Monthly Archives: June 2013

Friday, June 28, 2013 – “While We Were Still Weak…”

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.  But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. – Romans 5:6-8

Paul points out that we were helpless.  We could not clean ourselves; we could not heal ourselves,; we could not save ourselves.   But it was in that helpless state, when we had nothing to offer God, that God offered us life and hope beyond measure.  It was “while we were still weak” that “Christ died for the ungodly.”

Paul’s emphasis here is that God’s favor and blessing were freely given, not earned.  It’s an important concept.  As soon as someone earns a wage, she or he has leverage over the employer.  The boss owes the rightful wage.  The employer is in debt to the employee.  The unpaid wages are a liability.  Such is not the case with God.  God never owes anything.  We never gain leverage over God.  God is always in control and always in a position of power over us.  God’s gifts to us are completely unearned and are freely given.  That God chooses to give us our Lord Jesus Christ simply shows us God’s goodness, God’s intention to be reconciled at great cost with his creation.  It was God’s decision; it was God’s gift – not earned by the creation but freely given by the creator.

And it’s not just that we didn’t earn righteousness.  It is that we couldn’t earn righteousness.  We were  weak, utterly helpless, pitiful when Jesus Christ came to us and died for us.  We had no claim, no hope, nothing to offer, and Christ gave his life to reconcile us to God.

The concept is unthinkable.  There is no way to make sense of Christ’s action, Paul writes.  I mean, most of us would not choose to die even to help a good person, a famous person, a worthy person.  Surely we would not choose to die for someone who was no-count.  Would you die to save a child-molester on death row in some God-forsaken prison?  Of course not.  It would make no sense to give a good life for a bad life, a worthy person’s life for an unworthy person’s life, a life of great worth for a life that is utterly worthless.  No one would do that.  Yet, that’s just what Christ did.

The only way it would make sense for Christ to die for us would be if he did so out of his great love for us.  The only reason we might die for a no-count child molester on death row would be if that prisoner were our child.  The only way we would even consider such an action would be if our love was great enough to trump reason.

And there it is.  There is the gospel.  God’s love trumps all reason.  ”God proves his love for us  in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”

Oh, my.

Oh, how I love Jesus!  Oh, how I love Jesus!  Oh, how I love Jesus, because he first (fully and perfectly) loved me.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Thursday, June 27, 2013 – From Suffering to Hope…

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. – Romans 5:3-5

While Paul boldly claims that God’s grace reverses the effects of sin by reconciling us sinners to God so completely that we share the glory of God, he clarifies that being reconciled to God does not exempt us from suffering.  Quite to the contrary, Paul declares that “we rejoice in our sufferings.”  Such a concept seems impossible to those who have experienced devastating loss.  But Paul is not making light of the struggles and pains of life.  He knows hardship well and is no stranger to suffering, as he enumerates in 2 Corinthians 11:24-28:

Five times I have received… the forty lashes minus one.  Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.  And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.

Paul’s faith did not protect him from suffering.  In fact, his list of hardships only includes those events that transpired because of his faith.  Yet even here Paul is boasting of his suffering.  Paul is proclaiming that while faith in God does not protect from suffering, it does give the believer a long view of suffering – a powerful awareness that suffering does not get the last word.  Paul writes that suffering when seasoned with faith gives birth to endurance, and endurance in the context of faith develops character, and character when shaped by faith intensifies hope in God’s faithfulness, and hope in God never disappoints.  What Paul is describing is a metamorphosis of faith – from suffering to hope.

Good Father, we thank you for the transformation we experience as we trust fully in your grace – a transformation so complete that even our suffering becomes hope and gives us reason to rejoice.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Wednesday, June 26, 2013 – “Peace…Glory!”

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. – Romans 5:1-2

“We have peace with God,” Paul writes.  What a remarkable statement that is!  Remember the movement of salvation – God creates, sin destroys, Jesus redeems, the Holy Spirit perfects.  When we are justified by faith, Paul tells us, God’s grace reverses the effects of sin.  Instead of being at odds with God, we are at peace with him.  Instead of fighting against him, we are in agreement with him.  We no longer have to hide from God, now we can stand with him.

Paul goes on to say that “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”  Paul here is not talking about an arrogant, self-righteous certainty.  No, Paul is talking of the proper way to boast – not in our works but in our confidence in God.  It is an expression of  praise to God.  It is an expression of certainty that God will finish what he started.  It is a form of confession that like Abraham, we had nothing to offer God, but God invested himself fully in us.

When Paul says we share “the glory of God,” he does not mean that we are made equal with God.  Paul is saying rather that when we allow God to have his way with us, even our agreement gives glory to God.  Further, since we are fully reconciled to God, we are surrendered to God’s will, we are invested in God’s work, and we are positioned to participate in God’s blessings.  Peace…glory!

Good Father, we are thankful that you have acted through Christ Jesus to end our estrangement and to reconcile us to you.  Continue the work you have done until we are fully surrendered, totally invested, and perfectly positioned to glorify you in all things.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Tuesday, June 25, 2013 – “Growing Strong in Faith…”

No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.  That is why his faith was “reckoned to him as righteousness.”  But the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification. – Romans 4:20-25

Throughout the fourth chapter of Romans, Paul’s desire is to show how Abraham came to faith the same way we all come to faith, through the grace of God.  Of course when Paul talks of coming to faith he is talking about much more than just believing in God or joining a church or saying a creed.  Paul is talking about a faith that gives new self-understanding.  Abraham is a great example of a faith-shaped life.  Let’s take a look at why Abraham is a great example of a life given over to God’s care and keeping.

God chose Abraham.  We are looking in the wrong direction when we ask why Abraham was chosen instead of someone else.  We are on-point when we recognize that it was God, not Abraham, who initiated the saving relationship.  It is not that Abraham merited God’s favor; it is that God freely chose a man who had nothing to offer in return for God’s favor.  God chose Abraham, and through him all humanity.

Abraham was far from perfect.  Over and again we read of his misadventures as he put in jeopardy all that God had promised him – the land and descendants.  God continued to offer him grace until his faith grew and he trusted God fully.  That full trust in God was demonstrated in his willingness to obey God to do the unthinkable act of sacrificing his own son, Issac.   Once again, God proved faithful, and Isaac was spared.

Paul writes that Abraham “grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God,” and he envisions that those who come to faith in Christ will follow this same pattern.  We are not made perfect simply by coming to faith.  Our inner transformation is progressive.  As we learn to trust God more fully and grow in grace and faith, we don’t simply become more like Abraham, we become more like Christ.

Good Father, finish what you have begun in my heart and in my life.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Monday, June 24, 2013 – “But How about Abraham…?”

What then shall we say about Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?  For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.  For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”  Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due.  And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness. – Romans 4:1-5

Paul has made his case that basic human nature is sinful nature, self-oriented and narrow in its outlook, and that all persons are in need of the healing, saving grace of Jesus Christ, both Jew and Gentile alike.  Paul has further shown that God’s grace is freely given.  It is not earned.  In fact, it cannot be earned.

Now, Paul sets out to show that this movement of grace is not a new thing.  Paul wants to assure his reader that God has not changed, that God is wonderfully consistent, that God is still up to his same old tricks.  To do this, Paul goes all the way back to the beginning of faith and asks,  ”What then shall we say about Abraham, our forefather?”  Paul is asking this question to demonstrate that Abraham came to faith as a gift from God.  All Abraham did was believe God; everything else was a gift.  He believed God and began living out his beliefs, and all the blessings of a life of faith unfolded for Abraham and Sarah.

It is powerful to note that Abraham had nothing to give God except his trust.  He was old, “as good as dead” (v. 19), Paul writes, but as a gift, God gave Abraham land and heirs and inclusion in the mighty movement of God.  Abraham did not earn these things.  God freely gave them to him.  Abraham received grace from God and accepted it through faith.  Through it all, Abraham found that God is fully trustworthy.

So, Paul points out that just as Abraham came into right relationship with God by grace through faith, so too Jews and Gentiles come into right relationship with God by the same grace through faith.   Paul is clear to note that even the sacred scriptures point out that it was Abraham’s belief – his faith, not his works – which made him righteous and thereby put him in right relationship with God.  ”Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” Paul writes, quoting Genesis 15:6.

What God was doing in Abraham’s life, God is still doing in the lives of people from every tribe and nation who trust in his grace and live out that grace.  It was true of Abraham and Sarah; it was true of Jesus’ disciples; it was true of the Apostle Paul; it is true of you and me. God is a God of grace.  God is still up to his same old tricks.

Through it all, through it all, I’ve learned to trust in Jesus; I’ve learned to trust in God.  Amen.

Friday, June 21, 2013 – What about the Law?

…God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith.  Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. – Romans 3:30-31

The final question Paul works through in the third chapter of Romans concerns the law, “Do we overthrown the law?”  It is an important question.  Since both Jews and non-Jews are justified and made right with God simply through their faith, what happens to the law?  The thought of free grace is offensive by itself.  The idea of abolishing the moral code and removing religious rules creates a fear of utter chaos.

Is the law overthrown or nullified or made void?  No, Paul answers.  However, had the question been, “Is the law unnecessary?” He would have answered, yes.  The law is designed to manage sin.  When sin is abolished, the law is no longer necessary.

As we come to faith, experience new life in Jesus Christ, and are transformed inwardly by the power of the Holy Spirit, our will is conformed to that of God, and our sinful nature gives way to God’s nature.  No longer does sin control our lives.  Instead, we live and walk by the spirit.  In that situation, the law is completely fulfilled without ever being enforced.  We find that we desire to do good and godly things because of our inner transformation.  The law is fulfilled by our faithful response to God’s grace.

What about the law?  It is not overthrown.  It is just simply unnecessary.

Good Father, pour your grace into my life that I may both desire and perform your will.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Thursday, June 20, 2013 – “What Becomes of Our Boasting?”

Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith.  For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.  - Romans 3:27-28

Once we grasp that all persons stand in need of the grace of God and that God gives his grace freely, then we can begin to see the way grace works to advance the purposes of God rather than our own petty purposes.

“What becomes of our boasting?”   Here Paul is talking about the boasting of the entire covenant community, which clearly viewed themselves as morally and spiritually superior to the surrounding culture.  They were the “chosen” ones of God.  Why not boast?

Paul is also talking about the boasting and feelings of spiritual superiority of individuals within the covenant community, whose demonstration of devotion was clearly more impressive than others.  As Paul expresses in Philippians, he at one time was woefully proud of his uprightness.   “As to righteousness under the law,” Paul writes of himself, “Blameless.”   Why not boast?

Why not boast?  Because our acceptance by God is not based on anything we have done but only on God’s gift.  How can we boast if we haven’t done anything? It would be like boasting about the brightness of the sun or boasting about the beauty of the moon or boasting about the mystery of life as if these things were ours to claim and brag about.  Did we create the sun or moon?  Did we bring forth life?   How can we boast?   We can only take credit for our own works, and Paul is clear to point out that our most boast-worthy efforts are “rubbish ” (Philippians 3:8 – NRSV) or “garbage” (NIV) or “dung” (KJV) when compared with God’s great offer of redemption through Jesus Christ.  When the very best we’ve created is stinking trash, there is not much to boast about.

The good news is there is no need to boast, no place for boasting.  We are all sinners; we are all loved by God; we are all saved by God’s gracious gift.  ”What becomes of our boasting?  It is excluded.”

Good Father, I confess that my best efforts to earn your favor are vain and pathetic attempts to prove my self-worth.  You already value me more than I value myself; you already love me more than I love myself; and you extend your grace to me to make me what I could never make myself – righteous before you.  Thank you for this gift.  May I claim it and treasure it forevermore.  Amen. 

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Wednesday, June 19, 2013 – “Justified by Grace…”

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. – Romans 3:21-25

Having laid the foundation that all persons are sinners by nature, Paul now offers hope.  God has acted to set all people free from bondage to sin through the grace of Jesus Christ.  Such is the essence of redemption.  In fact Martin Luther called verses 22-25 “the very center and kernel of the Epistle and of all Scripture.”

Paul writes that all persons “are justified by his grace as a gift.”  Being justified means being made righteous, being put in right relationship with God.  Paul makes it clear that our relationship with God is based on grace, not the law.  The distinction is huge.  It is the distinction, in fact, which is “the very center and kernel… of Scripture.”

For starters, the law is designed only to manage sin, to control sin, to contain sin, but it cannot remove sin.  Grace on the other hand involves the love of God, the forgiveness of God, the reconciling work of God.  Grace has the power to address the heart of the matter, not merely the outward expressions.  While the law treats the symptoms of sin, the grace of Jesus Christ treats the disease itself.

Another distinction is that under the law, it is our faithfulness which determines our relationship with God.  We are viewed as righteous only when we obey the law.  When we do well, God accepts our actions and draws near.  When we fail, God is not pleased and pushes back.  What’s the problem with that?  Imagine the insecurity which would haunt a child if she grew up in a home where her relationship with her mother was based on how well she lived up to her mother’s expectations of perfection.  When she pleased her mother, her mother would show her love, but when she did not please her mother, her mother would distance and even disowned her.  How destructive that would be, not only for her relationship with her mother, but for every other significant relationship in her life!

When our righteousness is based on grace – an unearned gift of God, then our relationship with God is based not on our faithfulness but on the faithfulness of God.  It is not our work  but the work of Jesus Christ which makes us right with God.  In Christ we know that we are perfectly loved by God – not just when we please him, but even when we fail.  How life-giving is a relationship between a daughter and her mother when the child knows that her mother’s love is not fickle, not based on her own futile attempts at perfection, but based instead on her mother’s abundant and all-encompassing love!

Paul affirms that while sin is the human condition, love and grace are God’s nature and choice.  Alexander Pope put it this way, “To err is human, to forgive divine.”  Therein lies the hope of all humanity.  We are perfectly loved by God.  We “are justified by his grace as a gift.”

Good Father, thank you for loving me, accepting me, forgiving me, and showering me with your grace.  Amen.

 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013 – “String of Pearls”

…all people, whether Jews or Gentiles, are under the power of sin.  As the Scriptures say,

  • “No one is righteous—not even one.  No one is truly wise; no one is seeking God.   All have turned away; all have become useless. No one does good, not a single one.”
  • “Their talk is foul, like the stench from an open grave. Their tongues are filled with lies.”
  • “Snake venom drips from their lips.”
  • “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
  • “They rush to commit murder.  Destruction and misery always follow them.  They don’t know where to find peace.”
  • “They have no fear of God at all.” – Romans 3:9b-15

The universality of sin factors huge in Paul’s theology.  He makes it clear that no one can escape the fate of sinful nature, often called human nature, or – by behavioral scientists – egoism and hedonism.  Such a self-orientation is basic, instinctive, and all-inclusive, Paul declares.

In reading the first three chapters of Romans, it would be easy to think that Paul is fixated on sin – and that he is against it.  But Paul’s view is wider and his purposes are deeper than that.  Paul is laying out his theology of salvation, and he knows that no one can have a full appreciation of the power of salvation to reconcile without a full appreciation of the power of sin to fragment and destroy.

The movement of salvation is not complicated: God creates; sin destroys; Jesus redeems; the Holy Spirit perfects.  Paul wants his readers to know that sin is nothing to wink at.  Just because it is universal, does not mean that it is acceptable.  Sin will destroy everything precious for the Jew and the Gentile alike.

Paul proclaims that God has empowered us to live above our primitive instincts and thereby to establish life-giving relationships, to find meaning in sacrifice and selflessness, and to become part of the grand movement of redemption.  Everything is possible once we acknowledge both our sinful nature and our need for a savior.

To create a strong case that no one – not even the covenant people – is without sin, Paul strings together a variety of verses from the scriptures of Judaism (Psalm 14:1-3; 53:1-2; 5:9; 140:3; 10:7; Isaiah 59:7-8; and Psalm 36:1).  Some biblical scholars call this collection of Old Testament verses Paul’s “string of pearls.”  It is a fitting analogy in that each verse is self-contained and has value when viewed apart from the others.  However, when the collection is strung together, the effect is stunning.

“There’s sin in these parts,” Paul assures the Jews.  Of course, there’s nothing new about it.  It’s been around since before the first pearl was strung, and it’s as certain as the day you were born.

Lord Jesus, help me acknowledge my own sinful nature, that through your grace I may rise above it.  Amen.

a Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Monday, June 17, 2013 – “No, Not One…”

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all; for I have already charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written: ”None is righteous, no, not one… - Romans 3:9-10

The next question Paul addresses relates to what it means for the Jewish people to be “chosen.”  Because of the covenant worked out with Abraham, recorded in Genesis, do the Jewish people have an advantage over the Gentiles?  Does the covenant between God and Judaism exempt the Hebrew people from the effects of sin?

Paul’s response is clear, “No, not at all.”

The real issue is the sinful nature of all people.  All humans, regardless of lineage, are natural-born egoists and hedonists.  All humans instinctively look to advance their own self-interest at the expense of the interest of all others.  That is egoism.  In addition, humans instinctively seek to increase pleasure and avoid pain.  That is hedonism.  At birth we are hard-wired for both.

Being under the covenant offers Jews the advantage of being a part of God’s people, thus increasing their exposure to the means of grace.  That covenant does not keep them from being fully human, subject to human nature.  Likewise the law helps restrain sin and rightly directs actions, but it does not transform the inner nature. Thus, apart from the grace of Jesus Christ, the best hope for someone who is reared in such a religious context is to develop an enlightened self-interest, an awareness that it is in the person’s own self-interest to care for others, to be moral, to follow ethical principles.  Such actions are good and even godly, but without an inner transformation, they are simply advanced expressions of narrow self-serving self-interest.

Paul’s word is clear, “Both Jews and Greeks are subject to the power of sin.”  All persons are born into human nature, and all persons are in need of the grace of Jesus Christ.

Paul quotes a variety of verses from the scriptures to anchor this key theological point, beginning with a portion of Psalm 14:1-3, “None is righteous; no not one.”   There is no one exempt from the power of sin. There is no one who is born without a sinful, human nature.  There is no one outside the need for salvation…”no, not one.”

Lord Jesus, I confess that I am  a sinner by nature and by choice.  I stand in need, and I pray for your grace to cleanse me and fill me.  Amen.