Romans 15:14-16 “I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another. 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 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”
With these words Paul begins the final section of his letter to the Romans. The great theological exposition stretching from chapters one to eleven is over. The masterly exhortation to holy living from chapter twelve to the previous verse before our text is also ended. Doctrine has been expounded comprehensively; the subsequent Christian ethic has been described magisterially, but Paul hasn’t finished. What more is there to say? We say to one another that some preachers if they were half as long would be twice as good. “Don’t spoil it Paul by going on and on. Wrap it up now with a word of benediction. There’s nothing more to add.” But there is; there is the apostle’s relationship with them as a congregation of Christians. Paul is not some ‘teaching elder’ who is instructing a group of people like a professor instructing a class of mathematics students at the university. They know little about him, not does he know them nor has much need to know them. Paul is not some ‘ethicist’ teaching a group of people principles of conduct. He is a pastor, an evangelist, a shepherd, a priest and servant of God. Concern about people dominates his life as much as concern for truth, and concern for righteousness. He will allow no wedge to be driven between those three concerns. Paul expressed his affection for the Christians in Rome as he began the letter, and to this theme he must return as he ends the epistle.
1. PAUL PRAISES THEM FOR THEIR CHRISTIAN GRACES.
The apostle had never been to Rome; he’d never met them face to face, and yet he began this letter by expressing his love and admiration for them, “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you. I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong – that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles” (Romans 1:8-13).
Do you see how effusively he assured them of his affection for them? He tells them how thankful to God he is for them, that he remembers them in prayer at all times. He longs to see them and has planned to come on many occasions but has been prevented from doing so. They have so much to offer him; how encouraging it will be to sit and enjoy fellowship with them. Before he addresses them with the heart of this letter – the great Christian doctrines and the demands of Christian living – he reveals his heart to them. Surely this is far more than Paul being courteous. You read those words and you say, “He really loves these Christians.”
Reading out text it appears that Paul was anxious that he shouldn’t have offended them by anything he had written. Had he been too harsh or outspoken? Had he been a little presumptuous in dealing firmly with this controversy between the weak and the strong? Paul is evidently somewhat apprehensive, and so he speaks directly to them, very personally and affectionately – “my brothers” – in order to disarm them and reassure them. He opens his heart to them about his past and future plans. He humbly asks if they would pray for him, and then in the final chapter of the letter he shows how intimately he knows the congregation in Rome by his impressive list of the names of the people in the church whom he greets one by one. We struggle to remember names; Paul knew their names because he regularly prayed for them by name.
People seem to think that the way to motivate a pastor or a church is to rebuke and point out the faults, letting nothing pass. They imagine that they are being ‘bold’ and that this is the way to get things done. The result is that in many congregations the minister and the members are wilting. People feel that their best efforts are not at all worthwhile. They become passengers; they refuse to try in case they don’t measure up. There is much talent unutilized and unapplied because of a spirit of discouragement in the church. People are afraid that they will be put down.
What an example Paul is to every one of us. Time and again you find him speaking words of encouragement. The affection he displays for the congregation in Rome he expresses to every one of the churches to which he writes – with the exception of the church in Galatia. He tells all the rest, the congregations in Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica and Colosse, that whenever he thinks of them he thanks God for them and he is thanking God for them all the time. “I have you always in my heart. I pray to God for you all the time, and every time I pray to God I rejoice in all you are and every quality you possess. I remember without ceasing your work of faith, and your labour of love, and your patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. I think of the love you have for all the saints and your fellowship in the gospel until now.” He praises them; he is at pains to tell them he aware of the graces in them and his personal debt to them, and how thankful to God he is for them.
Sometimes we are so frightened to say to each other, “I thank God for you. I praise the Lord for you.” Parents fail to praise their children and tell them that they thank God for them. I had a letter yesterday from my friend Gary North. He wrote to tell me that his 24 year old son Caleb had suddenly died after a long illness. He closed his letter saying, “Instead of an email of condolence to me, call your kids and tell them you think they are terrific.”
We are so reluctant to acknowledge one another’s qualities, and yet Paul both at the beginning and end of this letter is doing that. He rehearses the graces they have. Didn’t he learn that from his Saviour? He knew full well what Jesus did at the beginning of his ministry, how he took his disciples aside and he told them, “You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.” You can imagine them looking at one another . . . “Us?” They were young men without qualifications; they had not proved themselves; they hadn’t preached a sermon; they hadn’t suffered very much for Christ. In fact they were deeply flawed human beings, and yet Jesus said to them that they were the salt of the earth.
Here in our text Paul says to these Christians in the church at Rome, “I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another.” (v.14). Wasn’t there a danger of their becoming proud? Maybe, but the Lord spoke to them like that, and so did his apostles. The Lord didn’t mind them being proud of this. He told them on one occasion, “I’m not going to call you my servants. You’re my friends. You really matter to me.” Paul does the same thing; he tells them how much he appreciates their good living, their understanding of the faith and their ability to counsel and help one another. They might have been the last to see such things in themselves. They were just conscious what failures they were, but he praises them at the beginning of the letter, “Your faith is being reported all over the world.” Here at the end he rejoices in their goodness and wisdom and competence to counsel. He wants them to be aware that they’ve got those graces because they are the graces of the Holy Spirit; they are the invariable consequence of union with Christ.
It is a great example of a spirit that we must foster in our own congregation. We are nothing in the eyes of the world; we are holy fools in the estimation of our unbelieving families, but you are certainly not like that in our eyes. You matter to us because you matter to our Father. What you are doing is so worthwhile. It is most valuable for the church, and we praise God for you. We shall say that whenever the opportunity arises, and we ought to seek by all proper means to contrive those opportunities. I am saying that that is what our Lord did, and that is what the apostle did. He made the people of God in Rome feel loved. He let them know how grateful he was. He told them how useful their lives in Christ were, because the world had no words of encouragement for them, and the devil wanted them to feel useless.
You think of the problem in the Roman church of the weak and the strong, and both sides wanting to exaggerate and magnify this issue as if the future of Christianity hung on gaining the victory in this dispute. How graciously and sweetly and patiently Paul dealt with it. I am reminded of the story of a man in the Midlands who inherited a large mansion from a distant relative. He gave up his work and spent his time repairing this ruin. For three years people saw him working on the high wall surrounding the mansion, pointing and repairing the stonework. Then after three years he opened the gates and invited them all inside the grounds. Their faces dropped; he had used the stones of the house itself to repair the walls. The house was in a far worse state than when he had inherited it, but the walls were high and strong.
A lesser man than Paul seeing this party spirit in the Roman church could have done what that man in the Midlands did, and spend all his energy strengthening the walls separating the two groups and dividing the church, but in this letter Paul concentrates his resources in expounding redemptive truth, and explaining the dynamic of Christian living, and then to bring down the walls separating the weak and the strong. Now in our text he is assuring them that he has no lowly estimate of their Christian profession. It is not because they are bad people that he has spent almost four chapters – twelve to fifteen – explaining to them how they should live – they are in fact full of goodness. It is not because he has a low assessment of their grasp of truth that he has spent eleven chapters expounding Christian theology – they are complete in knowledge. They can counsel one another; they don’t need his counsels. He is not flattering them; he is simply making them aware of the progress that’s been made in their lives by the Spirit of God since first they confessed the Saviour as their God.
2. THERE WERE THREE GREAT GRACES PAUL WAS SURE THAT THEY POSSESSED.
“I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another” (v.14). Paul had no doubts about this at all. “I myself am convinced about this,” he said, that . . .
i] They were full of goodness. This is what the world expects of people who are religious, that they will be good people, that they will be loving, peaceful, patient, gentle, dependable, meek, self-controlled, trusting, kind men and women. Doesn’t the world have every right to believe that? Don’t we make the most astonishing claims for the mere Christian? We say that he is indwelt by God the Holy Spirit and so he is a partaker of the divine nature. He can do all things through Christ who strengthens him. God’s grace is sufficient for him to live a good life wherever God puts him. Shouldn’t such a person be good? Indeed be full of goodness? If God never puts us in a situation where the trial is too great for us – and he does not – then there is no excuse for us not being good people. I do not mean perfect people; I am not referring to those who do everything one hundred per cent sinlessly, not that – though we would! But that the overwhelming disposition and direction of our lives is to goodness. We would live virtuously in and through the Lord Jesus Christ.
ii] They were full of knowledge. It means they were being filled with knowledge day after day. They were knowing more and more about the Bible. That is where it starts. They knew this Book that God has taken such pains to give to us. They knew the sweep of redemptive history, Creation, Fall and Redemption. They knew of the promise in Eden of one who could come who would bruise the serpent’s head. They knew of the prophecies concerning the virgin born and suffering Servant of God. They knew of his two-fold nature, God and man in one person. They knew of his three states, pre-incarnate, humbled and exalted. They knew of his three offices, prophet, priest and king. They knew of the Trinity, that the Father is God and the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God and that these three are one God. They knew why the Son of God died, to redeem us from our sin. They knew of the work of the Spirit convicting us of our sin, illuminating our understanding and giving us life to trust no longer in ourselves but in Christ. They knew the tension of Romans seven, of the good things that they would do which they found themselves not doing, and the evil things that they wouldn’t do which they found themselves falling into. So they cried what wretched men they were and who would deliver them. But they answered their own question. They thanked God that it would be through Jesus Christ. So they were full of knowledge, biblical and experiential, and they loved the truth and the God of truth, and they applied what they knew to their lives day after day.
iii] They were competent to counsel one another. Where would the people of Rome go for advice 2000 years ago? To the temples, and mediums, and priests, and wizards? Would they go to the Epicurean philosophers or the Platonists or the Stoics? Paul says he is so glad that in the congregation they counseled one another well. They were filled with knowledge and goodness and so they were competent to instruct one another. The original Greek word for counsel is nouthesis and it contains three elements, to admonish, warn and teach. Jay Adams set out on a fine campaign about 35 years ago to transliterate the word and capture the biblical flavour of Christians admonition with his phrase ‘nouthetic counseling’, and he has more or less succeeded. Are we competent to advise? Of course many of us are, and we do, but not enough of us, and some of us are not as competent as we might be. These are days of uncertainty and confusion and we all need to become filled with goodness and knowledge. That is the first indispensable qualification for useful lives in the church.
Let me raise an important question. What are the marks of a Christian full of the Holy Spirit? A warm heart and heightened feelings during singing and services and prayers? Is it that? In many circles that is all sufficient for pronouncing a person not only a Christian but a Spirit-baptized Christian. I was reading about some recent apparitions of what are being claimed as the Virgin Mary. These are taking place as I speak in Nelson County, Charlottsville, Virginia and have gone on for the past ten months. People are traveling there from all over the world, and many claim to have seen her, while those who haven’t had a vision of her feel what they call the ‘power of her divine presence.’ They describe their experiences like this, “I felt her take my head close to her chest and then stroke my hair. The presence was sublime. On the way back down the path, my heart was filled with love and gratitude to the point of crying.” The message of the apparition to the world was that mankind should be awakened to its own divinity. I want to ask this question, what do such feelings have to do with godliness? Godliness is not about feelings; it is about being full of goodness, and knowledge, and competence in counseling others. It is all too easy for a man to manipulate a congregation and by music and by intimate soft words create an atmosphere. Then he tells the people that those warm’n’fuzzy feelings generated are the Holy Ghost. If I were to speak like that I would be the voice of the great deceiver and not the servant of the Lord. All three graces must be present if a person is judged to be filled with the Spirit of God. Religious experience is very common; the truth preached and lived out by the power of the Holy Spirit is rare.
3. PAUL IS CONCERNED TO EXPLAIN TO THEM HIS BOLDNESS.
He does this in two ways;
i] Paul explains that he had been given apostolic authority to address them.
Paul first turns to the subject of his own zeal in speaking to them. What authority does he have to tell people what they are to believe, and how they should live, and what is the good life, and how we can get to heaven, and what we must do to be saved? Who can tell us these things? “Who is he to throw his weight around?” Why should we listen to Paul? One reason is that his words change people, so that despairing and guilty people become full of goodness, and full of knowledge and competent to advise others. I think that any gospel that has that effect on millions of people for hundreds of years challenges us to at least stop and consider the claims of the apostle Paul.
Paul feels some necessity to explain himself to the Roman Christians as to why he’s been so bold in this letter. He explains in verses 15 and 16 that the source of this boldness is found in a calling he personally and uniquely received from God to be his very special ambassador, representative and spokesman to the Gentiles. He says “I have written you quite boldly on some points as if to remind you of them again because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles” (v.15).
Paul is telling them about the charisma, the gift of being the apostle to the Gentiles. He is going back to the days of his conversion on the Damascus Road and divine commission. You remember that after seeing the Lord in such bright light he was blind for three days. Then God spoke to a Christian called Ananias to go to Paul, lay his hands on him and give him his sight. Ananias protested that Paul was an evil persecutor of Christians, and then God said to him very firmly, “‘Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.’ Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord – Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here – has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 9:15-18). Thus it was that Paul was set apart by God to be the apostle to the Gentiles. It was by an enabling gift – a charisma – of sovereign grace.
Of course Paul saw his whole ministry as a grace, a gift from God. Paul understood his utter unworthiness to be in this ministry. He had been a killer of Christians. He’d been a persecutor of the early church. He was the scourge of congregations in Judea and further afield. He was the single most dangerous individual threatening the continuance and survival of Christianity in the world of his time, the most merciless inquisitor that the Church faced, burning with hatred for them. Paul was aware how evilly he’d behaved and so he had a keen sense of his unworthiness to be a minister of Jesus Christ. So there was no question in his mind that it was grace alone that had called him and equipped him for his apostleship to the Gentiles.
Of course we are all unworthy of the privilege of sharing the truth of the Lord Jesus Christ with those who don’t know him. None of us deserve it and none of us has earned it himself. We are right where Paul was. We stand in the solidarity of unworthiness with him. You don’t have to have persecuted the church. You don’t have to have been unstintingly and publicly immoral. All you have to do is be a sinner, by nature a child of the wrath of God, saved by grace in order to be able to stand right where Paul is and say, “I’m not worthy to have the privilege to lead people to the Lord Jesus Christ, but thank you, God, for the gift of giving that to me anyway.” So, Paul was made an apostle to the Gentiles by the gifting grace of God. Read his letters and listen to what he has to say because the Creator of this universe put him in his office. God led him into all truth. God breathed out the epistles he wrote. What Paul says to us is what God says to us.
ii] Paul had also been given priestly authority to minister to them.
Paul adds,“with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” He now uses priestly language about his ministry, but he doesn’t use priestly language focused on worship – the ordinances, communion and baptism. He doesn’t talk about being a priest in the context of Sunday worship assemblies or in any of the stated services of the congregation. He acknowledges that he performs priestly duties in this sense: that he’s offering to God the Gentiles themselves. Just like the Old Testament priest would offer a sacrifice on the altar to God, Paul is offering these Christians to God.
“Take their lives and let them be consecrated Lord to Thee.
Take their all and let them be, ever, only all for Thee.”
Paul evangelizes amongst the Gentiles, argues, beseeches, writes, prays, pastors and nurtures, and when there is a new Christian Paul doesn’t domineer them so that they become his slave. Paul offers them to God. Where was the earlier place in the book of Romans where Paul talked about a sacrifice? It was in the opening verses of Romans chapter twelve at the hinge between the doctrinal section and the ethical section. What was he talking about offering to God there? He was talking about us offering ourselves. He challenges every Christian urging them to present their bodies as living sacrifices to God. “Lord, here is my mind, my eyes, my lips, my heart, my loins, my strength, my resilience and my energy and I sacrifice it all to you.” That theme is being picked up here. Paul is saying in our text that as a believer he is a priest. Every believer, men and women, become priests by regeneration. My life is the sacrifice which I offer to God.
However, Paul is the evangelist and teacher and apostle to the Gentiles and so he offers to God the lives of those who’ve professed faith under his ministry. They are living sacrifices given up to God. They don’t become part of his organization. He dedicates them all to the Lord. He tells us, “I am giving them over to him just like a priest gives a sacrifice to God, not to atone for me and my sin. I have already been atoned for.” That is the point of the first 11 chapters of Romans. Don’t think that Paul is putting in the idea that “if I don’t get enough souls saved and written about in my prayer letters to my supporters back home my support will drop and my sins won’t be atoned for.” He dismissed that type of thinking in the first 11 chapters. There is one perfect, completed atonement made for the sins of all the people of God by Jesus Christ the Son of God on Golgotha. So conversions under Paul’s ministry don’t make one atom of a contribution to securing Paul’s forgiveness. That has all been dealt with and perfected by Christ.
Paul is saying this, “I long to offer more and more of you as living sacrifices of thanksgiving and joy to God, just as I am offering myself to him day by day.” The sacrifices of the Old Testament had to be without blemish. You gave the best to God, not the sheep with one ear. But here in Rome was a Christian who had been a thief, and another a rapist, and another had had five wives, and another had been a gladiator and had killed men in the Coliseum, and here were women who had been gossips and shrews and violent people. They had all been sabbath breakers and blasphemers. How could he give such defiled and blemished people to God? The answer is found in his words “sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”
Think of a little boy who carves a little wooden whale for his father. His mother asks him what he’s doing and he tells her, “I’m making this for Daddy’s birthday tomorrow.” She helps him and praises him, but she notices at the end that it is rough and splintered and the edges are sharp and the join in two pieces of wood is not aligned. So that night when the little boy has gone to bed and her husband is at the Prayer Meeting she takes the wooden whale out of the bag and she gets a sheet of sandpaper and she works on it, smoothing it, removing all the splinters, aligning the join of the two pieces of wood. Then when it is smooth she gets some polish; she rubs and rubs it until it glows, and then finally it is finished. It is his work but she has made it more beautiful. The next day he runs with it to his father on his birthday; the little chap is delighted with it as he gives it and his father is pleased to receive it.
So it is with us and the offering of ourselves to God. There is much that is imperfect, in fact there is nothing perfect, but whatever we offer to God, little or great, has first been energized and perfected by the Holy Spirit. He removes everything that would grieve God, all that is inadequate and incomplete, every particle of pride and self, so that what God receives from us is still indeed our handiwork but has been made perfectly acceptable in God’s sight through the merits of Christ. It is a sacrifice well-pleasing to him. That Holy Spirit continues to work in us, changing our thinking and our values and whatever excites and delights us, so that our daily offering to God is more and more acceptable to him. Paul did not want to see mere decisions, professions of faith, but heaven wrought godliness in saved sinners. He wanted to see increasing transformation of life by the Holy Spirit. He desired that all God’s people were full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another, and that is what the Holy Spirit achieves. That’s what he wanted to give to God. “Lord, I want to give you people that are thoroughly Christlike, who love the word of God, who are wise in helping other Christians.”
My friend Lindsay Brown of Monmouth is the retiring General Secretary of International Fellowship of Evangelical Students and he has just written a survey of Christian student work all over the world. He kindly sent me a free copy and I have read about brave Christians suffering and standing for Jesus Christ everywhere. The only explanation is that they are sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Only the power of God can make young people live – and die sometimes – as they do. Ten years ago Lindsay went to Peru where he met a female student named Amelia at the University of Huancayo. There had been a number of students killed by the guerilla movement and she was threatened that if she were not silent about the gospel church then she would be killed too. This had really frightened her and for two years she said nothing about her faith, but she had the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. Constantly he was quietly reminding her of who was her Lord and the price he had paid for her redemption. She said to Lindsay, “Six months ago I asked myself the simple question: Is the gospel true? If it is true, then it is worth living for, and it is worth dying for.” After several months of reflection she became convinced that the gospel was true and since that time she speaks openly of Jesus Christ, ready to pay the price for confessing him. That is the power of the Holy Spirit.
Amelia has become an offering acceptable to the Lord, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. She is now one of those whom we can describe as “full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another.” I cannot see why everyone doesn’t have that ambition for his or her life. What do you want to be when you grow up? What are your plans for the future? What are your ambitions? What do you want for you and your wife in your marriage? What do you want for your church? I cannot see a better resolution for the future than this, “full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another.” The grandeur of it is this, that unlike so many resolutions that people make at the beginning of a year or at the start of Lent, this resolution is attainable because it is God’s gift and it is his intention to make every single Christian like this. Then cry to God mightily, and say to him. “O God, fill me with all goodness and knowledge and make me competent to counsel.”
“O teach me, Lord, that I may teach the precious things Thou dost impart.
And wing my words, that they may reach the hidden depths of many a heart.
O fill me with Thy fullness, Lord, until my very heart o’erflow
In kindling thought and glowing word, Thy love to tell, Thy praise to show!
O use me, Lord, use even me, just as thou wilt and when and where
Until Thy blessed face I see, Thy rest, Thy joy, Thy glory share!”
Francis Ridley Havergal. (1836-1879)
4th February 2007 GEOFF THOMAS