I remember well my first year at the University of Kentucky walking through the free speech area and hearing a woman with a high shrill voice waxing eloquent in open air. I remember her name was “Sister Cindy,” and she was quite skilled in enumerating the sexual sins of college co-eds. Her voice took me back to a childhood memory of a neighborhood mom who would yell at her son early in the morning to get the trash to curb before the garbage truck passed.
Sister Cindy in the free speech area was a first for me, and certainly she was an aberration. Indeed, there are many gifted women in the Body of Christ who teach with great skill and because of that, coupled with cultural pressures, the last thirty years has seen a steamroller movement in the evangelical community to usher women into the role of pastor. This month Saddleback Church, one of the largest churches in the Southern Baptist Convention with 53,000 members, ordained three women into pastoral ministry. In many streams of the evangelical community, women are encouraged to pursue such roles, and a number of women hold prominent, global preaching ministries.
As a convention, Southern Baptists have taken a stand on this issue in our statement of faith (Baptist Faith & Message 2000) which reads that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” This conviction flows from the biblical text which we believe to be foundational for our faith and practice.
In 2007, I made some interesting discoveries in preparing for our church’s 100th year anniversary celebration. I learned that our local body, the First Baptist Church of Gonzales, Louisiana, was constituted around the same time as the following companies: Harley Davidson, United Parcel Service (UPS), Blue Bell, Walgreens, and Kellogg’s. In thinking about our local congregation of a few hundred compared to these corporate giants, I was taken by both the contrast of size and purpose between us. These corporate giants have massive resources for the communication and sale of their products, while our little congregation operates on a meager budget comparatively.
However, God’s work is done in this world not by might, nor by political power, but through the empower of the Holy Spirit. The church is charged with declaring and living the message of grace found in Jesus Christ, and we trace our roots to the gospel movement recorded in the New Testament over two thousand years ago. Jesus’ parting words to the disciples was to go into all the world and proclaim this good news. Every church is given that honor, and this mission is given with God’s promised success.
I once read that pride grows in the human heart like lard on a pig. We display pride and its viscous foliage with little effort. In other words, we don’t have to work hard for pride to be manifested in our lives. Even noble and good things can become soured by this pernicious sin. Pride flows freely from our fallen hearts and tracing its roots is not difficult. All we need to do is look back to Eden where Adam and Eve took of the forbidden fruit and catapulted the human family into the misery of this fallen world. Since then, we all contribute to the groaning of this creation, and that in large measure comes from the sin of pride in our lives.
Throughout Scripture, God is on record with what he thinks about pride. In the book of Proverbs, we read that God abominates “haughty eyes,” and we are warned that “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling.” Jesus taught that it was “from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” The apostle James asserted that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” The word “opposes” describes God’s ongoing hatred and opposition to pride. The apostle John referenced the “the boastful pride of life” in his warning to believers against loving this present world system.
What makes pride so elusive is how easily it flows into everything. Pride is a stealth sin that can fly under the radar and wreak havoc before we identify it. With such a formidable struggle before each of us, what hope do we have of putting off pride and putting on humility? Thankfully, the counsel of God’s word is not silent on how we can recognize pride. God has given means of grace, holy habits, that we are to pursue in our lives.
When I was a freshman in high school, I had a football coach who was intense, very intense. His intensity was especially evident with players he didn’t like, players like me. At least that was true of my freshman year which was a proving ground in his mind. Thankfully, I survived Coach’s wrath that first season which led to an improved status for my future years of high school.
Coach had a mustache that resembled the look of a Viking on a conquest. He was the kind of man who during his tour-of-duty in Vietnam spent his free time killing water buffalos with his .50 caliber machine gun. In the strangest of contrasts, school administrators assigned him to teach driver’s education. I will always remember how he greeted the class as he looked out at us on that first day, “Well,” he scoffed, “This isn’t the freshman class at Harvard.” That was certainly an accurate assessment.
In our last post we laid some groundwork in an effort to demystify the will of God by distinguishing God’s sovereign will from God’s commanded will. Scripture affirms that God has a sovereign plan that cannot be spoiled by any strategy of man, or even by Satan himself. Job acknowledged to God at the end of his horrific journey, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:2) This expression came from a man who was never told why he was required to walk through an unspeakably dark valley. However, Job discovered that God has a sovereign plan even when life seems to be careening out of control and no specific answers are forthcoming. And yet, for the believer, there is every reason to have confidence that God is still on the throne, and that every one of his purposes will be accomplished for his glory and our good.
So, if Paul is not referring to God’s sovereign will, what does he mean when he writes in Romans 12:2 that believers are to test and discern “the will of God?” Well, he is referring to God’s commanded will which speaks to something we can know because it has been revealed in Scripture. We are to bring God’s revelation to bear on the decisions of our lives. This offers strong encouragement for every follower of Christ. The will of God is described in beautiful terms as that which is “good and acceptable and perfect?” This pursuit of God’s will should be something we run to as one of the great assurances in life.
But unfortunately, for many Christians the concept of knowing the will of God is a point of confusion, doubt, and fear. Instead of the principles and precepts of God’s word illuminating the path of their decision-making, many believers grope in darkness living off the husks of their own instincts and spiritual immaturity. This command to discern God’s will should be our life’s quest.
Thank you for reading along for the last few months. I appreciate the words of encouragement that have come from some of you who have kindly read my weekly offerings. These blog posts are a part of a larger writing project that I hope will form a book sometime this summer entitled, “Life on the Altar: The Life We Are Called to Live.” With the next two posts we finish Part One: “Presenting Ourselves to God as Living Sacrifices.” My focus in this opening section has been Romans 12:1,2 which provides a unique picture of the Christian life.
In these verses, the apostle Paul brings us to the altar of sacrifice, not for atonement, but for surrender. This altar is for those who have been transformed by the mercies of God found in Christ. Here, in the spirit of Jesus’ demands of discipleship set forth in the Gospels, we are called to a life of surrender. Paul’s use of sacrificial language is a vivid picture of what it means to follow Jesus.
One of the richest blessings that flows from this “altar life” is the ability to know and do the will of God. Paul closes this exhortation with one of the great outcomes of presenting ourselves to God, namely the ability to “prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” I find in these words a demystifying of God’s will for every believer. By that, I am not wanting to be cavalier or flippant with something as important as knowing and doing God’s will. I am not advocating that we will always know in the clearest terms every specific decision we are to make. We won’t. Neither am I suggesting that God’s will is not mysterious. It most certainly is. However, I do find in this statement of Paul tremendous clarity for the believer to live in confidence of God’s pleasure and direction over their life.
The Apostle Paul in his opening words to the Corinthians defines humanity into two categories, two destinies: “For the word of the cross is folly (foolishness) to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (I Cor. 1:18).” His basis for such a claim was one’s response to the message of the cross, specifically that God was in Christ as the exclusive payment for our sins and the only path to reconciliation with the God. Later in I Corinthians, Paul would summarize the gospel in this way: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (I Cor. 15:3,4).”
In our reading of the Gospels, we should make return visits to Golgotha and remember that our sin put Him on those beams. Martin Luther once said, “I feel like Jesus only died yesterday,” which was Luther’s reflection on the events of Good Friday long ago. Good Friday is an important time to pause and remember that day in which Jesus hung for six hours, from 9:00 in the morning to 3:00 in the afternoon. For nearly 400 minutes Jesus Christ was suspended between earth and heaven as a once-for-all payment for sins.
John Frame was certainly correct when he wrote, “The Christian life is a rich journey, and it is not easy to describe.”Maybe that is why the New Testament has multiple pictures of what it means to live for Jesus Christ in this world. The Christian life is depicted as a walk (I John 2:6; 3 John 4); a race (1 Corinthians 9:24; Hebrews 12:1-3; 2 Timothy 4:7); a battle (Ephesians 6:10-20; 2 Timothy 4:7); and as we have seen in Romans 12, a living sacrifice.
Transformed and motivated by God’s mercies, believers are to live their lives as an offering to God. This is what we are calling in this series of posts, “Life on the Altar.” This life is not one we would have found or desired on our own…ever. (Romans 3:10-18; Ephesians 2:1-4). This life in Christ begins for believers with the miracle of the “new birth” or “regeneration.” This powerful, transforming work is an act of God’s sovereign grace in which, through the power of the gospel, one repents of their sins and believes in the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul described this wonder of wonders as God delivering us from the domain of darkness and transferring us to the kingdom of his beloved son (Colossians 1:13).
In our last post, we looked at a couple of examples from the Gospels at the power of Jesus to transform lives. Zaccheus was changed from the town cheat to one who was willing to give back fourfold to those he had defrauded (Luke 19:8). To such a response, Jesus declared, “Today salvation has come to this house (Luke 19:9).” The Gerasene demonic was transformed by the power of Christ from a frightening menace to a man at peace, who was found clothed and in his right mind (Mark 5:15). Adding to these the woman at the well in John 4, who had a storied past with a handful of husbands. However, in a mid-day conversation with Jesus, she received the living water he spoke of in salvation. Her witness for Christ spread as she invited others to come and see the one who “told me all that I ever did (John 4:39).” The life-changing encounters found in the Gospels are presented so that we would believe in Christ and follow him all of our days.
The gospel is not a self-help program. Jesus is not a personal life coach to help us on our way to self-improvement. He is the only one qualified to be the all-sufficient Savior for sinners, and His transforming power is our only hope of redemption from the slavery of our sin. Christ is the exclusive mediator who has built the bridge of reconciliation with God and who makes it possible to live a life pleasing to him.
In our last post we focused on how Romans 12:1,2 is vital instruction for closing the “Gospel Gap.” This term describes the disparity in a believer’s life between their biblical/gospel knowledge (what we know) and how he or she lives. Paul’s point in Romans 12 is that life on the altar is presenting ourselves to God which necessarily means a changed life with continual spiritual growth.
Paul commanded believers not to “be conformed to this world (v.2).” To know Jesus Christ in a saving relationship is a call to deliberately resist being pressed into the agenda of this world’s system with its values, goals, philosophies, and judgments. This world system is passing away (I John 2:15-17), and it is in conflict with our rightful pursuit of Christ’s kingdom (Matthew 6:33). Living for this world’s approval is to crawl off the altar and to live off mission.
In contrast, Paul calls believers to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” This command fascinates me for a number of reasons. I would like to break this phrase down over the next post or two. The transformation Paul is speaking of refers to the full-orbed miracle of salvation which begins with conversion and includes the ongoing process of being conformed into the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). For the next few moments, let’s take a brief journey and get a reminder of God’s power to save.
Timothy Lane and Paul Trippin their very helpful book, How People Change, introduce their readers to a man and his wife, “Phil” and “Ellie.” Phil was not only familiar with Scripture and systematic theology, but also boasted of an extensive library of biblical commentaries by the “who’s who” of theological writers. Yet, even with this impressive spiritual resume, there was something wrong with Phil’s life. Lane and Tripp wrote, “If you were to turn from Phil’s library and watch the video of his life, you would see a very different man.” (Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp, How People Change. New Growth Press: Greensboro 2008, p. 1)
What did Lane and Tripp mean? Well, Phil gave the appearance that all was in order. “He had the theological dexterity of a gymnast, but he lived like a relational paraplegic.” (Ibid, p. 1)His marriage, while outwardly portraying health, was really on a lifeline because of his harsh and impatient responses to his wife. His relationship with his children was distant at best. He was not satisfied with his job, and one could assume that he was in a constant scrimmage with his boss(es). What was unstable in these areas was also true of church life where he was working on his fourth church in three decades. Despite his outward persona of being a mature believer, his problems siphoned off time and power for meaningful ministry. Love, grace, and joy were not the fruit of Phil’s life.
From the outside, no one would have guessed this disparity in Phil’s life. This seemed to add to Ellie’s frustration with the church. Because no one understood what Phil was really like, Ellie had to fight bitterness when he was asked to lead a Bible Study or take a leadership role. When things began to unravel and they final pursued counseling, “They had given extensive history of their situation, yet there was little or no reference to God. Here was a theological man and his believing wife, yet their life story was utterly godless.” (Ibid, p. 2)
Lane and Tripp called this discrepancy the “Gospel Gap,” which they defined as “a vast gap in our grasp of the gospel. It subverts our identity as Christians and our understanding of the present work of God. This gap undermines every relationship in our lives, every decision we make, and every attempt to minister to others. Yet we live blindly, as if the hole were not there.”(Ibid, p. 2)
I believe Romans 12 provides insight into how the gap is closed between what we know and how we live. The opening verses in this monumental chapter give to us an explanation of the Christian life from different perspectives. In v. 1, we have a graphic picture of our lives given to God as living sacrifices. This offering of ourselves to God captures all of life and is indeed defined as true spiritual worship. In v. 2, we read of a transformation by the mercies of God found in Christ and nurtured by the renewing of our mind. The fruit of such surrender is living and doing the will of God.
How do we truly change? How do we close the Gospel Gap in our lives?