We know our badly broken culture is sadly mistaken about certain high-profile issues. During the recent presidential campaign, tensions ran high as people took sides on very divisive issues like gay marriage and abortion.
Many of my friends, on both sides of the moral Mason-Dixon, forgot the crucial truth that when engaging others who reflect broken culture, we must remember that we are no better than they, because we also are badly broken.
As I am working my way through the early chapters of Romans, I am reminded of a crucial truth about what it means to live as God’s ambassador among badly broken, self-absorbed, and stubborn people.
Romans 1:25-32 gets at the heart of the matter: People reject God when, instead of embracing the truth about our Creator, they deliberately choose to believe lies. While that passage’s comments about homosexual behavior capture most of the attention these days, the apostle Paul goes on to discuss all kinds of choices that dishonor the one who created us — from greed and murder to gossip and pride. The crux of the issue is that when a person refuses to acknowledge God for who he is, God abandons him to his evil mind and allows him do things that should never be done. (1:28)
The natural reaction of Christians in these situations seems to be self-righteousness, so Paul wisely follows that list with a stern reminder to us: You may be saying, “What terrible people you have been talking about!” But you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you do these very same things. (2:1)
If you keep in mind that Paul is writing to believers, the verses that follow are nothing short of shocking to our contemporary church mindset. The apostle goes on to deliver a very stern warning to these Christians in Rome. He points out that God is being “kind, tolerant, and patient” with them by giving them time to turn from their sin. (2:4) While God will “give eternal life to those who persist in doing what is good, … he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth ….” (2:7-8)
Paul warns these Christians: “You are storing up terrible punishment for yourself because of your stubbornness ….” (2:5) He reminds them that knowing about God’s ways is not enough, that the ones who will be declared right in God’s sight are those who obey God’s law. (2:13)
To make matters worse, the awful truth is that we are all incapable of obedience.
“No one can ever be made right in God’s sight by doing what his law commands,” Paul says. “For the more we know God’s law, the clearer it becomes that we aren’t obeying it.” (3:20)
Because we all fall short of God’s “glorious standard,” (3:23) God has opened up a different way for us to be made right in his sight—not by obeying the law but by trusting Jesus to take away our sins. (3:21-22) Jesus sacrificed his life for us, taking the punishment for our sins upon himself. (3:25)
So, if the believers in Rome — like us — were made acceptable to God by their faith in Jesus, why was Paul warning them that they were “storing up terrible punishment” for themselves? Because they needed to be aware: There is danger in thinking that, because they had accepted Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, they could go on living for themselves.
Followers of Jesus are called to belong to Jesus Christ, to be God’s very own people, Paul says (1:6-7), and that calling holds profound implications for the way we live our lives. Paul mentions this a lot in his writings. He challenges the Ephesian Christians to live in a manner worthy of their calling (4:1). The Colossian believers are encouraged to “live in a manner worthy of the Lord and be fully pleasing to him ….” (1:10) The Philippians are instructed that “above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ.” (1:27)
Paul counsels the Corinthian believers in his first letter to them: “You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price.” (6:19-20)
Jesus calls his followers to focus their lives on the Kingdom of God, instead of the mundane issues of daily life (Matthew 6:33). Paul warns that continuing to live for ourselves sets us on a dangerous path. The letter to the Hebrew Christians cautions us not to neglect the great salvation purchased by Jesus at so awful a price (2:3) — minimizing that price amounts to “trampling on the Son of God and treating the blood of the covenant as if it were common and unholy.” (10:29)
“Dear friends,” that letter says, “if we deliberately continue sinning after we have received a full knowledge of the truth, there is no other sacrifice that will cover these sins. There will be nothing to look forward to but the terrible expectation of God’s judgment and the raging fire that will consume his enemies.” (10:26-27)
Remember: All these letters were written to Jesus-followers.
Perhaps my greatest concern for the church today is the percentage of members who are living for themselves, instead of the Kingdom. Jesus calls us to love others the way we love ourselves, to demonstrate that love in self-sacrifice — the way he proved his love for us. I see some of that spirit of self-sacrifice in today’s churches, but not the level one would expect, even (especially) in myself.
Today, Christmas Eve, our thoughts turn to the greatest gift any of us could ever receive — the gift of a child who would show us how to live Kingdom-focused lives, and then would pay the toll for us to travel the road to eternal life.
Today also marks the 100th anniversary of a radical Jesus-follower’s death. Lottie Moon died on a ship in the harbor at Kobe, Japan, after pouring out her life in service to the people of China. One reason she died is that, as famine swept China, she kept giving away her food to hungry neighbors. I can’t think of a better example of living in a manner worthy of Jesus’ call on our lives. Lottie’s impassioned letters home, pleading for help in the work among China’s lost masses, have motivated many thousands of us to trade our life plans for Kingdom service. This month, Southern Baptists will raise a missions offering in her honor that may total $175 million.
This evening and tomorrow, as you celebrate the holiday — the holy day — ask the Lord to speak to your heart about his priorities for the life he has given you. As you open gifts, ask yourself whether you are living for yourself or for his kingdom.
When God has given you a gift like this, you want to be sure you express your gratitude appropriately.