Last week I tried to lead us through an exposition of this text and how the argument of Paul flows. We tried to get inside his head and think his thoughts after him. We heard behind his own words the words of his objectors and how he answered them. And we tried to see how this paragraph fits in with his overall purpose in the letter. So I am not going to repeat all of that here this morning.
Christianity Declared Through a Book
Instead, I want to do something I haven’t done before in the eleven months we have been working through this letter. I want to step back from the text and ask: What are some of the implications — for life and culture and history and worship — of the sheer fact that God has given Christianity a Book and a text like this and built the Church on it?
In other words, what was unleashed in the world by the fact that Christianity not only declares salvation from sin through faith in Jesus, but that Christianity also builds its message and its ministry and its mission on a Book, the Bible, and on books in the Bible like the Letter to the Romans, and on paragraphs in the letter like Romans 3:1–8? What personal and cultural and historical impulses were unleashed on the world when God inspired Paul to write a paragraph like Romans 3:1–8 the way he did?
Now you may ask, Why are you asking that question here? Couldn’t you ask it at any paragraph in the book, or in the Bible? What is stirring you to ask that question here? There are two answers at least. One is this: I found this passage to be about as hard a paragraph to deal with as any in this letter. The difficulty of following the train of thought in this paragraph is enormous. I just listened to a sermon on this text by Martyn Lloyd-Jones from forty years ago in London. He commented at the outset that this is one of the most difficult paragraphs not only in Romans, but also in the whole Bible.
I wrestled so hard trying to figure out how Paul’s argument worked here, and I prayed so fervently that God would give me light and guard me from error, that I felt forced to ask, “God, what does this mean, that you have ordained that such a difficult paragraph to be in your word? What am I to learn from this?” Someone might say, The difficulty is our problem, not God’s; if we were more spiritual, and more docile, we would not find God’s word so difficult (which is true up to a point). You must remember, however, that the apostle Peter said in his second letter:
“We should feel desperation — a desperate dependence on God’s help.”
Our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him [not in folly of intellect, but in wisdom given by God!], wrote to you, as also in all his letters . . . in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:15–16)
Note four simple and obvious things:
Paul wrote with wisdom “given to him” — and Peter means wisdom given by God (as 1 Corinthians 2:13 says).
Therefore, Peter says Paul’s writings are in the category of the “other Scriptures;” the apostles’ writings are in the same category as the inspired Old Testament Scriptures.
Nevertheless, some of what he wrote was “hard to understand.” God, the perfect communicator (because he is perfect in every way), does not make everything easy when he guides a writer in what to write.
This is an apostle talking, not John Piper. So I feel in good company when I say that Romans 3:1–8 is a hard paragraph to understand.
My first reason for stepping back and asking what a text like this unleashed on the world is that I found it very difficult and I was impelled to ask what God might be up to in inspiring such a difficult train of thought.
My second reason for asking this question here is that there is a kind of warrant for it in verses 1–2: “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.” If you stop and think about it, verse two beckons us to ponder what is the great benefit of being entrusted with the oracles of God (which we are!).
So here at the beginning of one of the hardest “oracles of God” in the Bible, we are reminded by God that having the oracles of God entrusted to us in a Book (as they were to the Jews in the Old Testament) is a great thing. So even the context itself urges me on to ask: What does it mean that God should speak this way? What does it mean that God should inspire paragraphs like this in his Book? What did God unleash in the world by building his Church on the foundation of writing like this (Ephesians 2:20)?
What God Unleashed with a Word Foundation
Let me mention four things and then balance them with the less complex side of the gospel. Four things: desperation, supplication, cogitation, and education.
1. Desperation — Dependence on God’s enablement.
I see this in 1 Corinthians 2:14: “A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” The natural man (all of us without the Spirit’s work in our lives) should feel desperation before the revelation of God. He needs God’s help. Well, the same thing is true of spiritual — but finite and fallible and sinful — people like me, when I meet difficult texts of God’s word. I should feel desperation — a desperate dependence on God’s help. That is what God wants us to feel. That is something he has unleashed by inspiring difficult texts.
2. Supplication — Prayer to God for help.
This follows from desperation. If you feel dependent on God to help you see the meaning of a text, then you will cry to him for help. I see this in Psalm 119:18: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Your law.” Seven times in one psalm the psalmist prays, “Teach me your statutes” (Psalm 119:12, 26, 64, 68,124, 135, 171). Or as Psalm 25:5 says, “Lead me in thy truth, and teach me.” By inspiring some things hard to understand, God has unleashed in the world desperation, which leads to supplication — the crying out to God for help.
3. Cogitation — Thinking hard about biblical texts.
You might think, “No, no, you are confused, Pastor John. You just said that God wants us to pray for his help in understanding, not to think our way through to a solution.” But the answer to that concern is, No, praying and thinking are not alternatives. I learn this especially from 2 Timothy 2:7, where Paul says to Timothy, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will grant you understanding in everything.” Yes, it is the Lord who gives understanding. But he does it through our God-given thinking and the efforts we make, with prayer, to think hard about what the Bible says. So when God inspired texts like Romans 3:1–8, he unleashed in the world an impulse toward hard thinking. Alongside desperation and supplication, there is cogitation. Which leads finally to . . .
4. Education — Training to pray, read, and think.
If God has inspired a Book as the foundation of the Christian faith, there is a massive impulse unleashed in the world to teach people how to read. And if God ordained for some of that precious, sacred, God-breathed Book to be hard to understand, then God unleashed in the world not only an impulse to teach people how to read, but how to think about what they read — how to read hard things and understand them, and how to use the mind in a rigorous way.
“God is who he is in all his glorious attributes and self-sufficiency.”
Paul said to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:2: “What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” Impart understanding to others, Timothy, in a way that will enable them to teach others also. In other words, the writings of the apostles — especially the hard ones — unleash generation after generation of education. Education is helping people understand something that they don’t already understand. Or, more accurately, education is helping people (young or old) learn how to get an understanding that they didn’t already have. Education is cultivating the life of the mind so that it knows how to grow in true understanding. That impulse was unleashed by God’s inspiring a Book with complex demanding paragraphs in it.
Practical Impact of the Word Foundation
The personal, cultural and historical impact of these impulses is enormous over the last 2,000 years. Wherever Christianity has spread, the Bible has spread, and with it the impulse to translate it into other languages — with all the intellectual disciplines that go with effective translation.
And with that goes the impulse to cultivate a literate people who can read the new translation. And with every new generation, there is the ongoing impulse to teach young people how to read, so they have direct access to God’s word. And with that goes the impulse to found schools as well as churches. And in time, since translating and reading the Bible involve thinking hard about many issues, there arises the impulse for higher learning, and colleges and universities follow in the wake of a culture founded on meeting God through his word in a Book.
And in all of this there is the impulse to write down insights into these more difficult things, and so a commitment to scholarship emerges. And over time there is the impulse to preserve these treasures of insight and so libraries emerge and various means of copying and then printing. And since accuracy matters so much in handling sacred texts and passing on precious insights, a discipline of exactness and carefulness in our work is unleashed over the centuries. And so on.
That is some of what God unleashed on the world by inspiring a Bible with hard passages in it like Romans 3:1–8.
Balanced by Simplicity
Now, I said earlier that I wanted to balance this with another kind of impulse from the Bible that flows from the less complex side of the gospel. How shall we do this? Perhaps it would help to do it like this: consider that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16), and that God is God (Isaiah 45:22; 46:9). In the truth that God is God is implied that God is who he is in all his glorious attributes and self-sufficiency. But in the truth that God is love is implied that all of this glory is moving our way for our everlasting enjoyment.
Now those two truths unleash through the Bible very different impulses. And we will see that a balance is introduced here, lest we make of Christianity an elitist affair, which it definitely is not.
That God is love unleashes the impulse of simplicity, and that God is God unleashes the impulse of complexity.
That God is love unleashes the impulse of accessibility, and that God is God unleashes the impulse of profundity.
That God is love encourages a focus on the basics, and that God is God encourages a focus on comprehensiveness. One says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). The other says, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
That God is love impels us to be sure that the truth gets to all people, and that God is God impels us to be sure that what gets to all people is the truth.
That God is love unleashes the impulse toward fellowship, and that God is God unleashes the impulse toward scholarship.
That God is love tends to create extroverts and evangelists, and that God is God tends to create introverts and mystics.
That God is love helps foster a folk ethos, and that God is God helps foster fine ethos. One ethos revels in the intimacy of God and sings softly,
“Nothing I desire compares with you, God.”
Lord, You are more precious than silver.
Lord, you are more costly than gold.
Lord, you are more beautiful than diamonds,
Nothing I desire compares with you. (“More Precious than Silver,” by Lynn DeShazo)
And the other ethos revels in the transcendent majesty of God and sings with profound exultation,
Far, far above thy thought His counsel shall appear,
When fully He the work hath wrought That caused thy needless fear.
Leave to his sovereign will To choose and to command:
With wonder filled, thou then shalt own How wise, how strong His hand. (“Give to the Winds Thy Fears,” by Paul Gerhardt)
Don’t Separate God’s Complexity and Simplicity
If any of you is saying to yourself, I don’t like this separation between God is love and God is God, between folk and fine, evangelists and mystics, fellowship and scholarship, accessibility and profundity, simplicity and complexity. Well, good!
Because, in my mind, every one of these things is precious, and both sides of all these pairs are indispensable in the ministry and mission of Christ in the world.
My prayer for this sermon is this: First, for believers, I pray that seeing these different impulses in Christianity — and particularly in the inspiration of a Bible with hard things and simple things — you will embrace both of them. If you lean toward one side (as all of us do), that you will be respectful and affirming to those toward the other side. And that you will cherish the fuller manifestation of God in his church and in the world. And may we help each other embrace all that God means to unleash by his word in the world.
And finally, to those of you who came this morning without love to Christ in your heart, my prayer is that what we have seen will perhaps remove some caricatures or stereotypes from Christianity and the Bible, and open the way for you to see all that God is for you in Christ, and to believe on him.