This morning we come to the end of the major doctrinal part of the letter to the Romans. Paul has taught us about man’s sin; the sacrifice of Christ which was a payment for that sin; the necessity of faith which comes not from our effort, but His grace; the need for a new birth; the transformation that should come with that new birth; the spiritual battle of the believer; the sure promises of God regarding our salvation; the sovereign election of God in choosing who will be saved; the necessity of proclaiming and responding to the gospel; and the divine plan of God regarding Israel. It has been a thorough and rigorous study.
From chapter 12 on to the end of the letter, Paul focuses on applying these truths to the way we live our lives.
In these final words of chapter 11 Paul explodes into a doxology, an expression of praise to God. We can’t be sure whether this is in response to the plan of God regarding Israel (chapter 11), whether it is responding to the Sovereignty of God expressed in chapters 9-11 or whether it is a response to the entire gospel message contained in the letter. I honestly don’t think it matters.
A Fitting Conclusion: Worship
Paul ends his letter with an expression of worship,
I like the image that one commentator gave. “Like a mountain climber who has reached the summit of Mt. Everest, the apostle can only stand awestruck at God’s beauty and majesty. Unable to further explain an infinite and holy God to finite and sinful men, he can only acknowledge that God’s judgments are unsearchable and His ways are unfathomable![MacArthur, J. (1996, c1991, c1994). Romans. Chicago: Moody Press] Have you ever been on the top of some great scenic peak? I spent one day traveling through Switzerland when I was in college with our choir. I vividly remember getting off the bus and looking 360 degrees around and all I could say was, “Wow!” It was frustrating because I wanted to capture the moment but there was no way to take a picture that would capture the incredible beauty. I was on “overload”. It was a moment of awe.
If you look at some of the descriptions from various prophets when they saw God (Ezekiel 1:25, Isa. 6, Revelation 1) you find these writers at a loss for words. God is beyond our minds. Listen to Ezekiel as he struggles for words to describe what he is seeing.
25 Then there came a voice from above the expanse over their heads as they stood with lowered wings. 26 Above the expanse over their heads was what looked like a throne of sapphire, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. 27 I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. 28 Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking. [Ezek. 1:25-28]
Ezekiel (like Isaiah and John) stumble to find words to describe what is beyond description. Six times in these 4 verses we are told Ezekiel saw “what looked like” or “what appeared to be”. All he can is describe what he saw by comparing to things he can describe. This is the same situation Paul is in.
As we wrestle with the difficult concepts of the gospel that we have studied, we must always remember that Paul is trying to explain what is beyond our ability to understand. We will never fully grasp the wonder of God’s grace and love until we get to Heaven. We will never be able to fully probe the depth of our sin until we see the purity and holiness of the Father. We won’t be able to appreciate the blessing that we have been given until we step into the splendor of Heaven.
Any notion of God as our ‘good buddy’ or the ‘old man upstairs’ or our ‘great grandfather in the sky’ cheapens God. The reason the Ten Commandments tell us not to make any images of God is because any image of God we could make would diminish who He truly is. Even the most beautiful image does God an injustice. We must always remember,
God is changeless and consistent; we are fickle
He is trustworthy we tend to shift with the wind
He is holy and pure; we are stained and sinful
He is eternal; we are temporal
He is uncreated; we are created
He sees all things and every contingency; we have tunnel-vision
He is present everywhere; we are tied to time and space
His decisions are flawless; ours are often terribly flawed
In Psalm 46 (and several other places) we are told to “be still and know that He is God.” Our response to all that we have heard thus far in Paul’s theological instruction booklet should make us gasp with wonder. There are things we don’t understand because they are beyond our ability to understand. . . just as the Almighty is. He is bigger and greater than we are. I am very glad of that fact.
The Substance of Worship: God’s Greatness
Paul wants to drive home his point about God’s greatness. He asks three Rhetorical Questions. In each case, the obvious and expected answer is “No one”.
34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?”35 “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?”
Who Understands God’s Ways?
In Isaiah 55:8 we read,
8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. 9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.10 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isa. 55:8-11)
Think of how many times you feel “lost” when someone is talking. I don’t understand those who talk in any depth about nuclear physics, biochemistry, calculus, electrical engineering, computer programming and a whole list of other stuff. Their conversation sounds like gibberish to me. I don’t have enough information or training to understand what these folks are saying. Even though I don’t understand I still appreciate the expertise of these people. I am grateful for the work they do even if I don’t know how they do it.
So with life. Though we think we know a great deal about life because of our experience of living, in truth, we are novices. We don’t understand how the world was created. We don’t know what is beyond what we can see. We cannot begin to fathom a being who is eternal. The idea of a God who is One yet exists in three distinct and eternal persons, overloads the circuits of our minds. We have trouble grasping the course of history because we can’t see much beyond today. We have no idea how things fit together or how one seemingly insignificant event can impact hundreds of other events.
Is it any wonder that we are confused when young people die, seemingly strong marriages dissolve, and apparently healthy people are struck down with illness? It is not surprising that we are confused by many of the trials that come into our lives. It feels at times, like God has lost control. We can’t imagine anything positive coming from our circumstances. His ways are beyond our understanding. Our job is to trust the Creator. He knows what He is doing and what He is doing is right.
Who Can Give God Advice?
The very question is absurd isn’t it? The thought that we could advise the Almighty God! Yet, how often we try to do so. We make demands! We complain about our circumstances. We grumble about our appearance, the demands on our life, the wildness of our children and so much more. In each case our grumbling implies that God does not know what He is doing. When we complain in this way we are actually trying to give God advice!!
Isn’t it irritating when those people who don’t have any children give you advice about how to raise your children? Most of us have some area of expertise. Think about how aggravating it is when someone pontificates with great authority about something that we know they know nothing about. That must be the way God feels when we try to give him advice.
Our perspective is limited. God sees clearly. We are often like little children who complain about the rules set up by their parents. The child feels victimized but doesn’t realize that their parent has actually set up boundaries that are designed to protect and enrich them.
God doesn’t need our advice. He is an expert on every issue. He understands everything better than we do. Everything. Our job is to trust and to follow.
To Whom is God Indebted?
There is this unspoken feeling in all of us that we are earning credits with God because of our service and self-sacrifice. A great story along this line is recounted by Dr. Boice. R.A. Torrey was in Melbourne, Australia, and one afternoon at a meeting for businessmen a note was handed to him.
Dear Dr. Torrey
I am in great perplexity. I have been praying for a long time for something that I am confident is according to God’s will, but I do not get it. I have been a member of the Presbyterian Church for thirty years, and have tried to be a consistent one all that time. I have been Superintendent in the Sunday School for twenty-five years, and an elder in the church for twenty years; and yet God does not answer my prayer and I cannot understand it. Can you explain it to me?
Torrey read the note from the platform and replied, “It is very easy to explain it. This man thinks that because he has been a consistent church member for thirty years, a faithful Sunday School Superintendent for twenty five years, and an elder in the church for twenty years, that God is under obligation to answer His prayer. He is really praying in his own name, and God will not hear our prayers when we approach him in that way. [Boice, ROMANS Vol. 3 p. 1462, 1463]
God owes us NOTHING. We owe Him everything. We do not instruct Him, He instructs us. The true worshipper seeks God with humility.
The Life of Worship: Soli Deo Gloria
Paul’s final expression of praise is in verse 36,
36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.
This is similar to the Latin phrase, “Soli Deo Gloria” which means, to the Glory of God alone.
One of the popular buzz words today is “paradigm shift”. A paradigm is a model or pattern. A paradigm shift means there is a total change in the way we think about something.
When we become a follower of Christ, a great paradigm shift takes place. We shift our focus from seeing ourselves as the center of the universe and we begin to understand and make decisions seeing God as the center of all things. There is a shift from the prevailing mentality that every person has the right to do what is right in their own eyes to seeing God as determining right and wrong. The focus changes from ME to the Lord. Max Lucado captures this idea in the title to one of His books, “It’s Not About Us”. It’s a very important point to remember.
Let’s take this out of the academic area and think about how this plays out practically?
- It means the Lord defines right and wrong, we don’t. God’s Word is the standard. When God speaks clearly on an issue, the Christian needs no further debate.
- It means the most important thing in the circumstances of life is not our comfort or pleasure, but God’s glory.
- It means the key to prayer is not some formula we practice; it is humbling ourselves before the Lord and submitting to His wisdom and direction.
- It means true worship is not about our warm feelings but His honor.
- It means the key element in the outreach of the gospel is not our slick PowerPoint presentations, our culturally relevant music, or our keys to victorious living. Faith comes by hearing and hearing comes by the Word of God. The truth of Scripture (rather than our gimmicks) is used by God’s Spirit to change a life.
- It means we don’t lead anyone to salvation. God’s Spirit brings a person to faith and uses us to accomplish His purpose.
- It means the methods of the church should not be market or consumer driven; it should be Biblically driven. It is not a matter of what “works” but what is faithful and true.
- It means our decisions and priorities are not determined by what we most want to do, but by what God has called us to do.
First, there are some things about God and His ways that we will not understand on this side of eternity (maybe not even on the other side) because these things are deeper and more profound than we can grasp. We shouldn’t get frustrated or walk away because we don’t understand. We shouldn’t despair because we aren’t sure what God is doing in our lives. We desire and are content for our Doctor to understand the human body better than we do. We expect the architect to understand the effects of stress and wind when constructing our building. In the same way we should find comfort in the fact that God understands the purpose and needs of our lives better than we do. It’s the way a God should be.
Second, we should always approach the Lord with humility and reverence. We must resist the urge to simplify the Almighty or to become overly familiar with God. Worship can become too casual. To do this is to make us equals with God. We are not equals! He is God and we are not.
It would be good to do some study in the attributes and character of God. Don’t settle for serving a small God. It is too easy to serve a non-descript God. It is easy to forget that this God is real and He is Great and Mighty. Make it a practice to spend some quiet time in prayer before you worship or read your Bible. Recognize and acknowledge that you are the servant and He is the King. I think our Catholic friends have the right idea when they kneel and acknowledge their position before the Almighty before they ever take their seat. We need to do that in our heart before we seek Him.
Perhaps you could make yourself a little poster that says, “It’s Not About You” and post it somewhere to remind you that the Christian mind recognizes the Lord as the center and end of all things. Maybe you could make a little card that says simply, “He knows and understands, so I don’t have to.” You can pull that card out every time you feel overwhelmed or wonder why things are happening as they are. It will help you remember that the captain is at the wheel of the Universe and He knows what He is doing.
If we understand, even a little, what Paul has been telling us about the reality of sin, God’s Holy standard, His incredible response to our sin, and His staggering plan for our future, we should want to praise Him just like Paul did. We too will be filled with gratitude and wonder. May we come to know more fully this One in whom we live and move and have our being and may we find our perfect rest in Him.