Twenty Years, Then Romans

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned- 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. 15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 If, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. 18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. 

My title has a double meaning. One meaning is that it took me almost twenty years to get up the courage to preach through the book of Romans. Twenty years, then Romans. We have begun and in the next three weeks I hope to finish chapter five. The other meaning is that in this message I want to begin with reflections on twenty years and then close with a brief reference to Romans and where we are going.

The message falls into three parts. As I turn from the past twenty years to the next chapter – however long God wills for it to be – 1) I am thankful; 2) I am regretful; and 3) I am hopeful. So I begin with thanks – twenty things I am thankful for on this twentieth anniversary.

I Am Thankful

  1. I thank God for Jesus Christ who loved us and gave himself for our sins to deliver us from this present evil age according to the will of our God and Father. I say with the words of 2 Timothy 4:17 (I preached from that passage the end of my first year at Bethlehem), "The Lord stood by me and gave me strength to proclaim the message fully." I thank God that Jesus, in his mercy, has stood by me and helped me for twenty years.
  2. I thank God for the Bible, the Word of God. I never quite get over the fact that you pay me to study it and preach it. Under God, this is the foundation of our church and the fountain of all our true and lasting joy.
  3. I thank God for corporate prayer. I love to pray with the staff and with you. I thank God that so far as I know, for example, the Friday morning prayer meeting at 6:30 has not missed a day for over about thirteen years (with the exception of a few Christmases on Friday). O that more of you would taste this joy with me. And similarly, I thank God that you, the people, pray for me and my family. Spurgeon was asked once when he was traveling what the key to his ministry was, and he said, "My people pray for me." Amen.
  4. I thank God for hundreds of hearts awakened to the gospel of the glory of Christ – people born again by the living and abiding Word, and people who thought they knew God and have been raised out of the slumbers of spiritual apathy into a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. You don't hear about some for years and then they say, "It was there in that pew where God did the decisive work in my life."
  5. I thank God for twenty years of almost unbroken peace in our church. And even when I think about the season of pain and controversy six years ago, I thank God for the humbling and the refining. But over-all, God has mercifully given precious peace and unity among staff and elders and people.
  6. I thank God for those of you who were here long before I came and created the heritage that I received when I came. Few young, inexperienced pastors, I think, have been treated with more support and encouragement and patience and blessing than I was. The transition through all the changes was peaceful because of the meekness and kindness of so many long-time veteran members.
  7. I thank God that my children have all grown up loving the church and supporting my ministry here. When we came, Karsten was seven, Benjamin was four, and Abraham was six months old. Barnabas was born three years later and Talitha arrived five years ago. All they remember about church is Bethlehem. And whenever we have been away on vacation, they've always wanted to come back. Thank you for loving my family and making this a place of joy for them to be. We gathered as a family on Friday night for half an hour or so to speak of our thanks and pray. It was not hard to think of good things to say about the Bethlehem years.
  8. I thank God for a persevering, long-term pastoral staff. A youth pastor who stays in one place for fifteen years is unheard of. My 27-year-old Karsten was a ninth grader when you came, Brad Nelson. You have shepherded all four sons through their teenage years. They love you. So do I. David Livingston, David Michael, Tom Steller, Brad – if you take just the five of us old-timers on staff, the total is eighty-two years of ministry to Bethlehem. I thank God for what these precious brothers and their wives, Karin and Sally and Julie and Cindy, mean to me.
  9. I thank God for funerals. Or to put it more personally, I thank God for the ministry of the dying in my life. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints (Psalm 116:15). When I came to Bethlehem I had been to maybe three funerals in my life. In the first two and a half years here I preached at a funeral, on average, just about once every three weeks. I would rather preach at a funeral than at a wedding, not because I love death more than I love marriage, but because the gospel of Christ crucified and risen shines more brightly at a funeral. At a wedding there are so many earthly reasons to feel happy. At a funeral, if the gospel of Christ is not true – if the blood and righteousness of Christ are not sufficient to make us acceptable to God – then there are few reasons to be happy. The effect of death on my life in the ministry has been profound, and I thank God for it and for all those who in their dying taught me so much.
  10. I thank God for the missions heritage of Bethlehem(the Board of World Missions of the Baptist General Conference was born in this church in the mid-40's). And I thank God for the missions revolution in 1983-84 that changed my life and resulted in 90 by '90 and then 2000 by 2000 and an ongoing commitment and passion to reach the unreached peoples of the world. O what a privilege to be a part of a church with a passion for the Great Commission!
  11. I thank God for the gift that you give me of time to get away and write. I don't take it for granted. And I pray that God will credit the fruit in large measure to your account as you support me and pray for me.
  12. I thank God for health. I think there has been one Sunday in twenty years when I was not able to preach because of sickness. Sometimes during the week I have not been able to speak because of laryngitis, but it was manageable by Sunday. In fact, our whole family has been healthy and I don't want to take a minute of it for granted. May the Lord let me spend and be spent for his cause while I have strength. I know the night is coming when no man can work.
  13. I thank God for the Council of Elders. In twenty years there has never been a season in which I have felt estranged from the leadership of the church. Which is an understatement. Better to say it positively: For twenty years I have feasted increasingly on the strength-giving wisdom and humility and prayer and faith and doctrinal soundness and joyful, Bible-saturated leadership of my fellow elders. Who can estimate the value of that in a pastor's and a church's life – when the leaders love each other and are ready to lay down their lives for each other and for the church?
  14. I thank God for this building and those who carried the weight of planning to make it happen in 1991. Dennis Smith, Roger Fast, Dick Fast, Cavour Justice, Gene Sprinkel, Rollin Erickson – and so many more – and for those who are doing the same thing now with the proposed new building to advance the vision of Education for Exultation, with Keith Anderson and Ross Anderson and Mitch Pearson. In twenty years I have never been to a Building Committee meeting.
  15. I thank God for being debt-free as a church and what it says about the grace of God that has been poured out in your hearts for the gift of giving. Hundreds of you have believed the word of Christ that it is more blessed to give than to receive and have caused thanksgiving to rise for the goodness of God year in and year out – especially year out, in December.
  16. I thank God for behind-the-scenes people whose work is indispensable for our going on as a church. For example, for Harold and Juan and Bruce and John and Mike and Tim and Amy who keep our grounds and our building. And for those of you who fill your days with doing good to others. Bless you. God sees everything and none of your labors are in vain.
  17. I thank God for the creation of Desiring God with its roots in the long-time, behind-the-scenes ministry of Arnie and Olive Nelson, and then its growth under Jon Bloom. I thank God for the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors and the ripple effect of what hundreds of you do to make that happen each year. And for the explosive growth of the God-centered, Bible-saturated children's curriculum that has been developed under David and Sally Michael and is now used all over the country.
  18. I thank God for my wife, Noel. She was included in all twenty of my Annual Reports. 1982: "A note she wrote and put in a lunch bag: 'Remember, He doesn't give us more than He also gives us grace to bear. (And in one week this will all be past.)'" . . . 1988: "I have picture of her in front of me as I write. If I cover the right half of her face I see a childlike, happy girl. If I cover the left half, I see a strong and confident woman. Then I take my hand away and I see Noel, and love her with all my heart." . . . 1994 (the darkest year of the twenty): "What shall I say about my wife, Noel, in the explosions of the year? What a rock! What a refuge! What a steadying hand on my trembling shoulder! She has helped me again and again to find the firm path in the sinking swamp of unholy emotions. Lord, what a gift you have given me! I thank you with all my heart."
  19. I thank God for the ongoing gift of saving faith that he awakens in me morning after morning by inclining my heart to his Word and revealing his truth and glory and worth so that I have not turned away to serve other gods. "By grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God." I thank God for the gift of saving faith. And, very specifically, that every Saturday for twenty years I have tasted enough of Christ to know that tomorrow – Sunday – there will be something to say about his greatness. God has never left me without a word for his people. And I thank him.
  20. I thank God for the cross of Jesus Christ. God forbid that I should glory or exult or even give thanks for anything except the cross of Christ, by which the world was crucified to me and I to the world (Galatians 6:14). I thank God for the cross where all God's holy anger against me was absorbed, and all my guilt was washed away, and all God's promises – all blessings that I will ever give thanks for – were purchased and secured to give me – and you – an invincible hope.

I stop with twenty reasons, knowing that I leave hundreds of precious things unnamed. My first point is that I am thankful.

I Am Regretful

My second point is that I am regretful. I regret the sins of my heart and the sins of my mouth mainly. James 3:1-2 says, "Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well." I am not a perfect man. And I have stumbled and sinned with my heart and my mouth. And I am regretful of it. You have been a very forgiving and long-suffering people and have covered a multitude of sins with your love for me (1 Peter 4:8).

But this would be a good occasion, I think, to make at least one public confession of public sin. I received a letter from one of our members a while back calling me to repent for things I had said about Greg Boyd in this recent controversy over the foreknowledge of God. I see in my heart a great tendency to defend myself and to justify my words and my actions. And I know that the intensity with which I disapprove of "open theism" easily moves into scorning persons rather than disagreeing with viewpoints. So I sent this letter to the elders and asked them all to read it and tell me if in their view I need to confess to sin in this matter since I distrust my judgment about myself.

Here's a response from one of the elders whom I respect very highly. He wrote, "On two distinct occasions I do recall thinking: 'It seemed like John attacked Greg Boyd (not Greg's theology).' One of those occasions was at Northwestern College when, in a non-flattering way you mimicked Greg. . . . The problem was not with what was said. The problem was that the manner in which the words were spoken was disparaging [to] Greg. . . ." The second incident the elder refers to was on a Wednesday night when I referred to abominating Greg's theology. The elder wrote, "I suspect that only the most careful listeners could hear an angrily spoken phrase such as 'Even Greg Boyd, whose theology I abominate' as a description of theology and not an attack of the person."

So I want to publicly apologize for the sins of my tongue and the impure heart behind it. "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks," Jesus said (Matthew 12:34 RSV). I regret moving from what I hope is a proper disapproval of theology across the line into expressed scorn for the person on those occasions. As I look back over twenty years of ministry, I am regretful that one of my most characteristic sins is to be quick to anger and quick to criticize in a way that runs ahead of brokenhearted concern and pastoral compassion. So, as you look with me into the future, there's a place for you to focus your prayers. I don't want us to be an angry church. I want us to be a humble, joyful, singing, Christ-exalting, God-centered, Bible-believing, patient, caring, kind, merciful, truth-telling, broken-hearted and bold people. It would help if I were that way. Pray for me.

So at twenty years, I am thankful, I am regretful, and finally, I am hopeful.

I Am Hopeful

Here is where we will begin with Romans next week. How can a sinner like me have hope? That is the message of the book of Romans. It's the message of the Bible. It's the gospel. It's what we are about as a church. How can sinners have hope? The answer is unfolded in Romans 5:12-21 in a way different from the way it has been unfolded in 3:20-5:11. In a word, the answer for everyone who believes in Christ is this . . .

When Adam sinned, we sinned and we died. When Christ obeyed, we obeyed and we lived. As Adam's sin is imputed to us and we die, so Christ's righteousness is imputed to us and we live. Verse 19: "For as through the one man's [Adam] disobedience the many were appointed sinners, even so through the obedience of the One [Christ] the many will be appointed righteous." In other words my hope for the next twenty years or twenty minutes of life and then for eternity is not my own righteousness, but the righteousness of Christ. That is the message of the book of Romans. That will be our focus for the next four weeks. And, I hope, the center of our ministry for the next ten years.

I'm thankful, I'm regretful, I'm hopeful in Jesus Christ. It's a good place to be. I invite you to join me.