Faith Alone (John 6:29)

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When I sat down last Friday to write my message for Sunday’s services, I had a clear idea what I was going to say…

As we continue through our Reformation Month, my plan was to talk on the principle of Faith Alone. I was going to talk about how, for Martin Luther, faith is more than believing that there is a God, and more than believing that the death and resurrection of Jesus was a factual historical event. I wanted to make the point that, for Luther and the Reformers of the early 1500s, a saving faith means trusting that Jesus lived, died and is risen again for you.

Then I was going to say that faith in Jesus doesn’t come naturally for us. We need the Holy Spirit to be creating and growing this faith in us. That’s why Luther said, in his explanation to the Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed, that the first and foremost work of the Holy Spirit is to call us by the gospel, enlighten us with his gifts, sanctify and preserve us in the true faith.

belief value attitude behaviour 01I was then going to explain that this faith in Jesus, given to us by the power of the Holy Spirit, makes a difference in our lives. Our behaviours grow out of our beliefs, as this diagram suggests. I was going to explain that this is what Jesus meant when he talked about trees and fruit (Matthew 7:15-20), vines and branches (John 15:1-17) and others knowing we are his disciples by the way we love each other (John 13:35). This is also the pattern Paul follows in his letters when he proclaims the good news of Jesus and then goes on to explore how this faith makes a difference in our lives, our relationships and our communities of faith.

And that was basically my message …

… until Sunday morning. I was reflecting on what I was planning to say when it dawned on me (please excuse the pun) that I was describing what faith looks like, but I had kind of missed the point.

Faith isn’t just an idea that we discuss and debate. Instead, the challenge that constantly confronts me as a pastor and a servant of the gospel is how to help others grow in their faith so that it makes a difference in their lives?

I regularly come across two main problems in my experience in working for the church. The first is that I know good people who have been going to church their whole lives who are still trapped in guilt or fear. The good news of Jesus is that he died on the cross and is risen again to free us from guilt and fear and a living faith in him gives us that freedom. So how do I help people find and grow in this faith so they can live in joy and peace instead of fear and guilt?

The second problem I encounter is that a lot of what we do in the church seems to focus on the top triangle in this diagram – our behaviours. We tend to focus on what we should or should not be doing, or what we think others should or should not be doing, in one way or another. Because our behaviours reflect our beliefs, what does our preoccupation with behaviours say about what we believe? If we really were operating from the Faith Alone principle, how might we prioritise faith over behaviours and activities?

There are a couple of conversations that we have been having in our congregation over the last year or so on discipleship, Simple Church and Growing Young. It occurred to me early on Sunday morning, that these conversations are, essentially, all about Faith Alone.
For example, most of the discipling books I read talk about following Jesus in terms of our behaviours and assume a saving faith. However, our first step in following Jesus needs to be to the foot of the cross and empty grave where we witness Jesus giving his life for us on the cross and overcoming death through his resurrection. A Lutheran perspective on discipleship needs to start with experiencing God’s grace and trusting that Jesus died and is risen again for me. And so our conversation about discipleship is about prioritizing Faith Alone in our congregation.

Our discussion around becoming a Simple Church is about looking at the busyness of our congregation and asking how much of it helps people grow in their faith as followers of Jesus. If our programs and activities are not helping people grow in their faith or equipping them to live their faith out in their relationships, then are we living by the Faith Alone principle? And so our conversation about becoming a Simple Church is about prioritising Faith Alone in our congregation.

Working through the book Growing Young was about asking how being disciples of Jesus and simplifying the busyness of our congregation can help us in our ministry to young people. They learn more from what we do than what we say, so we need to be living in ways that are consistent with our faith so our young people can to see the difference following Jesus makes in our lives. There is research from Mark McCrindle which argues that what attracts people most to ‘religion and spirituality’ is ‘seeing people who live out a genuine faith’ (The Faith and Belief in Australia Report). It is vital for us in our ministry to our young people, as well as our witness to the world, that we see faith in Jesus as something that shapes and transforms our lives.

When we encounter the grace of God and trust his grace to us in Jesus, the Holy Spirit shapes us into more grace-giving people. When we trust that God forgives us for Jesus’ sake, we become more forgiving people. When we believe in God’s love for us in Jesus, the Spirit of God makes us into more loving people. The more we grow in our faith in God’s goodness to us through Jesus, the more the Holy Spirit shapes us into loving, joyful, peace-filled, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and self-controlled people (see Galatians 5:22,23). We don’t become this way by being told to be this way. Instead, the more our faith in God’s goodness grows, the more his goodness will show in our lives.

This is why the Reformation teaching on Faith Alone is still so important for us. It is too easy for us to think that faith is agreeing with a set of doctrines, instead of being a bold and confident trust that Jesus lived, died and risen again for me which makes a difference in my life. This is my hope and prayer for our church: that we can rediscover the importance of living by Faith Alone, so we can find the freedom, hope and joy which comes through faith, and so others can experience the goodness of God through us.

More to think about:

  • I have heard it said that everyone believes in something or someone. Do you agree with that? Explain why or why not.
  • What do you think of the idea that saving faith is not just believing there’s a God, or the historical truth of Jesus’ death & resurrection, but that Jesus did that for you? How does that compare with how you understand what faith is?
  • Can you think of examples where there is a close connection between what people believe and what they do? Would you agree that belief shapes behaviour, and what we do reflects what we believe? Explain your reasons for thinking that.
  • How important is it for Christians to reflect our faith in our behaviours, words and actions? When you look at the Christian church, what do our behaviours say about what we believe to you? To your family, friends or others?
  • How can your church community help you grow a deeper & stronger faith in Jesus? Do you have any suggestions for me about how to prioritise Faith Alone in our church?
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Grace Alone (Romans 5:15-19)

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This month, to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, we are looking at some of the key teachings of the Reformation. This week we are exploring the principle of Grace Alone.

Grace can be one of those words that Christians use a lot without really being sure about what it actually means. It has a rich depth of meaning and nuances which can it difficult to define. However, in Romans 5:15-17, for example, Paul uses the Greek word for ‘grace’ (charis) with two words for ‘gift’ (charisma and dorea). This leads me to think of grace as a gift which God freely gives to us.

We can understand God’s grace in both narrower and broader ways. As I grew up in the church I understood God’s grace pretty much as the forgiveness of sins so we can go to heaven when we die. Romans 5:15-19 broadens this understanding of grace to include righteousness (God making everything that is wrong in us right again) and living in triumph over sin and death (v17 NLT). Paul goes on to write that God’s grace also gives us a new and right relationship with God which we can live in new ways (v18). So God’s grace gives us more than a place in heaven when we die. God’s grace gives us a new life to live now in right relationships and in freedom.

Paul goes on in Romans 8:32 to explain that God’s grace is even broader when he writes, ‘Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else?’ (NLT). The word he uses for ‘give’ here is again from the Greek word charis. By using this word Paul points us to see that every good thing we have is a gift of grace from God. Luther picked this up in his explanation to the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed in his Small Catechism when he wrote that God gives us everything we need for life in this world ‘only because he is my good and merciful Father in heaven, and not because I have earned or deserve it.’

More than being a doctrine to be debated, this understanding of grace is something we can live every day. It can be so easy for us to become discontent with what we have, and to want more, or newer, or better things or relationships. However, imagine what life could be like if we saw every good thing we have as a grace-filled gift from a God who loves us. This becomes the hope and goal of the teaching of Grace Alone. It is about finding contentment and joy every day of our lives, giving thanks to God for all the good things he gives us as he provides us with everything we need for life in this world and in the next.

However, every gift comes at a price. I can’t just go into a shop and expect them to give me something for free because I want to give it away as a gift. I still need to pay for the gift if I am going to give it as an act of grace to another person. This is why the cross of Jesus is crucial to our understanding of God’s grace. For God to give us all these gifts, someone had to pay for them. That is one way we can think of what Jesus did for us on the cross. When we looked at Scripture Alone, we saw that the central story of the Bible is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Because of Jesus’ perfect life, his innocent death, and his victory over death in his resurrection, God shows us grace by giving us forgiveness, a new relationship with him, a place in his family, and every good thing we need. Jesus paid for it all by dying on the cross, so we can receive God’s goodness as a totally free gift.

For people who believe in God’s grace to us in Jesus, then, we are called to extend God’s grace to others by living in grace-filled ways with the people around us. If we understand grace as God giving to us, then living as grace-filled people means that what we give to others is more important that what we get from them. This is significant for us as a church which is called to be continually re-forming because I often hear ‘getting’ language in the church – either what we want to ‘get’ from people or what we want to ‘get’ people to do for us. The language of ‘getting’ is not the language of grace. As people who see Grace Alone as one of our foundational teachings, it is vital that we embody the grace of God in our relationships and in our community of faith by looking to how we can be agents of God’s grace to the people around us, both inside and outside of our church. That means using language of giving rather than getting, looking more to what we can give that what we can get. To be a grace-giving church means passing God’s grace on to others, no matter what the cost, especially those whom we think deserve it the least and need it the most, like the people Jesus ate with in Matthew 9:9-13.

Over the years, I have learned that the Reformation teaching of Grace Alone means much more than we are forgiven so we get to go to heaven when we die. It is a whole new way of viewing ourselves, our relationships, our possessions, our church, and the people around us. Grace Alone means that every good thing we have is a free gift from a God who loves us and has given his only Son to die for us. As people who receive this grace from God, the Holy Spirit wants to continually be re-forming us so that we can participate with God in his mission to extend his grace to everyone.

More to think about:

  • If someone asked you what ‘grace’ means, how would you explain it to that person? How do you understand ‘grace’?
  • What do you think of understanding grace as giving? How does that compare with your understanding of grace? Does it help you understand grace better or make it more difficult?
  • Do you think it would be easy or difficult for you to think of everything you have as a gift from a grace-filled and loving God? How might thinking that way change the way you see the things & relationships you have? How might it change the way you see God?
  • Every gift still comes at a price. What is your reaction to the idea that God willingly gave the most precious thing he had, his only Son, in order to show you grace? What are your thoughts about Jesus’ willingness to give his life on the cross for you so you can experience grace from God?
  • Who is someone you know who needs grace from you? What can you do for that person to extend God’s grace to her/him?

Scripture Alone (2 Timothy 3:16)

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Last week, to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, we began looking at some of the basic teachings of the movement which not only re-shaped the Christian church in Europe, but also heavily influenced Western civilization. This week we are looking at the principle that the Bible is the only authority when it comes to matters of faith, teaching and practice in the church.

During the Middle Ages, when the leaders of the church needed to make decisions about what they believed, taught or did, they relied on two authorities – the Bible and the traditions of the church. When the Reformers started working to make changes in the church, however, they only recognised the authority of the Bible, giving birth to the principle of Scripture Alone. For those working to reform the church, the Bible gave the clearest picture of what God wants the church to be and the work God wants the church to be doing in the world. Traditions of the church had their place, but it was the Bible that was to determine which of those traditions were to remain and which were to be discarded.

For example, when Martin Luther appeared before Emperor Charles V in 1521, he was ordered to take back what he had been writing. If he didn’t, he would be excommunicated from the church and condemned as a heretic. The story goes that Luther replied by saying:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

One thing we can learn from these words is that Luther saw the Bible as the only authority in determining what is taught, believed and done in the church because human authorities have the tendency to get things wrong.

This is important for us today because traditions can still play a big part in our churches. Over the years, there have been times when I have been talking with people about how the Bible describes what God wants for a Christian community and people have replied that they have never done things like that before. As a church that is called to be continually reforming so that we can give a faithful witness to the gospel in a rapidly changing world, it is critical that we listen to the Reformers who pointed to the Bible as our only way of knowing who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do.
The challenge that goes with this is that it can hard for us to agree on what the Bible is actually saying. The Reformers discovered this, which is why we have so many different Christian denominations today. We say that the Bible is our only authority, but we find it incredibly difficult to agree on what the Bible actually says.

One example of this is the way I have seen the Bible being used in the same-sex marriage debate in Australia over the last few months. Christians on both sides of the discussion have pointed to different Bible verses to support their point of view about whether biblical rules say same-sex marriage is OK or not. They both claim that the Bible is their source of truth, but both read the Bible in very different ways.

Martin Luther’s approach to reading the Bible can help us find a way through this challenge. Luther taught that God says two words to us through the Bible. On the one hand, there are things God wants us to do, which we call law. On the other hand, God also wants to tell us what God has done and wants to do for us, especially in the person of Jesus. We call this gospel because it is good news for us (see verses such as John 1:17; Romans 5:20; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Galatians 3:17,18).

As long as we read the Bible as a book of rules, it will always show us to be people who break rules (Romans 3:20). For Luther, then, the main message of the Bible is that in the person of Jesus, God comes to give rule-breakers forgiveness, freedom, hope and life. For Luther, the central story of the Bible is the story of Jesus. He ate with social outcasts, extended mercy to the people society had rejected, brought grace to the people who needed it the most but deserved it the least, and gave healing to people with wounded hearts and souls. Jesus was crucified as a rule-breaker, died with convicted criminals, set the guilty free through his death and brings us life through his resurrection and victory over death. As we hear in Luke 4:16-21, Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed as he brings us God’s favour and grace.

So when Luther argued and fought for the principle of Scripture Alone, he was fighting for the church to keep the good news of Jesus central to all we are and do.

It is easy for us to drift away from keeping the gospel, the central message of the Bible, as our central message. We can easily become more like a business, a social club, a welfare agency, or a moral watchdog. The call for us to recognize Scripture Alone as our authority means, for us as Lutherans, that we keep the gospel as our first and foremost priority, so that we can join with Luther and the Reformers in bringing the good news of Jesus to a world that is in desperate need of the hope, joy, love and grace it provides.

More to think about:

  • Do you read your Bible regularly? Why / why not?
  • What is more important in how you think about what we do as church: our traditions (the way we’ve always done things) or what the Bible teaches us? How might your church community be different if you applied the Scripture Alone principle and relied solely on what the Bible teaches us about being church?
  • When you think about the central message of the Bible, do you tend to think more about about the law or gospel, rules or grace, God’s commands or God’s promises to us? Can you explain why you think about the message of the Bible like that?
  • How might your understanding of the Bible be different if you thought of it more in terms of the way God wants to speak his grace, love, forgiveness and freedom into your life?
  • What might need to change in your church community if you were to keep communicating the good news of Jesus as your core purpose and task?

Reforming Since 1517 (Ephesians 2:8)

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Christians around the world from many denominations will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this month. On 31st October, 1517, Martin Luther, a German monk, pastor and university lecturer, nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Many see this event as the start of a movement which changed Western European society forever.

Because this is such a significant event, our congregation will spend all 5 Sundays in October having a closer look at some of the key ideas of the Reformation movement and why they are still important for us today.

One way we can understand why the Reformation happened was that the church had lost its way during the Middle Ages. By the 1500s, the church was concerned with worldly power and influence, generating financial revenue, and using fear and guilt to maintain their control. While this might be a simplistic evaluation of a complicated church culture, basically the church had strayed a long way from the picture of Christian community that God has given us in the Bible.

This was the church culture in which Martin Luther grew up. He took his sin very seriously and was struggling to find a forgiving and loving God in the church of his day. The harder Luther tried to make God happy with him, the more he felt God was unhappy with him.

Luther eventually discovered that God was pleased with him, but not because of what he was doing. He found God’s grace in the Bible through verses like Romans 1:17 that “the righteous will live by faith” (NIV) and Ephesians 2:8, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (NIV). Luther’s personal discovery of the gospel grew into a thriving movement as he and others sought to communicate the good news of God’s grace through faith in Jesus, and to bring freedom to people who were trapped in fear and guilt.

A pivotal idea of the Reformation was that the church needs to be continually re-forming. The Reformation was never meant to be just an event that we read about in history books. Instead, the people who dedicated themselves to restoring God’s vision for the church wanted those who came after them to continue their work of returning to the basic truths of the Christian faith, asking whether we are still being consistent with those truths, affirming where we are being faithful, but also being courageous enough to make changes where we are drifting away from them.

As Lutherans, we celebrate the Reformation because we believe that God still wants to be re-forming us as his church today.

Because of our flawed human nature, we always run the risk of drifting away from being the Christ-centred community God wants us to be. Maybe that is one of the reasons why the first of Luther’s 95 Theses read, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” One way or another, intentionally or not, we are going to get things wrong. Jesus calls us to repentance, to keep turning back to him and the truth of his good news, so we can find forgiveness, freedom, love and life through faith in him. Jesus calls us to be faithful to the gospel in our lives, but also in the ways that we live out the gospel in our relationships with each other and as organisations that carry his name. In the same way, the Reformation movement challenges us to ask whether we, his church, are still being faithful to the gospel in our current time and place. Where we are being faithful to the gospel, we can give thanks to God for his faithfulness to us. However, where we are not being consistent with the good news of Jesus, in the spirit of the Reformation, we need to change.

This is largely what our congregation’s Simple Church and Growing Young conversations have been about over the past year or more. I have been asking our congregation to look at what we are doing and ask whether we have been in step with what the Bible says God wants for us as his community of believers, or whether we need to make some changes. As a congregation that exists in the tradition of the Reformation, we need to reflect on where we are and where we think we are heading, and ask whether we are moving closer to the picture of Christian community which God gives us in the Bible. Where we are, we can give thanks and affirm the good work God is doing in us. However, where we might be drifting away from who God wants us to be, maybe it’s time to make some changes.

For the next four weeks, we will be going back to some of the basic teachings of the Reformation and asking how they might still speak to us. Next week, we will look at the belief that the Bible is the only authority on which we can know God and what he wants for us. The following week, we will be asking what it means that we are saved by grace alone. The week after that, we will look at how Luther and the Reformers understood faith and how our lives are shaped by what we believe. In the last week of October, we will focus on Jesus who alone is God’s revelation of himself to us, and through whom we can find God’s goodness and love for us.

The Reformation is both a gift and a challenge to the church. It is a gift because it restored the gospel of Jesus as the heart and core purpose of our lives, both as individuals and as church. The Reformation is also our challenge because it asks us to make whatever changes may be needed so we can give a faithful witness to the gospel in all we say and do.

As we celebrate the Reformation this month, we don’t just celebrate an historical event that happened 500 years ago. We are part of a 500 year struggle to be true to God’s grace so we can faithfully bring the good news of Jesus to the world around us.

More to think about:

  • What do you think of when you hear the word ‘Reformation’? Share some thoughts about what the Reformation has meant for you in your life.
  • What do you know about the life of Martin Luther? Share some stories you might have heard about him or what he might have said or done (you can find a short animated version of Luther’s life here; if you would like to read his 95 Theses you can find them here)
  • The basic goal of the Reformation was to re-form the church with the gospel of Jesus as its heart and core purpose. Do you think this was a good aim? Explain why you think that?
  • As you look at the church today, do we still keep the gospel of Jesus as our heart and core purpose? Do you think we still need to be re-forming today? If you think so, what are some aspects of the church that we need to be re-forming?
  • Over the next 4 weeks we will be looking at the Reformation principles of Scripture Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone and Christ Alone. Is there anything connected with any of these that you would like us to look at in particular? Do you have any questions or concerns about any of these that we could explore for you?

Generous Grace (Matthew 20:1-16)

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The other day I was reading a book to our children. In the story, a grandpa and grandma were driving with their grandchildren in their car when they saw a stall on the side of the road selling ice-creams and balloons. The grandpa suggested to his grandchildren that they stop and buy an ice-cream because, he said, they deserved it.

At that point, the first time I read it, I actually paused for about a complete minute. I couldn’t help wondering, why did they deserved the ice-cream?

I know it’s only a children’s book, but it struck me that from a young age our culture is teaching us that we deserve good things, but for no particular reason. It is a message that we hear throughout the media and is a very effective marketing tool. If we are told that we deserve something good, which could include anything from a chocolate bar to an overseas holiday or new car, then we are more inclined to buy the product.

This way of thinking is a double-edged sword. If we convince ourselves that we deserve good things, then we also have to acknowledge that when we do wrong, or fail to do good, then we deserve bad things as well. We tend to focus on the good we think we deserve and ignore the bad, but the reality is that if we want to live according to what we deserve, then we need to accept the bad as well as the good. Just about every worldview, religion, philosophy or way of thinking that I have come across in my life is based on this idea that we should get what we deserve. In the end we are trapped between the good we like to think we deserve and the bad we deserve because of the wrong we do.

Jesus’ parable at the start of Matthew 20 offers us a different way to live. The person who was hired to work at the start of the day was upset because he felt like he deserved more than the workers who only worked for an hour. From a human perspective he has a valid point. If life is based on getting what you deserve, then the person who put in more hours of work deserves to get more than the person who worked less.

The scandal and the beauty of this parable, however, is that God’s Kingdom does not work from a human perspective. At the beginning of the story, the owner of the vineyard promises to pay the workers a ‘normal daily wage’ (v2 NLT). He then promises the other workers he hires during the day that he would ‘pay them whatever was right’ (v4 NLT). At the end of the day, he honoured his pledge by paying them what he promised, not what they deserved.

The key to the story is in verse 14 where the vineyard owner says, ‘I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you’ (NIV). I have used the NIV here because it is closer to the Greek text which uses the word ‘give’ rather than ‘pay’ (NLT). What the vineyard owner gives to the workers at the end of the day is not based on what the deserve, but on what the vineyard owner wants to give.

This is where we see the generosity of the God we meet in Jesus. God gives us what he wants to give us, not what we deserve. This is a God who takes pleasure in giving because it is God’s nature to give. We see this most clearly in the person of Jesus. As the Apostle John tells us, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son’ (John 3:16 NIV). Jesus himself is the clearest and fullest expression of God’s giving nature as God gives him to and for the world. We see God’s giving nature as Jesus gives his life for us on the cross, and then gives his resurrected life to us through the work of the Holy Spirit. With the gift of the Holy Spirit, God also gives us forgiveness, love, mercy, joy, hope, and so much more. God gives us an identity as his children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased for the sake of Jesus (Matthew 3:17). God gives us a place to belong as we are made members of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27) and the family of believers (Galatians 3:26,27). God gives us a purpose as he calls us to be part of God’s mission to bring the good news of the Kingdom to the world (Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:46,47). God promises to give us every good thing we need for life in this world and the next, not because we deserve it, but because he is by nature a giving God.

This faith changes our perspective on everything. I was talking with someone last week who told me that she enjoys having a beer at the end of the day’s work because she feels like she deserves it. I offered a different way of thinking: that when we get to the end of the day we can give thanks to God for whatever beverage we might enjoy because it is his gift to us. It will be the same beverage, but one way of thinking gives me the credit, the other gives the glory to God.

So basically there are two ways we can live. If we live according to what we deserve, or what we think we deserve, we will have to acknowledge at some point that we also need to accept what we deserve for the wrong we do. However, this parable of Jesus offers us an alternative way to live. This is the way of grace, where God doesn’t treat us as we deserve. Instead he gives good things to us just because it is in his nature to give. The first is the way of works, the second is the way of faith.

From a human perspective it’s not fair, but that is what makes it so good…

More to think about:

  • Do you like the idea of getting what you deserve in life? Why / why not?
  • Do you agree that if we think we deserve good, then we also need to accept that we deserve bad for the wrong we do? Explain why you think that.
  • If you were one of the workers who was employed at the start of the day, how would you feel when you saw those who had worked only an hour being paid the same amount as you? How would you have felt if you were one of the workers hired at the end of the day?
  • What do you think of the idea that God doesn’t give you what you deserve, but what he promises? Explain what you like or don’t like about it.
  • At the end of the day, how would you prefer to live – according to what you deserve? or by what God promises to give you?

Living with Differences (Romans 14:1-12)

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Things weren’t going great for the congregation of Christian believers in Rome. They were a diverse mix of people from different backgrounds across the spectrum of Roman society, from the very rich and influential to poor slaves. They all came with different points of view and different ways of understanding the world around them. By the power of his Holy Spirit, God had brought these vastly different people into the diverse, complicated, messy and beautiful thing that is Christian community through faith in Jesus.

In chapter 14, the Apostle Paul writes about two issues the early Roman church was facing. One was whether Christians could eat meat or whether they should be vegetarian. The second was whether certain days should be observed as holy days or not. Biblical scholars don’t know the exact circumstances of the disputes. They might have been between some people who wanted to keep Old Testament Jewish rules, or others who were living in the freedom the gospel brings, or others still who were either observing local customs or reacting against a self-indulgent Roman lifestyle.

The result of these disputes, however, was that some members of the Christian congregation thought they were better that others and looked down on them. Others were judging people in the congregation who were not doing what they thought was right. There was conflict and division in the community of believers because of these ‘disputable matters.’

One good thing about not knowing the exact circumstances of the disputes in Rome is that we can apply Paul’s words to our time and place. Two thousand years down the track and things in the Christian church don’t seem to have changed very much. We might not get too upset about dietary rules or holy days, but we still have our disputes. Some of the ‘disputable matters’ being discussed in our church at the present time include styles of worship, the ordination of women, the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, or the upcoming postal vote on same sex marriage, for example. People on both sides of each issue might not like referring to these as ‘disputable matters’ because our minds might already be made up about what is right or wrong in each case. But just the fact that we have different ways of thinking about what is right and wrong in each matter and we are grappling with them as a church means that these are matters under dispute. So even what can be thought of as a ‘disputable matter’ can itself be a ‘disputable matter.’

Paul’s point in Romans 14, however, is that following in the way of Jesus means accepting others who see things differently. This is a radically different position from what our culture teaches us, and even from what comes to us naturally, where we stand our ground, argue our point, and try to prove that we are right and others are wrong. Instead, Paul teaches us that living as Jesus’ disciples means not trying to get our own way or making others agree with our point of view. Instead, following Jesus means accepting each other along with the different opinions we might have. This acceptance means much more than just tolerating, or putting up with others. To accept others as Paul uses the word means receiving others with open arms, welcoming and embracing others, no matter how differently we might see things.

Paul explains further what this acceptance looks like when he writes that we are to ‘aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up’ (v19 NLT). Imagine what this could look like: people of diverse backgrounds with a wide range of opinions on different matters living together in perfect harmony with each other for the benefit of the other. The love we show each other composes a beautiful melody of praise to God as we dedicate ourselves to helping each other grow up together into maturity of faith and love. This becomes part of the picture of Christian community into which God wants to be transforming us by the power of his Spirit through the gospel, as we heard a few weeks ago from Romans 12.

All of this is on the basis of the way God accepts each of us for Jesus’ sake. Paul writes in verse 3 that we can’t look down on others or condemn them because God has already accepted them. Again in Romans 15:7, Paul explicitly states, ‘accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given the glory’ (NLT). God has welcomed the people around us with open arms and embraced all of us as members of his family, not because we keep all the right rules or even hold the right theological opinions, but because Jesus has given his life for each of us on the cross and has made us right with the Father through the work of the Holy Spirit in faith. This has been Paul’s argument all the way through the letter to the Romans and really is the main message of the Bible. A clear example is chapter 3 verse 22 where Paul writes:

We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. (NLT)

Because we are made right with God through faith in Jesus, a key part of living this faith out in our relationships and in community with each other is accepting, welcoming and embracing each other, no matter what our different points of view might be in matters that are in dispute. When we extend this grace to each other and show this love for each other, then Jesus tells us that the world will know we are his disciples (John 13:35). It is easy to love the people we like, who think the same way we do and who agree with our points of view. That’s why, for hundreds of years, and especially in our church culture today, it is too easy for individuals or groups to disconnect from church community to do their own thing. This is not the love that Jesus taught. The love of Christ, the love that Paul talks about in Romans 14 and throughout his letters, is a love that accepts people who have different points of view to us, a love that gives us the ability to live in harmony with each other no matter what our differences might be, and a love that works to build each other up in trusting God’s grace and in loving each other.

So how will we treat people who have different opinions to us? Will we look down on them because they don’t do things the way we do, or the way we think they should be done? Will we judge and condemn them because we think that what they are doing is wrong? Or will we accept each other, in the same way that God has accepted us for Jesus’ sake? In the Holy Spirit’s dynamic power, will we welcome and embrace each other in Christ-like love, living in harmony with each other, building each other up in trusting God and in serving each other?

How will we treat the people who think differently to us in the ‘disputable matters’ we face?

More to think about:

  • What do you usually do when you meet someone who has different opinions to yourself – do you try to persuade them to see things your way or do you accept their point of view? Can you give an example of when you did that?
  • What are some of the ‘disputable matters’ you have come across or are encountering in the church?
  • In your experience, have people been accepting of others with different opinions? Or do they argue the point to try to get people to agree with them? Why do you think that has happened?
  • If you are facing disagreements in the church, what might happen if you aimed for harmony in the church and tried to build others up (Romans 14:19)? What are some practical steps you could take towards that goal?
  • How important is it for you to feel accepted in your church community? How might you be able to give someone else that same sense of being accepted?

debt free 04

Most people I know live with some amount of debt. For some, the debt might be comparatively small, but for others, the debt is pretty substantial once you add up credit cards, personal loans and a mortgage. A lot of people in our society will spend their entire lives in debt and never know what it is like to live without owing anybody anything.

Maybe that’s why we find grace such a difficult idea. As people who can spend most of our lives paying off our debts, the idea of someone paying our debts for us so we can live a debt-free life seems completely unrealistic. Even if someone was to be generous enough to pay off our debts, it would just mean that we would feel indebted to that person. It can seem that we’ll always be in debt and nothing will ever change that.

I don’t know how literally Paul meant us to take his advice to ‘owe nothing to anyone’ (v8a NLT). In some ways, it makes sense for us to control our degree of debt so it doesn’t overwhelm us. However, Paul seems to have something in mind other than sound financial advice. As he goes on to talk about our ‘continuing debt to love one another’ (v8b NIV), Paul appears to be talking about something other than our bank loans or credit cards.

There was a time when we were all in debt to God. Each and every day, God freely gives us everything we need for life just because he loves us. Our problem, though, is that we tend to use the good things God has given us selfishly, more for our own benefit and pleasure rather than to help and bless others. We misuse or even abuse God’s gifts to us in a whole lot of different ways.

When we do, we owe God. This debt is something we can never hope to repay, because even if I was able to use God’s gifts properly from this moment on for the rest of my life, I would still owe him for the ways I misused them already today.

That’s where God’s grace steps in. God himself pays our debt in the person of Jesus who paid what we owe by giving his life for us on the cross. When Jesus died in our place, he paid in full everything that we owe God in the past, present and future. His sacrifice clears our debt with God so we can now live debt-free with God. It would be amazing enough for someone to step in and pay off my mortgage and other financial loans for me. However, the debt we had with God was so much greater that only the death of Jesus could cancel it. The good news of Jesus is that his death on the cross was payment in full for everything I will ever owe God because of my sin.

This good news is liberating for us! Imagine someone paid off all of your debts – what would you do with the money that you had been using for your repayments, or the time and energy you were using to generate that income? You would be free to use those resources any way you wanted!

In Romans 13:8 Paul is saying that God doesn’t need our time, energy or money because Jesus has paid our debts for us. Instead of using our freed-up resources in self-indulgent ways, Paul is telling us that God wants us to use our time, energy and money to serve, bless and love the people around us. I have heard it said that God doesn’t need our time, energy or money because all of heaven and earth are already his; however, the people around us need those resources which are freed up when Jesus makes us debt-free with God. There are people who need our financial resources because they have none of their own. There are people who need our energy because theirs are either very low or even non-existent. Sometimes the most valuable thing people need, especially those who are closest to us, is our time. In lives that are often dominated by the busyness that comes with working hard to pay off debts we accumulated to buy things we don’t really need, one of the most precious gifts we can give is time for our families, with friends, with brothers and sisters in Christ who might need a shoulder to lean on, and ear to listen to them, or just to check in with how they’re doing.

Because Jesus has paid our debts to God, we can now live in debt-free ways. I’ll leave it with you to decide how much Paul is talking about finances, but what’s more important is that we can live with a debt-free attitude in every aspect of our lives, no matter how large our mortgage or credit card debt might be. Having a debt-free attitude means living every day and in every situation like we don’t owe anybody anything because everything we have is a gift from a God who loves us and who has given his best to set us free. When we trust this good news, we are liberated to use what God first gives us to serve, bless and love other people. When we live with this focus on others and how we can bless them with God’s gifts to us, we learn how to live in faith and love.

More to think about:

  • What would you do tomorrow if someone paid off all your debts for you today? How would you use your time, energy & finances that were freed up because your debts had been paid? Would you use them for yourself? Or for others?
  • In your relationship with God, do you tend to think that you owe God, either for wrongs you have done or because of what Jesus has done for you? Why do you think that?
  • Why do you think Paul says to ‘owe nothing to anyone’ (v8 NLT)? Do you think he is talking about money? Or something else?
  • How would you feel if someone paid all your debts for you – joy? relief? free? How can they describe the Christian life when we believe that Jesus has paid our debts to God for us?
  • Paul writes that Christians have a ‘continuing debt to love one another’ (v8b NIV). How might your day be different if you used what God has given you to love the people around you in the freedom that comes from the faith you are debt-free with God?