Holding Together the Three Themes of Romans 14

Christian Living,Church | Posted by: Editors

By Andrew Davis, Senior Pastor

Romans 14 is one of the most amazing chapters in the New Testament for its balance, its subtle handling of potentially conflicting themes. Not too long ago in a sermon, I spoke of the Great Blondin, the nineteenth century acrobat who perfected walking on a tightrope across the thundering Niagara Falls. His sense of balance was so pronounced he could perform a somersault or push a wheelbarrow or sit down 160 feet above the falls and make an omelet.

The Great Blondin

The Apostle Paul shows an even more pronounced sense of balance in this remarkable chapter.

Paul is dealing with “debatable issues,” matters left to our discretion in Christian freedom. The church at Rome was a mixed church, comprised of Jews and Gentiles. Some Jews had a hard time letting go of their previous way of life in Judaism, clinging to dietary restrictions and the observance of special religious days (perhaps the Sabbath) when these things had been fulfilled in Christ and were a shadow of the reality that is found in Christ.

Paul’s deepest concern is that the church of Jesus Christ be a powerfully united weapons for the advance of Christ’s Kingdom and the salvation of souls. A fractured, divided, bickering church would soon crumble and be useless for the gospel, useless for the conversion of Roman pagans in the capital city of the Roman Empire. 

So Paul seeks to address three seemingly conflicting themes:

  • Gospel Freedom
  • Gospel Purity
  • Gospel Unity

Gospel Freedom is at stake because Paul wants the Roman Christians (both Jew and Gentile) to understand salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, and not by works of the law. He wants these Christians to act like sons and daughters of the King, not slaves under a stern taskmaster. When Jesus declared all foods clean, He settled the matter. When Jesus’ shed His blood on the cross, he proved the inadequacy of the way of the legalist. Paul is deeply concerned that the Roman Christians live as free men and women. Connected with this, he wants to squash the censorious bickering legalism that has not comprehended the gospel of God’s grace. This spirit imbued the legalistic Judaizers that Paul fought in Galatians.

Gospel Purity: On the other hand, Paul wants to be sure the Christians understand the grave danger of sin, and do nothing that will lead themselves to violate their own consciences, or lead others to do the same. So Paul urges a constant vigilance over our own hearts, lest we do anything that is not from faith, “because anything that does not come from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23).

Gospel Unity: Finally, Paul is very concerned that Christians watch over one another in brotherly love, and that we take responsibility not only for our own consciences but also for those of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are to care deeply about how our actions and freedoms are affecting others in the church. Unity in the Gospel is Paul’s deepest concern, and he proves it by calling on people to be willing to surrender freedoms rather than hurt another Christian.

As Paul is laboring for balance between these three theme in the church at Rome, so I desire to see that same balance here. I want a church that rejected legalism without veering over into lawless license, and yet one in which we are deeply concerned about other church members in their walks with Christ. As we face the onslaught of increasingly pagan America, it is vital we handle these three themes with the balance the Great Blondin showed across the Niagara Falls.

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On the Mortification of Sin: Practical Steps

Christian Living,Spirituality | Posted by: Editors

By Andrew Davis, Senior Pastor

I love to read the Puritans, and few books have had a more practical effect on my Christian life than John Owen’s little book, On the Mortification of Sin in Believers. That doesn’t mean that Owen is easy to read—he’s not. But his rich thought on the importance of Christians battling with their sin is worth the work it takes to understand his style.

We’re commanded in Scripture to holiness. “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet 1:16; Lev 11:44, 19:2). It should be our desire as Christians to grow in holiness, and for this reason, there are few battles more bitterly fought than the battle with indwelling sin. It is absolutely essential to our Christian joy and fruitfulness that we be about putting sin to death; and even more significantly, it is absolutely essential for us to put sin to death if we are going to glorify God in this life.

So, back to Owen. When I preached on Colossians 3:5–9 in 2007, I gave a list of twelve practical insights on the mortification of sin from Owen, and I have found that list to be helpful in my own life and the lives of others in our church body. Below is that list with a few brief comments:

1. Believe in Christ and repent of your sins. The fight against sin is a fight for Christians. Non-Christians can’t fight this battle, and trying to do so might cause one to misunderstand salvation—that salvation can someone be earned by works.

2. Determine to fight this vicious battle daily. Owen: “There is not a day but sin foils or is foiled, prevails or is prevailed upon; and it will be whilst we live in the world.”

3. Rely on the Holy Spirit, not your own ability or strength. It’s clear according to Romans 8:13 that it is only “by the Spirit” that we can put sin to death. The Spirit equips us for this battle, leads us to the battle, and empowers us to kill sin at the moment of temptation.

4. Be cross-centered. The cross has power to make the world look as spiritually dead as it really is. Sin cannot be killed all at one; rather it is crucified and bleeds to death over the remainder of your life. Fertile meditation on Christ’s blood shed on the cross has permanent sin-killing power.

5. Understand what mortification is—and what it’s not. It is a habitual weakening of sin’s root, as how a victim dies on the cross—gradually, slowly losing power. It is a constant fighting against all indwelling sin with no rest—both offensive and defensive. Offensive by doing what most frustrates sin; defensive by preparing for sin’s sudden lunges at us. It is not to kill a particular sin completely, for that is impossible in this life. It is not to allow sin to conceal itself and then reappear in a different guise.

6. Resolve to fight sin on all fronts. Learn to hate sin—all sin, any sin, sin itself—as the vile virus of evil that it is. Learn to see sin in the light of the glory of God and what an affront it is to him.

7. Study the lusts that are attacking you: Learn to discern particularly dangerous lusts or sin habits that trouble you. Study how those sin habits gain control over you when they do, then ask God for help in doing battle.

8. Labor on your heart. Increase a sense of the shame you will feel on judgment day in giving Christ an account. Increase a sense of the vileness of sin and of its sheer ugliness. See it in light of eternity. Get a constant longing and breathing after freedom from this sin.

9. Crush sin early in the battle. Fight hard against the first risings of temptation in your heart.

10. Deal thoroughly with sin in confession and repentance. When the Spirit convicts you of sin, do you feel the pain and deal with the cause, or do you block it with painkillers? Don’t be too quick in confession. Pause and hear the Spirit speaking his grief into your spiritual ears.

11. Be filled with the Spirit and all of his graces. The Spirit fights sin mostly by making righteousness and holiness so beautifully attractive. The fruit of the Spirit flow from a heart filled with the Spirit. Be filled with the Spirit and sin will appear more and more repulsive to you.

12. Be optimistic in Christ: Owen: “Christ’s blood is the great sovereign remedy for sin-sick souls. Live in this and you will die a conqueror; yes, you will, through the good providence of God, live to see your lust dead at your feet!”

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There is No Such Thing as Gospel Cynicism

Christian Living | Posted by: Editors

By Nathan Finn, Elder

On September 3rd, Steven Smith, a preaching professor and vice president at Southwestern Seminary, preached a fine sermon in our chapel at Southeastern Seminary. His text was the parable of the seeds in Matthew 13. I would encourage you to watch the sermon online.

Steven SmithIn his sermon, Dr. Smith mentioned two types of cynics that we often find in evangelical circles, including among Southern Baptists. He referred to the “Fox News cynics,” most of whom are middle aged and older. These cynics are very worried that American culture is going to hell in a hand-basket and they spend a lot of time complaining about the future of our nation and how that might negatively affect the church. These complaints sometimes dominate Christian conversation in local churches and other contexts.

Dr. Smith also mentioned “hipster cynics,” most of whom are in their 20s and 30s. These cynics believe that their parents (the Fox News crowd) are hopelessly clichéd and blasé and spend a lot of time complaining about the silliness of evangelical culture. These complaints sometimes dominate Christian conversation in local churches and other contexts.

I don’t think the point was that American culture is all peachy or that evangelicalism is totally devoid of kitschiness. Obviously, there is a place for a healthy concern about some of the trends in our nation and a healthy critique of some of evangelicalism’s shortcomings. The problem is when concern gives way to cynicism and we begin to lose sight of the promises of God and the hope of the gospel.

As I was listening to the sermon, I kept thinking that many Christians are at least sometimes tempted toward cynicism. The type of cynicism depends upon a variety of factors, including age, socio-economic status, ethnicity, denominational tradition, etc. As a historical theologian, I can assure you that church historians—like historians in general—are often tempted toward cynicism. One friend of mine (an ethicist) jokes that it must be part of the church historian job description!

Yet, despite widespread temptation, cynicism is never the appropriate response for a follower of Jesus Christ. The reason is simple: there is no such thing as gospel cynicism. The good news gives rise to faith, hope, and love. Cynicism gives rise to doubts, complaints, and divisions. Preaching the gospel to yourself everyday isn’t just about avoiding legalism or license—it’s also about avoiding cynicism. The gospel is too good a news for us to give cynicism any breathing room.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally posted Southeastern’s faculty blog site, betweenthetimes.com. Image credit.

A City of Truth Erected, One Brick at a Time

Christian Living | Posted by: Editors

By Andrew Davis, Senior Pastor

“Rome wasn’t built in a day.” It is an old proverb, often repeated, and it used to make a simple point: anything worth building is going to take time and extreme patience in order to build it properly. It flies in the face of this age of instant gratification, in which our technology has conditioned us to expect to receive what we’re seeking immediately.

Cellphones keep us in instant contact with any other phone on the face of the earth, and we can even program “speed dial” numbers to cut down the time of dialing the phone number. The Internet is the fastest way to keep in touch with the events of the world, faster even than a cable TV set on CNN. Keep the proper webpage up, and you can know immediately if a tsunami has hit Indonesia, or an economic summit has convened in Europe. Vending machines respond immediately to the proper coinage dropped into the slot. McDonald’s restaurants train us to expect to receive our hot meal in less than five minutes. Walmart automatically times the checkout clerks at their stores to see who is fastest at processing customers, and promotions and other rewards are based on speedy performance.

I even heard not long ago of a certain secular child psychologist offering parenting training to help turn a rebellious teen into a cheerfully compliant one in less than five minutes! I was skeptical, to say the least.

We have been trained toward impatience by our lightning quick information age.

But, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” The small village on the Tiber took three centuries to gain ascendancy over the Etruscans and the other tribes in the central Italian peninsula. Then, methodically, Rome’s might grew and grew. The city on the seven hills saw a river of building materials flowing in, and massive building projects began to reach for the sky. The Colosseum took ten years to complete, with an estimated 131,000 cubic yards of travertine stone comprising the outer wall alone.

The eleven aqueducts that supplied the city’s million inhabitants with fresh mountain water year-round took almost five hundred years (!) to complete. Each succeeding emperor had a vision not only for the advance of the empire’s boundaries, but also for the glory of the city of Rome itself. Each one hoped to build mighty structures whose stone faces would proclaim the names of their builders for millennia to come.

In like manner, but for infinitely more glorious and eternal purposes, God desires to build a “city of truth” in the heart of all his adopted children. This city of truth will be erected brick by brick, precept by precept, truth by truth, over years of time spent in his Word and his world.

Theological truths, in all their depth and breadth, take years to develop and take root in the human heart. A mature worldview, steeped in Scripture, rooted in one rightly interpreted text after another, does not spring up overnight. The “City of Truth” erected in the believing heart becomes the increasingly mature worldview by which the Christian understands everything that happens to him in this world, and by which he lives his life. It is unspeakably precious, but as in the case of Rome, the preparation and proper placement of each brick, each dressed stone, each shaped log and crafted bronze and sculpted gemstone of truth by which the glittering “City of Truth” rises from the pages of Scriptures in the heart is not built in a day.

In the Bible, I can think of three key passages of Scripture that refer to a building project as a metaphor for the growth of a Christian’s heart in sanctification. First, in Matthew 7:24, Jesus says, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” Then, in 1 Corinthians 3:10, Paul writes, “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds.”

And finally, in Ephesians 2:19–21, Paul teaches the church that “You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

In each passage, the ministry of the Word of God is central to this building project. Jesus likens people who hear his words and put them into practice to a wise man building a house on a rock. Paul, in 1 Cor 3, likens his successors in preaching and teaching the word to the people of Corinth as craftsmen who build on the foundation he laid, some building with gold, some with silver, some with costly stones, but others with wood, hay, or straw. In the Eph 2 passage, Paul compares the Ephesian Christians to a spiritual temple erected on the foundation of the Word of God.

I say that all of this “spiritual construction” goes on within our hearts as we take in the pure Word of God. With every quiet time spent immersed in the Word, with every passage of Scripture memorized, with every faithful sermon heard, with every good Christian book read, the Holy Spirit uses your knowledge of language (grammar and vocabulary) to mine out and dress stones of theological truth that will shape the way you view life and live your days.

Your challenge, then, is to accelerate the building project by increasing your hunger for the Word of God.

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Racial Tension and Neighbor Love

Christian Living | Posted by: Editors

By Matthew Hodges, Director of City Outreach
and Kevin Schaub, Director of Family & Youth Ministry

It would be amazing to stand in front of the famous “Castle Geyser” or “Old Faithful” at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. To stand there because you know full-well that an eruption of water and steam is imminent. To know that once the water has seeped its way down through the geyser’s plumbing and reaches the magma below, that it will be super-heated and then dramatically forced back to the surface in a hydrothermal explosion.

Kevin Schaub & Matthew Hodges

Racial tension in the U.S. in the humdrum of life might not seem to be that big of a deal. But every once in a while, that tension can reach a boiling point, and sometimes, it explodes. 

On Saturday night, we were all reminded of the racial tension that still exists in our nation. It’s not necessarily something all of us thinks about every day, but it’s still there under the surface, and at times we’re forced to deal with it. That night, we watched at our homes as the news unfolded that George Zimmerman had been acquitted in his trial for the murder of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin. Neither of us was surprised. As best as we could tell from the news reports of the trial, the prosecution was unable to prove its case.

Yet, at the same time, neither of our hearts was satisfied either.

From Matthew (co-writer of this post): Last year, I served as a juror in a Wake County murder trial. The facts presented to the court in that case led the jury to find the defendant guilty. But, it was an emotionally draining experience. In that case, the selected jurors had to make their decision based on the admissible evidence and facts alone. The jurors couldn’t draw on their own experiences; they couldn’t act upon what wasn’t known. Whatever justice, therefore, that was served in that trial, was limited, in part, because of those factors. For me, it was one of those reminders that God alone is the one who knows all the facts of all time. God alone is the true server of justice.

As difficult of an experience as that was, the Zimmerman trial and verdict has been different. The whole nation has seemed involved. There were even some small protests in Durham and Raleigh on Sunday after news of the verdict went out. Matthew and I have since wondered what the church should say in response to various reactions we’ve seen and read about due to this blockbuster of a verdict, and, as a church situated in downtown Durham, we have wondered how our membership should speak to the urban community around us in a way that points to the cross of Christ.

Here is some of what we would like to say.

1. Not a post-racial culture, but a post-resurrection world
 

It is a fact that we don’t live in a post-racial culture. We’re sure that you already knew that. It’s just that occasions like the Trayvon Martin saga have been an explosive reminder of something we might be prone to forget: that racial tension still exists, often beneath the surface of our culture. We certainly don’t live in a post-racial world … BUT, we do live in a post-resurrection world, and what happened that Resurrection Day has rendered a death blow to all racism and racial tension, and one day it will all be gone. That is our hope.

We need to be reminded of gospel truths in times like these. To be reminded that in Christ “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Col 3:11).

2. Being slow to speak, quick to listen
 

When racial tension spikes around us, it’s also helpful for us to be reminded that God is indeed sovereign and he alone knows all the facts. That in itself should remind us to be careful not to pass undue judgment. Unlike our true Judge and King, we don’t know everything. We should therefore be careful, and slow to speak and quick to listen (James 1:19). Often when racial tension explodes to the surface, it’s because we’ve used our tongues to curse rather than to be a blessing (James 3:1–12).

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Because of Matthew’s own experiences, and because of the love of Christ that compels him to stand for the truth of Christ’s gospel, we thought it would be good for him to share the following separately, as exhortations to both white and African American brothers and sisters in Christ:

3. Compassionate and sympathetic neighbor love
 

To my white brothers and sisters in Christ, please seek with God’s help to understand the impact of the court’s verdict in the Zimmerman trial from an African-American’s point of view. We understand that the jurors didn’t necessarily consider Zimmerman’s actions to be racist or racially profiling. But here’s the hard truth: racial profiling has been happening in our country, and it will continue to happen. It’s happened to many, many African-Americans, especially young African-American men.

Whenever racial profiling occurs, it’s a wicked thing. I have personally experienced this evil act twice, as far as I know. Once, when I was younger, my brother and I were driving home from the barber shop in our parents’ new car. On the way home, we were followed by a police car. The officer never turned on his lights, but he asked to see our IDs because we “looked suspicious.” The other time, my brother and I were accused of stealing a tape at a local record store because the bulge from my brother’s wallet “looked” like a tape in his pants pocket.

We grew up with that, as have many others. So for many African-Americans, the verdict of the Zimmerman trial once again felt like a reopening that old wound of racism that still hasn’t healed. In Christian compassion and sympathy, I would simply encourage you to consider how the verdict from this trial has felt to so many in the African-American community like yet another demonstration of injustice.

To my African-American brothers and sisters in Christ, please seek to listen to—and understand the news of the Zimmerman verdict from—a white person’s point of view. It can be difficult for many of our white brothers and sisters in Christ to understand what it is like to grow up in a sub-dominant culture. Of course, many will see that all of this is yet another chapter in America’s sad racial history, but be patient with my brothers and sisters. Please seek to give our white fellow-Christians the benefit of the doubt—as you would hope they would do for you—even while you may graciously respond to their opinions, and they to yours.

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4. Taking an ax to the root of racism
 

Finally, it’s our conviction that the church cannot afford to be silent about race relations. We need to be active in taking an ax to the root of racism, stereotyping, and ethnocentric pride. The Zimmerman trial made it known yet again that our nation is still deeply racially divided. It’s just that sometimes we’re not all that aware of it, because it is often hiding beneath the surface. But we know that it’s there, and we know that the gospel can kill the evils of racism to its very roots. As David Prince has recently tweeted, “Racism can only exist to the degree that the gospel is not treasured. The Kingdom of Christ has declared war on ethnic hostility (Eph 2:14–16).” The gospel is the war ax against racism, and the church needs to wield it for the glory of God.

It is also our hope as we think through all of this that you will pray for the Martin and Zimmerman families. Pray that they might all trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. We will all one day stand before the One Righteous Judge, and our only hope on that day will be if Jesus Christ is our advocate. Such tragic circumstances as these should also remind us of how we should deal with one another in lesser offenses. Always be ready to apply the gospel and be gracious and merciful to one another (Col 3:8–17). We all make mistakes with our words and in our deeds at times. And lastly, we hope you will say with us: Come Lord Jesus and establish your Kingdom, a kingdom where your will is done on earth as it is in heaven, where racism is no more.