Colossians 1:28–29: “We proclaim him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. For this purpose also I labor, striving according to his power, which mightily works within me.” Paul labors. Paul strives. But it is by the mighty power of Christ that works in him, enabling him.
God Wills His Will Through Our Willing
The point is this: God does not will his will instead of our willing; he wills his will through our willing. God does not work instead of our working, but through our working. God does not energize us instead of our having energy; he energizes our energy. Therefore it is unbiblical and irrational to say that, because the grace of God produces in us an active trust in God, we don’t need to exert an active trust in God. Is it not irrational to say, “God enables us to trust him; therefore we don’t need to trust him”?
At the end of your life, after decades of ministry in small groups, being used by God to stir up the obedience of faith in others, do you know what you are going to say — you saints and sages? You are going to use the words of Paul in Romans 15:18: “‘For I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me, resulting in the obedience of the Gentiles.’ If I had a gift, and if I had the faith to use the gift, it was of God. To God be the glory!”
The Lord has given spiritual gifts to every Christian in this room. Let us pray that this year he will measure out to us mighty measures of faith. Find your gift. Embrace it by faith. Use it in the strength that God supplies, so that God will get the glory and you and your small group will get the joy.