Monthly Archives: January 2015

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Friday, January 30, 2015 – “Much in Every Way…”

Then what advantage has the Jew?  Or what is the value of circumcision?  Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews are entrusted with the oracles of God.  - Romans 3:1-2

In Romans 3 we see fully expressed Paul’s rhetorical method.  He asks a question and then provides the answer.  His first question may seem odd to us, “What advantage has the Jew?”  It’s not a question most of us spend time pondering.  But Paul begins with this question because it is exactly the question his earliest readers would have been asking, based on his writings.

The question follows this way, “If the true Jew is defined not by lineage, circumcision, or law-keeping, is there any value in those things?  Is there any value in being a Jew?”  In our day, the query might sound more  like this, “If the true believer is defined not by how often she attends church nor by how thoroughly she knows the Scriptures, nor even by how diligent she is in her moral purity and acts of service to others, is there any value in those things?  If the true believer is one whose faith is formed inwardly, not merely expressed outwardly, is there any value in the outward expressions?”

Paul’s short answer: Absolutely!  ”Much in every way.”  Paul then offers just one advantage – but it is huge.  The Jewish people were the ones entrusted with the revelation of God, the Word of God.  Likewise in our faith development we can find much to be gained from being active in a community of believers even if we are aware of the shortcomings inherent in the institutionalization of faith.  We often refer to these advantages as “The Means of Grace.”

The means of grace are disciplines, such as Bible study, worship attendance, and acts of mercy and piety, which position us inwardly and outwardly to experience God’s grace in ways that enliven, strengthen, and perfect our faith.  Is there value in such activity?  ”Much in every way!”

Lord Jesus, help me add enough discipline in my inward and outward life that your love and grace may free me to live in joyful obedience to your Word.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional blog by Gorman Houston.

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Thursday, January 28, 2015 – “The True Jew…”

For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical.  He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God. – Romans 2:28-29

Paul does not condemn Judaism.  His complaint, not unlike that of Jesus in the Gospels, is with the institutionalized Judaism of his day.  God had not changed; truth had not changed; love had not changed.  But once everything was codified and strict legalism became the expression of Judaism, the law became supreme.  It was that distortion which came under harsh judgment.

Paul writes that the true Jew is not simply the one who shows up in the synagogue or temple, not simply the one who follows the letter of the law, not simply the one who is included in the covenant of circumcision.  It’s not the behavior or the physical marks of a person that makes him a true Jew.  It is the one whose heart is right with God, who doesn’t use the law to advance his own narrow personal self-interests, who loves and honors and worships God from the depths of his heart.

The distinction between institutional Judaism and true Judaism, between outward signs and inward purity, is hugely important for Paul.  It is not that God has changed his mind, or that God is reneging on his promise, or that God is untrustworthy.  In fact, there is no tenet more central in Paul’s doctrine than that God is completely trustworthy.  God is not fickle.

Paul acknowledges Christ Jesus as the true Jew, the perfect Jew – not because he was circumcised on the eighth day, not because he could trace his linage back to Abraham through the tribe of Judah, not because he kept the law meticulously, but because he was truly in right relationship with God, he lived out the essence of the law from his heart, and he was genuinely and purely in covenant with God and all of God’s people.

Paul makes it clear that God has not changed.  Instead, through Jesus Christ, God has fully revealed both himself and true Judaism.

Eternal God, thank you for making yourself known through law, through prophets, and supremely through your Son Jesus Christ.  Amen.

A Bible Study Devotional Blog by Gorman Houston

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015 – Legalism: Judging Others, Condemning Self…

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. – Romans 2:1

After painting a grim picture of life void of God’s presence, grace, and truth, Paul assures his readers that no one is exempt from the judgment of God.  ”You have no excuse…whoever you are,” Paul writes.  The problem is as basic as human nature.  We are all hard-wired egoists and hedonists, both seeking our own best interest, and pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain.  Our condition is not lessened by merely claiming an enlightened self-interest, which is the best legalism and moralism can offer.

Legalism focuses only on human behavior, an attempt to control the actions of people. Legalism does not and cannot change the heart, the intentions, the basic orientation of the soul.  As such, the law cannot make us godly; it can only makes us less ungodly.  We understand this concept from other aspects of life. Speeding laws do not make us good drivers, they just seek to make us less dangerous drivers.

Legalism can create an orderly society; it can help us identify things that are harmful; and it can constrain behavior.  Most of us would choose to live in a land with laws rather than in a lawless land.  But legalism has a harmful side-effect, especially religious legalism.  It creates a system of self-righteousness, a false sense of superiority.  We can clearly identify the most notorious violators of the law and feel some sense of superiority that at least we are not like such vile offenders.   Paul warns, “In passing judgment upon (another) you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”

Throughout his writings, Paul argues that the institutionalized religion of his day with its strong legalism created such a system of self-righteousness.   Indeed, all institutionalized religion (even in our day) faces such struggles.  It is this insight which fuels Paul’s condemnation of legalism as a form of religion.  He posits that those who live by the law will die by the law.  Institutional legalism has the power to kill.  It is the spirit that brings life.  Legalism breeds contempt, hatred, envy, jealousy, strife.  The spirit brings life in all its fullness and beauty.   It is not legalism or morality that saves us, but only the grace and truth of Jesus Christ.

Lord Jesus, forgive me for trying to justify myself by condemning the sins of others.  Purge me of sinful self-righteousness and fill me with your life-giving spirit.  Amen.

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Thursday, January 8, 2015 – “The Wrath of God…”

Although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. – Romans 1:21-25

When we hear of the wrath of God, we often think of some terrible sinner being struck by lightning or some other divinely-guided misfortune like the plagues of Egypt.  However, in Paul’s writings we come to understand the term “the wrath of God” in a different way.  In Romans 1, Paul writes that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth” (1:18).  This sounds like serious business, and indeed it is.  But as Paul explains the way the wrath of God is experienced, he talks of it not in active terms in which God inflicts suffering, but in passive terms in which God simply gives folks up to their wayward inclinations.  Paul makes it clear that God does not force himself or his will on anyone.  If people respond to God’s grace and truth, they will find “the glory that is to be revealed” (Romans 8:18).  If on the other hand, people choose to ignore God’s invitation or if they decide to reject it, God does not punish them.  Instead, Paul seems to say, such people punish themselves.  They distance themselves from God and from sharing in “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). God’s wrath is that he lets them go – God “gives them up” to the desires of their hearts.

Paul lists a number of ways in which those who have distanced themselves from God and from his glory have substituted other forms of worship for the worship of the true God – idol worship and cultic prostitution in particular.  Paul makes it clear that such worship practices do not bear the fruit of godliness but lead only to evil, violent, and abhorrent behavior.  On the other hand, Paul writes that a person who worships God will be transformed inwardly and filled spiritually – not with anger and envy and hatred, but rather with “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

Good Father, do not turn away from me, but draw near.  Help me follow you out of love, not out of fear, that I may live in the fullness of your truth, beauty, and goodness.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Wednesday, January 7, 2015 – “As Revealed in Nature…”

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth.  For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. – Romans 1:18-20

In his Letter to the Romans Paul expresses basic Christian theology – God creates, sin destroys, Jesus redeems, the Holy Spirit perfects.  It helps to keep this simple salvation flow-chart in mind throughout Paul’s letter, especially when some of the points of doctrine get dense.  And, quite frankly, things get dense pretty quickly.

Paul opens his doctrinal discussion by expressing that all persons are in need of the grace of God.  The human condition is that disappointment, disease, defeat, and death loom on the horizon with nothing but self-interest to push it back; and there is nothing godly about unrestrained self-interest.  Paul here is not writing to extol the virtues of the religious and to stand in judgment of the irreligious.  He is writing about the state of all persons, apart from the work of God to interrupt the death-march.

Paul’s grim assessment does turn toward hope.  Paul assures the reader that God has always been present, and that his presence has been made known from the beginning through the created order.  God’s wisdom, beauty, grace, and power are on daily display in nature.  It is not that we worship nature.  It is that the God behind the wondrous natural order can be trusted not only to provide life, but also to redeem and sustain life on the highest level.

Paul writes that even if we had no other revelation of God than the natural record, that would be enough for us to know that there is a God, and to know that this God is worthy of our trust, reverence, and praise.  Then Paul reminds us that the movement from mere awareness of God toward a deep trust in God and a surrender of ourselves to live to this God’s greater glory forms the essence of salvation.

Lord God, deepen my awareness of your presence both in nature and in my life until I fully surrender and live my life for your purposes and to your glory.  Amen.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2014 – “Unashamed of the Gospel…”

For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. – Romans 1:16

Paul launches into Romans with a strong declaration of his faith, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.”  Why would Paul be ashamed of the gospel?  Such an idea may seem far-fetched to us.  But don’t forget the gospel centers on the crucifixion of Jesus, the execution of a prisoner of the state – a shameful act.  Imagine the sense of failure, loss, sorrow, and even shame people might experience if their father were executed by the State of Alabama in Holman Prison.  What a difficult legacy that would be!  When people asked about their father, the natural response would be to feel shame.  It would, therefore, be almost unthinkable that a condemned man could embody the love, grace, truth, and power of God, yet Paul declares that such is exactly the case with Jesus of Nazareth.  And he is not ashamed of it!

In 1 Corinthians Paul writes of the struggle of non-believers to make sense of this faith.  “Jews demand signs,” Paul writes of the Jewish tradition which centers on the mighty acts of God; “And Greeks seek wisdom,” Paul continues, speaking of well-reasoned Greek philosophy.  “But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,” Paul declares.  He holds tightly to a seemingly shameful religion, not because of its novelty but only because, “To those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).  Paul’s summation is that in Christ Jesus the world finds the greatest act of God, the great power of God, and the greatest revelation of the truth and wisdom of God.

Paul is not ashamed of the gospel, he declares as he begins his letter.  There is no need to defend God’s actions in Christ Jesus.  There is just an opportunity and duty to share the gospel that all persons – Jew and Gentile alike – may share in the healing and saving work of God.

Lord, even faith itself at times seems foolish – to believe that which we cannot see, to trust that which we cannot prove.  Fill us with the assurance of your spirit that we may neither waver nor be ashamed.  Amen.

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Monday, January 5, 2014 – “Slaves, Apostles, Saints…”

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ; to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints. – Romans 1:1-7a

As we venture into the masterpiece of Christian theology, which we call Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we take note of Paul’s precise writing style.  We can see it from the very beginning of this remarkable work, even in the way he both identifies himself and addresses his readers.

Paul begins this epistle in the typical literary fashion of the time by revealing his identity and offering his credentials.  He calls himself “a servant of Jesus Christ,” or more precisely a slave (δουλος, doulos) of Jesus Christ.  Paul’s self-understanding centers on his relationship with Jesus Christ, and that relationship for him and for all who truly come to faith is one of a slave.

Paul’s credentials center on his claim to be an apostle.  This is an important claim.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke identify at least some of the apostles of Jesus in the list of the twelve disciples.  Paul seems to indicate in his writings that an apostle had to have been an eye-witness of the resurrected Jesus, though both he and other New Testament writers seem to use the term in a more general way.  The word apostle (ἀπόστολος, apóstólos) literally means “from the fleet.”  It often is understood to be anyone who is sent in Jesus’ name, like a missionary or an emissary.

Paul addresses his readers as those who “belong to Jesus Christ.”  Such a greeting implies that they are fellow slaves.  However, Paul makes it clear that a slave of Jesus Christ is also “God’s beloved,” with the destiny of sainthood.

This introduction tells us much about Paul’s theology of salvation, in which the sinner is bought and paid for by Christ Jesus, accepted and loved by God, and sanctified and made Christ-like through the power of the Holy Spirit.

What a greeting!  What an epistle!  What a savior!

Lord Jesus, I have no claim to salvation other than that I am a sinner of your own redeeming.  Amen.