Alfred Place Baptist Church

12:3 Coping and Succeeding in the Christian Life

Romans 12:3 “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.”

We are surrounded by masses of people who have come to a totally false judgment about themselves. They have a wrong view of their origin. They have a wrong view of their destiny. They have a wrong view of who they are and what is their purpose in life. They have a wrong view of God and of his creation. They are all wrong in the most important attitudes of life. They might make a decent self assessment of their income for tax purposes, but they cannot assess their own hearts. The reason is that they have discarded the Word of God and so they have no external standard by which to measure themselves. That is why these verses at the beginning of Romans chapter twelve are so important.

Paul announces his text in the opening verse; ‘Present your bodies as living sacrifices to God.’ He is writing to people who have pleaded guilty to God for how they have lived, and they have received divine mercy, absolutely freely. Henceforth these people are committed to sorting themselves out, transforming their entire lives, no longer living according to the values and thoughts and enthusiasms of everyone around them who have no time for God. Their thinking is changing, their minds are constantly being renewed so that they are doing God’s will, which is perfect for them as it would be perfect for everyone.

In the text before us and in the verses that follow Paul is explaining the implications of this sea-change of outlook and conduct. If you have presented your body to God as a living sacrifice it means this . . . and this . . . and this . . . He details it for the rest of this chapter, and you will notice that he approaches daily living in two ways. He begins, in verses three to eight, by speaking about brotherly relationships within the family of God. Then he proceeds in the remainder of the chapter to speak about personal relationships with your neighbours as well as with your brothers.

So as we begin this section of verses three to eight on brotherly relations within the Christian fellowship. Paul has a two-fold approach, first stressing that the Christian life is all of grace – “for by the grace given me I say to you . . .” You’ll never understand yourself, and you will never live the Christian life, unless you’ve experienced the mighty grace of God. Then his second point is this, that the Christian life is never an isolated life. It is always a dynamic life, a life in relationship and in community. You cannot be a true Christian and a loner. Either the loner is going to destroy the Christian or the Christian is going to destroy the loner. This new life is lived rubbing shoulders with other believers, ministering grace to them and receiving grace from them. So Paul wants us to be aware of the dangers of Christian isolationism. So if [i] you have received mercy from God, and if [ii] you have presented your body as a living sacrifice to God, and if [iii] you are being transformed by the renewing of your mind then all of that is down to God’s grace. That is the sole explanation. He has done this, and he continues to do this not only for yourself but for this entire group of people whom you now belong to – your ‘brothers’ who have also received the grace of God.

Again, continuing this word of introduction to our text, you’ll notice Paul’s approach, that he begins with himself. Dr. Lloyd-Jones points this out to us: “We see at a glance that Paul is true to his own method. I have often commented on this; every man has his own idiom. Just as those who know anything about music can tell you the composer even if they only hear a few bars, so with writers. They betray themselves by their style, and this is particularly true of the great apostle. Paul always wrote his letters in the same way; he had his characteristic method. Here it is like this. First of all, he starts with himself, he uses himself as an illustration of what he is to teach them! “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you . . .” (v.3). It’s not because of any conceit or boastfulness – quite the reverse, as a matter of fact. He does it because this is essential wisdom. In a way, he takes the ground from beneath the feet of his readers by talking first of all about his own particular case.

“Paul is an apostle, and he speaks with apostolic authority, but he is very careful to make it plain and clear that his authority is one he has received. He wants to do two things. He wants the Christians in Rome to listen to what he’s saying, because he’s speaking as an authoritative apostle, but at the same time he wants them to know that what is true of them is also, in principle, true of himself. And so he disarms all objections at the very beginning and he stands in solidarity with them. He is apart, and yet he is with them. He is a unique man, and yet as a Christian he is the same as everyone else, and you will find this almost everywhere in Paul’s epistles. The great characteristic of his writing is the way in which he always combines these two elements” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Christian Conduct, p, 144, Banner of Truth, 2000).

So that is Paul’s approach and what he proceeds to do is to lay down some great principles which always govern our relationship with other Christians who’ve also received this renewed mind. So let me start of with something absolutely fundamental.

  1. ALWAYS THINK OF YOURSELF AS ONE WHO OWES EVERYTHING TO THE GRACE OF GOD.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you” (v.3).Paul isn’t admonishing them with his own authority. He is
not a mega-personality ordering the whole church as to how it’s to act. He is not a cult leader. It is not by his wits, and strength of character, and charisma and natural gifts of leadership that he advising them. Paul tells these Romans that a wonderful intervention once took place in his life. He had once been a very different man, this Saul of Tarsus, who had hated everything about Jesus Christ and his followers. He wanted to annihilate Christians completely. He wanted to blot out the name of Jesus from the earth so that no one remembered it. He was prepared to kill all the followers of that blasphemer if that were necessary. It was utterly crazy; it was in fact horrific. He began by guarding the coats of the men who stoned young Stephen to death. Can you imagine a stoning? A man standing there circled by a gang of men full of blood lust armed with sharp rocks and throwing them with all their might at him, until he falls under the force of the blows. Then, standing over him, lifting up boulders and dropping them on him, they cracked his skull until his brains ran out. Doing that was what Saul of Tarsus approved of. You would think that such a man would be the last to become a Christian. He was full of hatred towards anything to do with Jesus Christ. He wasn’t seeking God and his salvation. Last year we were impressed to read of the conversion of Masab the son of the Palestinian West Bank leader Sheikh Hassan Youssef. He was raised in the atmosphere of the adulation of suicide bombing, and the precepts of extreme Islam, and yet he became sickened by the violence as well as the double standards of the Hamas leaders – their fine houses and luxurious living. He began to meet with Christians and he was given a Bible. One verse leaped out of the Scripture and smote him. They were the words of Jesus, “Love your enemies.” It turned his life upside down.

Saul of Tarsus was on a journey to Damascus, going to that city to root out more Christians to imprison and kill, and then, unannounced, the risen Jesus Christ confronted him as really as he had once confronted a man called Cleopas on the road to Emmaus. Our Lord stopped him and spoke to him calling him by his name, “‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied” (Acts 9:5). Great darkness fell upon Saul, and the convictions that he had been kicking against convinced him of his terrible sin. He remained in darkness for three days until he came into the light of divine mercy and the assurance that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah, the Seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head. Paul the persecutor and chief of sinners was pardoned by the Lord. He had been given grace.

Why? What had he done to merit such a change? Had he stopped being a persecutor? Had he said sorry? Had he then made a penance, and paid his enormous debt by a million good works? Is that the reason Jesus met with him? No. There were none of that. All of that followed meeting with Christ; such attitudes could not even buy an interview with Christ. Saul of Tarsus was not pardoned because of any repentance he made. You think of the Nuremburg war trials and all the leading Nazis responsible for the deaths of millions of people found guilty of unspeakable war crimes. Herrman Goerring the arch leader stood and wept, and said he was sorry for the terrible things he had done. What did the judges do? Did they say, “You have repented? Wonderful. Then you can go free”? No. Something more than repentance is needed. It is not enough to say, ‘Sorry.’Atonement is needed. Redemption is needed. So it is in the Christian faith. It was not enough that Saul of Tarsus was kicking against the goads, or that he’d had his sight extinguished and was in total darkness. There had to be atonement for his dreadful conduct, and God had provided the Lamb of sacrifice, not Saul. God found the Lamb within his own bosom; the God who demanded a Lamb became the Lamb. His own Son suffered and bled and died taking away the sin of the world. The Lord made his Son Jesus to be sin for us, the one who knew no sin. He became our substitute and died for our sins, for the sins of persecuting the church and stoning Stephen to death. All of those sins against God and man, vicious cruel actions, the guilt of them has all been dealt with – can you believe it? They are all forgiven sins. There is today absolute pardon for the worst of sins and it is offered to the worst of sinners who believes. Why? We don’t know why God should love us so and forgive us. It is all because of his inexplicable grace. That is his nature, to love the world so much as to provide a Saviour for sinners. It is mercy all, immense and free.

That grace transformed Saul. It transformed his name to its Gentile form Paul. This once proud Jew spent the rest of his life working largely with Gentiles. It changed his office from persecutor to apostle; from inquisitor to preacher. Paul’s body was presented as a living sacrifice to God, and he was transformed by the renewing of his mind. From now on Paul’s ambition was to do the good and acceptable and perfect will of God. It was all because of God’s grace. This grace had taken the initiative; it had devised the plan, it had provided the Saviour; it had caused the Spirit of God to enter his life; it had gifted him with apostleship. So when Paul told churches what to believe, and told Christians how to live – as he does here – it wasn’t because he was a loud-mouth, with a big character and personality; it was because of the grace of God working through him. When Paul says here, “by the grace given me I say . . .” he is really saying, “as an apostle I say . . .” If you turned to chapter fifteen and verse fifteen you will meet the same self-conscious personal authority; “I have written to you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me.” He had a special relationship with Christ; he had authority and office from Christ. He was speaking and teaching on behalf of Christ – this man who once hated everything to do with Christ. Now when he spoke to a church or wrote to one it was as if the Son of God himself was speaking to them. So let me ask this question, when grace comes into your life what does it do? I tell you;

i] It gives humility. All that you are you owe to the grace of God. You did not earn what you’ve got. It was absolutely free. You did not desire what you’ve got. You were given something that took your breath away – amazing grace. Grace is an extraordinary divine gift. Look back to the previous chapter and see what the apostle says there in the sixth verse, “If it is by grace, it is no longer by works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Romas 11:6). There is no grounds for boasting, or for any subtle pose of mock-humility. The only proper response is abject humility; “The Lord knew all about me, what a rotter, what a failure I’d been. Still he loved me and he forgave me.” Your renewed mind is permeated with those convictions. Grace makes us humble.

ii] It gives peace of mind. God is for me, not against me. He has seen me at my worst, when I was horribly against him, but because of Christ he is now wonderfully for me. He is now working all things together for my good. He’ll never leave me. If his providence puts me in a place, and makes me a member of a certain church then that act of God is best for me and for the body, and I can rest in his goodness. He always makes the best decisions for me. Grace gives me peace.

iii] It gives power. Grace is not merely a divine attitude. It is not a divine permission. It is not God inviting a twe
rp like me to serve him. Grace is omnipotence acting to redeem. It is grace intent on changing me into the image of his Son. It is the presence of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in me, making me what all the powers of the world would fail to make me. Grace is a divine enabling. So, firstly, think of yourself as someone who owes everything to the grace of God.

  1. ALWAYS THINK OF YOURSELF WITH A TRUE AND PROPER EVALUATION.

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought” (v.3). Paul could so easily have thought of himself very highly. Had he not seen the risen Christ on the road to Damascus? He had been caught up to the third heaven and seen such wonderful sights he was forbidden to disclose them. He had led thousands of people to know the Lord. He had planted churches in the most important cities of the world at that time. He had the gift of inspiration so that what he wrote was exactly what the Holy Spirit wanted him to write to the jot and the tittle. He had the supernatural gifts which an apostle possessed; he could write to the Corinthians, “The things that mark an apostle – signs, wonders and miracles were done among you” (2 Cors. 12:12). There was no man in the whole world as gifted as him. He had composed this letter to the Romans; it is one of the most influential pieces of literature that this world has ever known or ever will.

It would have been so easy for Paul to have thought too highly of himself and get puffed up, were it not for one thing, that all his calling, all his gifts, all his ethics and all his authority were not graces that he had worked on and developed though years of effort. It was the totally the fruit of God’s free grace in his life. Let me paraphrase the hymn like this:

For every virtue Paul possessed,
And every victory won,
And every thought of holiness
Were God’s alone.

Paul was not what he had been. He was not yet what he should be. Certainly he was not what one day he would become. But all he was he owed to the grace of God alone. That was how Paul functioned, and if he hadn’t always kept that in mind he would have made shipwreck of his life. It would founder on the rock of pride. God was so concerned to keep Paul sweet and useful and meek that he decreed that Paul should receive something distressing which Paul referred to as a ‘thorn in the flesh’ and that thorn greatly humbled him. He longed for it to be removed, but it was given lest Paul became puffed up with pride through all the blessings and privileges he had. So Paul was made even more dependent on God’s strength to keep going, and keep going, and keep going by the all sufficiency of God’s grace. He could never survive otherwise. Paul constantly heard two voices; one said, “Paul, I have appointed you to be my apostle” and the other voice said, “Paul, you were the chief of sinners,” and Paul lived in the tension of those two voices all his life.

He was a true and real apostle. He had seen the risen Christ, and had a commission from him, but he was also a mere Christian who could say to God what every Christian can say, “Lord, I know that you have given me a gift. I feel so inadequate. I am concerned that I’ll let you down and not do a good job. Lord I look to you and trust your enabling grace, and I’m going to do this work you’ve given me, see this person, give this message – whatever – with the strength and wisdom that you supply, so that in everything you might get the glory.” So Paul is saying here, “Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought.”

Some Christians have the opposite problem. We have a low opinion of our talents. We don’t think we have any special gift, any high purpose. We try to be content with our income and some simple pleasures – “you in your small corner and I in mine” and you wont get me out of it! We have little sense of God’s call. We have no vision for making a difference in other people’s lives. If you read on in the rest of this chapter – and it is written for every believer here – then you will see that this is not what God wants for us. Look at verses ten to thirteen, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality.” By God’s grace you can put what gifts you have to work for the benefit of others. If you think too lowly of yourself, you won’t see the potential God has given you, and you won’t see how you can bless others and help them to a higher level of joy and strength. To become who you were meant to be, to make the most of your life and make a difference in other people’s lives, you must know yourself as God knows you.

Let me give you an example of a man who thought too lowly of himself. When God told Moses to speak to Pharoah and lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses said he couldn’t possibly do that. He didn’t think he had the necessary gifts for leadership or speaking. Jehovah told Moses that he is the one who gives every person their abilities or disabilities. He made the personality, the strength, the voice, the leadership, and that if he had decided to send Moses, that meant Moses would be able to do it. Even then, Moses refused. God became downright angry with Moses for being so reluctant and for having such a low opinion of his abilities. At last the Lord got Moses to go with his brother Aaron, but of course Moses turned out to be a great leader, the greatest leader and most prolific writer in the Old Testament and at first Moses was the last person to realize this. “What are you Moses?” “I’m a shepherd.” “How long have you been a shepherd?” “Forty years.”

Let me give you another example of having a low view of your gifts. When God appointed Jeremiah as a prophet to the nations, the prophet objected, “Ah, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.” God answered, “Do not say, ‘I am only a child.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you” (Jeremiah 1:5-7). Jeremiah also became a mighty spokesman for God.

I am urging you not to think less of yourself than God thinks of you. If God has given you a little gift, don’t say you’re not gifted at all to carry out God’s calling. That’s an insult to God, as if the Lord doesn’t know what he’s doing in giving you responsibility. If God has given you mercy and adopted you into his family and is now transforming your mind, don’t say you’re too unworthy to do God’s work. Don’t get trapped in a negative self-image based on who you used to be. Learn from the change in Saul of Tarsus. He never denied his evil past: he called himself the worst of sinners, and he said he didn’t deserve to be an apostle, but did Paul let his sinful past hold him back? Not at all; he worked harder for Jesus than anyone. He said, “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Don’t get stuck in the swamp of guilt about your sinful past; live in the grace and gifts of God for your present and future. Think of yourself with a true evaluation.

  1. ALWAYS THINK WITH SOBER JUDGMENT.

What does that mean? Why this word ‘sober’? The Western world is obsessed with what is called Low Self-Esteem. They’re always speaking about this imagined syndrome. There is a Chinese television personality called Gok Wan whose life story was told on TV this past week. Gok Wan told the viewers (so The Times reported – I did not see it) that when he grew up in Leicester he was over-weight and had personal difficulties. The Times said, “He pinned his problems on that old scapegoat, Low Self-Esteem.” Everyone, we are being told, should enjoy a good positive self image and self love, but even The Times thinks of this attitude as a scapegoat. “I am failure in life because I have low self-esteem.” Generally that is delusional thinking. For most people they don’t have a low enough opinion of themselves in the presence of God. They are not bowing their heads and crying to the Lord, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”

The Bible encourage us to think soberly about ourselves. Two things will save us from despair. Firstly, the teaching of the Scriptures on man’s plight. For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. I am not the one who groans at this bias to selfishness and pride in my life. I’m not the one and only person in this distinguished congregation whose heart is not to be trusted at all. It is a deceitful heart which we all have, and as long as we are in the body, we are going to battle with this nature of ours. The first thing to remember about yourself is that you have a heart like a tinder-box, and one spark can start a conflagration. That is common; believe me! It is not just you alone who have often been driven to despair by passions of your heart. Thoughts and attitudes can rise up in all our lives which are unhelpful and destructive, and we all have to resist them. Sometimes you’ll have to leave the room, and go for a walk, or stop the car and get out and stretch. So, think soberly about yourself how you are prone to wander and leave the God you love.

Then think soberly about the tremendous change that God works in every Christian. If you are a Christian then think of all that God has done for you. Let me remind you of ten things God has done for you. I know that this is so because he has done them for every single Christian;

i]          He has given you a new heart and made you a new creation.

ii]         He has come and indwelt you, the Father, Son and the Spirit.

iii]         He has forgiven all your sins, past present and future.

iv]        He has imputed to you the righteousness of his own Son.

v]         He has adopted you into his family and made you a joint heir with Christ.

vi]        He has joined you to Jesus Christ, put you in him, as a branch is in a vine.

vii]        He has ended the lordship of sin over you and he himself is now your Shepherd.

             “The Lord is my Shepherd.”

viii]       He is working all things together for your good.

ix]        He is richly providing you with all your needs.

x]         He has seated you in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus.

Of whom is this true? Of the mere Christian. Of the weakest lamb in the flock of Christ. Of the backslider. So when you are panicking and feeling you are not a Christian at all, when you cannot see the Lord, then think soberly of what God says is your status in Christ.

  1. ALWAYS THINK WITH THE MEASURE OF FAITH THAT GOD HAS GIVEN YOU.
 

In other words, trust what God has said. You can trust him. Maybe you feel you have a mustard seed of faith some days, but what does Jesus say about that seed, that it will grow? Focus your thinking on the great Colossus who has never broken his word yet. You can trust Jesus. You can’t trust your heart. You can’t trust anyone the way you can trust Jesus. The degree to which you accept what the Lord has said will give you confidence and courage and to function as a human being any day, in any task. You have the ability according to how much you believe what God has said.

I know one Christian who gets up in the morning and seeks to remind myself of three things: he puts it like this;

i] First, I am made in the image of God. I am not an animal and I don’t have to behave like an animal, because I have a never dying soul, given to me by God himself, to relate to God. I can speak to him today. I can look into his lovely smiling face and say, “Good morning my dear Father. Abba Father! Hallowed be Thy name.” Think with the measure of faith.

ii] Second, I am filled with the Spirit of God. There is no part of me that is a no-go area for the Holy Spirit. This most amazing thing has happened! Though I didn’t deserve it in the least degree, I have the power of God working quietly and gently and steadily within me and never giving up on me; never giving up. God has made up his mind to sanctify me, to transform me into the image of his Son. He is willing to hear me bringing to him petty emergencies, like no clean pajamas for the children for bed tonight. Or I have run out of milk and the shop is closed. Or the washing line has broken. Or I have lost my mobile phone. I can ask God to help me in these as much as my growing vast obsession with being changed into the image of his Son. Think with the measure of faith. And,

iii] Third, I am part of the plan of God. God is working out everything to a great and final purpose in the heavens and the earth and I am part of that. Whatever I do today has purpose and significance and meaning. This life is not just a maze that I am wandering through, often ignorant of where to turn. God is working all things after the counsel of his own will for me, my joys and griefs, the doors that close and the doors that open. I have seen this as I look back, that there have been the smallest incidents, the most insignificant words said, or even a smile and a wave, and it has meant so much to me. All of that is involved in God’s great plan and so it has the meaning and purpose of that. Think with the measure of faith.

Shouldn’t that give us confidence without conceit? Shouldn’t we come to a conclusion each busy day and every hectic week, “I can cope. I can handle these days. I can be more than conqueror through the Saviour’s love. I don’t deserve to be treated with worth and grace by my heavenly Father, and yet I am. I can’t be conceited about it, but I can be confident in it.”

I don’t know anything else that can set you on your feet at the beginning of a big day or a big week as thinking like
that. If you give in to the thinking of the world around you, you will end up either as bigheaded, and as boastful, and as loudmouthed, as some disc jockeys, or you will end up certain that you can’t do anything and as unwilling to attempt anything. You will end up as cowardly and fearful and timid as a mouse. But God has provided a way that we can face life daily with confidence, and yet without a vestige of conceit, because we know that it doesn’t come from us.

1st February 2009 GEOFF THOMAS