Romans 3 and Laborers in the Vineyard

Paul often steps through many questions in his letters. These are either questions he has heard or he does well to anticipate the questions himself. In chapter three he, a Jew, is asking about the status of the Jewish people. Do some say that the Jews have no advantage now because of what Jesus has done (3:1)? Are the Jews any better off (3:9)?

Paul says there was an advantage to being entrusted with the “oracles” of God, but does that mean the Jews are now better off? Is there any different status or level for the Jewish believer as opposed to the Gentile believer? To that he says no. Receiving the promises of God did not mean that those promises were not for the world, as well. And this was not a race in which one runner was given a head start. Paul is de-emphasizing our activity completely in order to focus on the faithfulness of God.

This is one of the parts of the good news that can be uncomfortable at times. When grace means that “I am saved apart from what I do” it is easy to accept. But if grace also means “they are saved having done less than me” that can feel different.

Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of heaven in which a master of a vineyard hires workers at different times throughout the day. At the end of the day the foreman calls the workers in to be paid:

And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:9–16 ESV)

Our attention ought to be less on the others working alongside us in the kingdom of God, and more fixed on Jesus. If we let ourselves be caught up in comparison, we aren’t looking to him. And he is our true reward.

We should be thankful that God is gracious, and we should pray that more would receive his grace. When God gives generously, it doesn’t take away from what he has done for us.

Hebrews 6, Can We Fall Away?

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.
Hebrews 6:1-4

REM – Losing Religion back in the 90s

I must confess I have slowed in my readings (and writings) of Hebrews this week for two reasons. One – because I was away on study leave enjoying teachings of NT Wright and the beauty of fall in Princeton, NJ. Two – because we began with this extremely troubling passage. I wanted to find some more time this week to study it, but here we are on the eve of week six and I wanted to say something.

It appears as though this passage is saying that someone can come to Christ, be “saved”, and then fall away. If this were to happen, there’s no turning back. Almost like saying you can come and be forgiven for any sin, but only once.

So this is troubling for all the worry it would cause if we can lose our salvation. It would change where I stand before God from solid rock to shifting sand. These verses are also troubling because we read elsewhere passages like (and this is just a small sampling):

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish;no one will snatch them out of my hand.
John 10:27-28

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:38-39

And 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

So how do we reconcile these passages? Some of the ways I’ve seen this described go like this:

This hypothetical person can’t be forgiven because they do not want it. They have turned their back and it isn’t so much that they can’t, but that they won’t be forgiven. This still has the issue of the possibility of falling away, but the argument can then continue by proposing that no one who would turn their back on Christ would have been a true Christian in the first place. The description of being enlightened, tasting heavenly gifts, and so on are descriptions of enjoying certain corporate benefits of the church. Or maybe it is some individual understanding, but it is not the same as being gifted the saving faith in Jesus Christ.

Quick review: So far the possible readings are that you can’t be forgiven because you don’t want it, or (with some possible overlap) that this hypothetical person hasn’t truly fallen away because that’s impossible and they were not a Christian to begin with.

Another take on this passage that tries to hold on to the witness of other parts of Scripture is that this passage is describing a non-sensical if-then statement. If a person were to fall away then for them to repent and come back would mean Christ is recrucified. But Christ can’t be recrucified. Hebrews itself has already talked of Christ’s once for all sacrifice and how his death on the cross was completely sufficient. If that is the case, and he’s now been raised from the dead, how could he and why would he be crucified again? So if Christ can’t be recrucified, such as it is an impossibility, then the circumstances that would lead to it are also an impossibility. If Christ has died for your sins then you would never have need for him to return to the cross again. If you’ve been redeemed, then you can’t reverse the process and this is in fact an argument against the mere possibility of falling away.

Those are some of the interpretations out there. Again, some just read it as though you can lose your salvation. But I don’t believe that God’s plans can be foiled. If he has chosen you and me, then he has the power keep us in his grasp. I wish I had a plainly obvious way of reading this that would just click. We must read Scripture in light of other scripture which can make things complicated But I believe the greater theme is that of God’s sovereignty.

What I do try to take away is a challenge to remain vigilant. We ought to keep ourselves committed to Christ and to following after his call. We need to be ever vigilant, while also resting confidently in the security that the work of our salvation is thankfully a work wholly of God.

The Gospel in Zechariah’s Vision of a High Priest

Satan, the accuser (Gustave Doré, Illustration from Dante’s Inferno)

Zechariah 3 includes a vision of the priest Joshua that in one short paragraph paints a picture of the gospel.

Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.”

Joshua is standing before the Lord with Satan beside him, accusing him. I imagine Satan describing Joshua’s inadequacy and sin. How could God accept one like him? What use does God have with Joshua? Look at his filthy garments!

But Satan’s accusations are of no use. The Lord rebukes Satan, removes the filthy garments, and bestows upon Joshua pure vestments. God overcomes Joshua’s iniquity and provides for him.

This could easily be the scene for any of us, sinful as we are, standing before God in judgment. Satan would not be lacking in his accusations. Who of us does not have a long list from which Satan could pick and choose? But the good news is that our sin, our filthy garments, that should disqualify us from standing before God are removed because of the work of Jesus Christ. God does not base his love for us in our deeds. Our deeds amount to nothing. Our right standing is based on what God has supplied for us. He removed our sin and gives to us his own righteousness.

Satan has no right to accuse us any longer. The only one who can condemn us, who can judge us in such a way is Christ, but he is the one who stands at the righthand of God interceding for us (Romans 8:34). The one who could accuse instead stepped in for us and died in our place so that his own righteousness could be placed upon us like pure vestments. It is a righteousness not our own, but of Christ (Phil 3:9).

Our sinfulness clothes us in filth, but by God’s grace we are cleansed, and instead clothed in Christ himself.

Romans, David, and Love for Enemies

The Death of Absalom, Gustav Dore

This week I read our Old Testament passages first before moving into the New, so by the time I read Romans, parts of 2 Samuel kept coming to mind. One part especially struck me from Romans 12 in the way we are to relate to our enemies.

David was by no means a perfect man, but he did display character unlike those around him. Starting back in 1 Samuel David has had many enemies, such as Saul, Abner, and Absalom. To these so-called enemies, David showed great respect and grace. In chapter 19 he is criticized for showing too much grief at the death of Absalom, who was his son, and his military commander complains and says David loves those who hate him.

But Romans 12 teaches us to bless those who persecute us and not to repay evil with evil. We are to love those who hate us. This certainly must be one of the most difficult commands placed upon us. We wish it could just stop at not repaying evil with evil. Couldn’t we just turn the other cheek and move along? Can’t I just walk away? To most such actions are commendable. But we’re called to do more.

It is too easy to support and encourage a perspective that views others as enemies (and not in a way to help target who we should love). We want a foil, a villain, an antagonist–someone or something to compare ourselves to and come out looking good. We’d rather demonize the enemy than sacrifice for their sake and show them love. This is not the way of the Christian.

Christ shows us a greater way, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” When we were enemies, God showed his love for us in sending Jesus Christ.

We won’t be able to match his demonstration of love, but one simple way we could start is to hold our tongues when it comes to labeling others as ‘enemy.’

Year in the Bible, Quarter 2, Week 8

It seems like so long ago we read about people like Noah and were reading some of the gospels of the New Testament. But then I look at a calendar. It hasn’t been all that long–only a matter of months. We began Year in the Bible back in March, and late March at that. It’s exciting to look back and think about all we’ve been able to read and all that we’ve learned from God through the scripture.

We’ve done so much and we’re not even halfway!

As I write that sentence, I realize some may interpret it negatively, as some sort of depressing statement of fact. We’re only halfway? We still have to so far to go? Sure, you could read it like that. But I read it in light of that first paragraph. I feel like I’ve learned so much and the experience has been great and if God can do so much with just these last several months, what will he do with the whole year?

So I say again, with excitement, we’re not even halfway!

For this week though we’re more than halfway through both 2 Samuel and Romans. It’s a lighter week as we finish off with a shorter section from the Old and we keep our pace with Romans. We’ve had sermons the last few weeks going along with readings from Romans and I hope that has helped those who have had the chance to be there in worship.

Enjoy this last week of familiar readings since next week we shift gears and begin into the Minor Prophets and go from a couple months of reading Paul to to reading the letters of Peter.

One more note, as I mentioned last week the focus passage for week 8 covers readings from week 7. Sorry for my confusing actions. I just wanted to reiterate that point so you don’t pull it up and think you’re going crazy. It’s me.

Making progress through Samuel and Romans

So we’ve finished the first half of 2 Samuel and it has read much like a soap opera. We have David’s contested rise to power, political maneuvers, adultery, murder, and high risk confrontations. And that’s just the first half. Hope you enjoy the second.

Prophet Nathan rebukes David for adultery with Bathsheba, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

I wanted to talk more about Nathan’s rebuke of David this past week, but I made a bit of a mistake. In writing a focus passage for next week, I misread the chapter breakdowns and focused in on chapter 12, which actually falls during this week. So week 8 of Year in the Bible will have a focus passage from week 7. My apologies. At least it will be easy to make sure you’ve read that part.

As I had mentioned yesterday, I’d love to hear any feedback about what we’ve been reading. Romans is a long letter that we’ll be finishing next week, but 1 & 2 Samuel taken together is another long block of that goes together. Given that we’ve spent so much time in them, I’d love to hear what is standing out most to you. Each week’s focus passage begins by asking what stands out to you. So I’m asking that in regards to four weeks. What has jumped out from Paul’s letter? What are you learning from 1 & 2 Samuel and seeing David become king? Whether you want to send me a reference to a verse, a few sentences, or a long essay as an answer, I’m open to it all.

I hope as you read you are taking something away from it.

Walking along “Romans Road”

Making our way through Romans reminds me of something I learned as a kid that is called “Romans Road.” It is meant to be an evangelistic tool that uses several verses taken from throughout Romans to tell the story of what God has done for us. It goes something like this (you’ll find some versions that vary a bit):

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Romans 3:23

The wages of sin is death. Romans 6:23a

But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 6:23b

God demonstrates his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8

Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. Romans 10:13

There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Romans 8:1

We see our fallen condition, sin, and its consequence, death. And there is nothing we can do about it. But Christ takes that consequence on himself, dying for us, and gives to us his righteousness and eternal life. All we must do is place our trust in him. In Christ we are no longer guilty, for there is no condemnation in him.

It summarizes nicely a lot of what Paul writes, but it is good to remember that this is just a selection of the book, and if it said it all, Paul probably wouldn’t have gone on to write the entire letter. But it tries to lay out our sinfulness and hopeless condition apart from the saving work of God. In the end, Jesus is the only hope for this world.

We should not forget that emphasis–for the world. Jesus’ death is not only something for me personally, but it is a cosmic event that changed all of creation. His death and resurrection change everything, and as Paul writes in his opening, Jesus is now declared to be Son of God and is the judge over all the earth. In his humility and sacrifice he has been glorified and given the name that is above all names. The world is truly a different place because of the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

I hope this helps you better understand some of what Paul is writing to the church in Rome. These are also some great passages to commit to memory, if you’re in the market for some new memory verses.

Being defined by more than our performance, reflections on the Olympics

Like so many, I have found myself watching the Olympics as we all do when it rolls around every four years. It is an odd thing how many sports that hold absolutely no interest for me during the intervening years can captivate me for the span of a few weeks. Will I continue to follow water polo, volleyball, or track and field? No. But have I been watching it? Yes.

As exciting as it is to watch, I can’t help but think that the athletes must be under tremendous pressure and could be so easily tempted to see their value and worth as directly correlated to their medal haul. They train for years for one event that can be over in just a matter of seconds. That sounds like an awful moment. If I stick this landing, I am good. If I can be the fastest, I’ll be remembered and will make someone proud. But what if I fail?

Maroney’s landing, taken from USA Today.

Just seconds determines the way you are seen. Fractions of a second dictate whether your years of dedication and sacrifice are worth it. Do we remember fourth place finishers (or even silver medalists)? Are teams that bow out in early rounds of tournaments received back home the same way as if they had lifted the nation with victory? Is US Gymnast, McKayla Maroney, who was seen as a lock for gold on the vault, but who fell in her landing dropping her to silver, going to be able to shake the disappointment? These are mere moments that are allowed to define entire lifetimes.

In an article on USA Today on women in the olympics an IOC member made this statement, “If you’re successful, they don’t care about your gender, they care about whether you won gold, silver or bronze for your country. No one is talking negatively about gender here, they are talking about success.” In a statement about the progress of women she reveals what still is a difficult truth. What matters is success.

Paul in Romans pushes against this notion. It is not our success that matters. We can’t let our works define us. If we are going to allow one event to determine our worth, if we want one moment to define us, let it be the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for us. We can’t live under the burden of performance and demands of perfection, like those of the law. On the cross Christ put to death those demands. So now in Christ we can benefit from his perfection. If one moment should define us, let it be the cross.