Romans 16:19 “Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I am full of joy over you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.”
I wonder how large was the congregation of Christians in Rome? Did they meet in the winter months in different houses and then could all come together in the summer in some quiet spot in the open air? How large an assembly were they? Sixty? A hundred? Two hundred? A thousand? More? We have no idea. We can’t even give an educated guess. There are no clues as to the size of the church. What can become an obsession with us is not even mentioned in the New Testament, not only for the congregation in Rome but all the churches. When Christ assesses the seven churches in Asia Minor he never comments on the size or numerical growth of a single one. Church growth in New Testament terms is in terms of spiritual growth, growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is the church addition that the Spirit emphasizes, as Peter exhorts a church, “make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:5-7). An increasing measure of those graces, adding one virtue to another, that addition alone delivers a congregation from being ineffective and unproductive with all its knowledge of Jesus Christ.
1. THE CHRISTIAN IS TO BE CHARACTERIZED BY HIS OBEDIENCE TO GOD.
Paul commends the Roman congregation in these terms, “Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I am full of joy over you” (v.19). Today people ask, “Have you heard how large it is? Have you heard how many activities take place?” – but in the New Testament they said to one another, “Have you heard about their obedience?” Paul was aware that every single believer had heard about the exemplary obedience of the congregation in Rome. This was the testimony they had before the whole Christian world, that whatever the Lord had said, that is what the believers in Rome did. Paul had just been warning them about the activities of false teachers with their smooth talk and flattery, deceiving naïve Christians, causing divisions, putting obstacles in men’s way, and taking people away from the teaching they had learned. But this hadn’t happened in Rome. It had happened elsewhere, across the sea in the fledgling church in Galatia, but the Roman congregation was renowned for its obedience to the gospel and this made Paul rejoice “I am full of joy over you.” Their submission to the will of God was great news.
What is true Christian obedience? What makes an entire congregation not just a collection of obedient individuals but an obedient body whose fame is spread everywhere? I believe that it is real spiritual integrity that holds Christians to God and to one another. Dr Cornelius Plantinga has a happy illustration of this. Engineers who plan bridges or airliners are concerned about what they call ‘integrity’ because they understand the forces that can make a structure collapse. A bridge, for instance, has to be both firm and flexible, like a long steel spring. It has to be able to give a little as the forces of wind and traffic come to play upon it, but it can’t give a whole lot, or it becomes unstable. The same goes for airliners; jumbo jets, for instance, can develop cracks in their ribs from the force of thousands of landings. Safety requires that such aircraft be planned and built flexible enough to absorb the force of landing but not so much that they fall apart. Think of flexing your knees in preparation for a six-foot drop.
We are considering the integrity of personal Christian obedience and I am saying that we need two things, a firm structure and inner flexibility.
i] We need the firm structures of the law of God. I am thinking of the ten commandments, and how they are opened up and applied by the Lord Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and then how they are further amplified by Paul in the later chapters of Romans and Ephesians, and how James, the brother of our Lord expounds this dynamic Christian ethic in his letter. We must interpret the law of God through the New Testament. The law of God is like a set of ribs in an airliner, or the superstructure of a bridge. When they built the suspension bridge over the river Severn from Wales to England then its two tall towers were the first structures to be erected, and then two long cables, a mile long, were woven and bound together and hung across them from shore to shore. Finally many smaller cables hung down from them attaching the roadway to those two long cables. That was the necessary superstructure of the bridge.
Think of the law of God saying “Thou shalt not . . .” and “Thou shalt . . .”, non-negotiable absolute standards for daily living, shaping our lives like the superstructure shapes the bridge. Our lives become firm and stable as they are disciplined by the law. People can depend on us. They know we won’t lose our Christian shape when forces push against us or pull on us. People can predict ahead of time that we won’t lose the plot and lie or steal or murder, that we’ll show reverence for God and respect for parents and for all in authority. These are our ribs. This is the superstructure of daily conduct which God has designed for his church.
There would be occasions when my dear late friend Ernest Reisinger would be invited to a school and he would talk to a group of children on the importance of the law of God, and he would ask them what would they think the world would be like . . .
(1) if everyone would love and serve God?
(2) if no one would worship idols, money, or pleasure?
(3) if no one would curse or take the Lord’s name in vain?
(4) if everyone would see how good God is to have provided one day a week to
worship, rest, and do acts of necessity and mercy?
(5) if all children would obey their parents, and everyone would honour those who
are in authority, such as teachers and civil authorities; and therefore we would
have no need for police, jails, or courts?
(6) if no one would murder, or do any violence and we could feel safe anywhere at
(7) if no one would commit adultery, so that we would have no broken homes?
(8) if no one would steal, and we would have no need for locks or locksmiths?
(9) if no one would bear false witness, that is, deceive and lie?
(10) if no one would covet, and all people were content with who they were and what
The children’s answer usually was, “It would be heaven!”
The reason it would be heaven is that we would all be like Christ. He is the most free being in the universe, as well as the most wise. He knows the nature of all things from the beginning to the end. He tasted the joys of heaven. He drank from all eternity the rivers of God’s pleasure. Yet, when he stood in our nature, he delighted in the law of God. Yes, God’s law was within his heart. One evidence of that was that Jesus was subject to his parents. In one sentence, Luke 2:51 summarizes twelve years of his life: “He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them.” Thus, he honoured God’s law, not as a legalist or a Pharisee; nor was he an antinomian. He magnified the law and made it honourable by his obedience.
Such obedience that comes from keeping God’s law was present in the Roman congregation. That was one way they showed they loved one another. That is how Paul exhorts them in the great ethical chapters of this epistle. In chapter thirteen and verses eight, nine and ten he tells them, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow-man has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.” The apostle John similarly teaches, “He who says, ‘I know him,’ and does not keep his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (I Jn. 2:4).
The law of God preached from their pulpit revealed to the people of Rome the character of the one true and living God and also the condition of man. John Eliot was the great American missionary to the native Americans, and his first translation work amongst them was not John 3:16 but of the Ten Commandments, and this was the theme of his first sermon. He didn’t think that the Indians would be saved by the Ten Commandments but the law of God would show them why they needed to be saved. They were law-breakers, and they needed a law-keeper to be their substitute. Then after they had trusted in him for salvation he would teach them to live by keeping his law. Again, John Paton first taught the commandments to the cannibals of the New Hebrides in the South Pacific islands because he felt people would never be properly interested in a relationship with the Redeemer until they saw the terrible breach in their relationship to the Creator. The sharp needle of the law makes way for the scarlet thread of the gospel. Paul says, “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). Then when they were regenerate and justified they had a new inward power to keep the law:
Run and work, the law demands
But gives me neither feet nor hands.
A sweeter sound the gospel brings,
It bids me fly and gives me wings.”
The law of God is the delight of the gospel church. Paul says, “For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man” (Rom, 7:22). I was thumbing through the pages of the hymnbook called Praise; it is committed in its first 150 hymns to sing much of the book of psalms. What verses on the theme of the blessings brought by the law of God are to be found there. I hope preachers in the churches that use Praise will often be choosing to sing such verses on God’s commandments as these
All your commandments, Father Almighty,
Bring to your children healing and blessing;
Christians who keep them find here their comfort. [Chris Idle]
Your laws and your commands remain my great delight;
I speak of them at noon and ponder them at night. [David Mowbray]
Lord, I delight to recall your commandments
And the perfection of your moral law;
Teach me, instruct me, and thus I’ll retain them
Deep in my heart to the end of my days. [Michael Saward]
I hope songs about the value of the law of God are being sung in evangelical churches all over the land because my impression is a spreading antinomian spirit is taking over. So I am saying that one way obedience comes to a gospel congregation is from the law of God. The commandments present to us the character of God, display the life that pleases him, show us how we are to love one another, help us to evangelize by convicting sinners of their sin and the law provides us with a theme of doxology and praise. So there is firstly the rigidity and superstructure of the law of God.
ii] However, let us go back to our first illustration; bridges and planes, in order to keep their integrity, also need to have flexibility, and so it is in a gospel congregation. Rules and laws will not be sufficient to cover every single tension that emerges in a living church of saved sinners, and God doesn’t give us his commandments alone. There is no rule book that covers every eventuality, rather, in a unique action of personal love the Lord himself comes to us to dwell in us; he gives to every Christian a Person, a living, guiding Person to inspire us with energy and enthusiasm for vital obedient living. In every Christian is the Spirit of Christ, so that Paul can speak of the radical transformation effected by the indwelling Lord in this way (and on behalf of every one of us) saying, “I no longer live but Christ lives in me.” God himself takes up his abode within the youngest and newest Christian; no Christian without him; we all have limitless access to an indwelling Saviour.
In other words, at the centre of our lives, in our very hearts – that dispositional complex out of which proceed all the issues of life – there beats the warm, personal life of God to inspire and guide us. So we have two gifts; there is the law of God which can be compared to our bone structure, something utterly essential, without which a human being would be a Mr. Blobby or a jelly-fish, not an erect member of the body of Christ. However, as the body is more than a skeleton so Christians are also given the Spirit of God as their vital life and breath and that means we can flex a little. We can confidently face situations for which there are no set regulations by the law and the Spirit. Let’s consider some of them.
a] We may go to 21st birthday parties, or weddings of our cousins, or office parties, or celebrations of people who have no respect for our Saviour. We can accept the invitations and while we are there join in, and speak kindly and warmly to people and often say ‘Yes. Thank-you very much,’ but also occasionally graciously refuse, knowing as we enter those places that the Holy Spirit as well as God’s commandments will be there to guide us how we are to act. We may go to a party and we pray, “Make me a blessing to someone in this party today, some lonely and frightened and despairing person.” The Spirit within us causes us to think like that.
b] Again, think of how enormous a part shopping plays in our lives. Again there is nothing in the commandments of God against shopping except those broad prohibitions against shop-lifting and forbidding covetousness. There is nothing wrong is appreciating beautiful things or looking for bargains. The godly woman of Proverbs 31 sets us an example in her industry, and then each of us has to make the final decisions about what to buy, whether something might be a luxury or whether it’s a good buy. Christians will differ as to the size of car that they will buy. A newer car might be a better investment than an old cheap car though it is more expensive. With the Lord within us we have the best shopping assistant anyone can have.
c] Again, think of how we spend our time each day. Let me tell you what J.C.Ryle once said, “Tell me how a man spends his evenings, and I can generally tell what his character is like.” In other words, let’s not waste our precious evenings. Let’s make sure we redeem what we call our ‘spare time;’ we’ve got the law of God and so of course we do nothing against the ten commandments, but how are we serving God and our fellow men in the evenings? What are our enthusiasms? What do our minds drift to when we have nothing else to think about? The ways we spend our evenings can be a barometer of our personality and spiritual condition. That is what Ryle said.
d] Again think of how our culture is so passionate about sport. There is nothing in the ten commandments specifically for or against any game except, again in the most general of prohibitions – the second commandment forbids us making an idol of anything and bowing down before it, and the fourth commandment tells us to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. But playing table tennis or not is a human choice. Paul uses the metaphor of running in a race as a picture of the Christian life. It is highly unlikely that he would use something sinful as an illustration. So you know you have to keep God’s commandments on the soccer pitch, no diving in the penalty area pretending you were tripped up, no bad language, no violence, never! There is the rigidity of the law of God, but then always remember you are taking the Lord Christ with you onto the pitch, into the game. How can I love my opponent as myself? If you feel you can’t take Jesus Christ into a rugby changing room then it is time to quit that sport and find another game more Jesus-friendly.
e] There is this whole area of recreations and hobbies. God has given us recreation as a gift. Fundamentally, the truth is we need recreation because God has given us bodies, and recreation needs no more justification than that. Our bodies can’t keep going and going and going. We need to take time out to refresh ourselves and to relax. I think the following texts help in answering the question, “Why recreation?”: “it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given him – for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work – this is a gift of God” (Eccl.5:18&19). There are religious people who want to forbid innocent pleasures. Paul is scathing to Timothy, that “hypocritical liars . . . forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (I Tim.4:3&4) He says that it is “the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy” (I Tim.6:17). So from these verses it is clear that the Bible expects us to enjoy and take pleasure in the good things of this world, all the while acknowledging God’s goodness in giving them to us. So we take part in recreations because God has given them to us to be enjoyed.
f] Again think of music. It is frequently mentioned in the Scriptures and obviously presented as a good thing. Most of you listen to music. Suss it out by the law of God. Evaluate it through the person of Christ, asking such questions as these; are the lyrics honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous, praiseworthy? Are the images and themes true and noble and beautiful? If they are then we should give our minds and affections to such things. It is an activity we do to the glory of God in the name of Jesus Christ. There are those great principles; ‘Whether therefore you eat, or drink, or whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God’ (lCor. 10:31). ‘And whatsoever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him’ (Col.3:17). It is a good question to ask yourself, ‘If Christ were with me now would I do this’? because Christ is with you, always, even unto the end of the world.
Those are just six different areas of life (and there are many more) where you certainly need the wise law of God, but more than the law is needed for a congregation of different Christians to live together and love one another you need the flexibility of divine strength and wisdom and affection. Let me give you three illustrations from three different Puritans on this subject of recreation. These men are all speaking from the heart. The first man said look at a field. Every so often the crop in a field is changed; there is crop rotation, and one year in so many the field itself is even allowed to lie completely fallow because if crops grow on it every single year all the nutrients will be sucked out of the soil. It must be allowed time to recover. So it should be with us. We cannot keep going without a break, we must have some time to recover. So Christians may not rebuke other Christians for taking time out. The second Puritan said about different forms of recreation, “they are good sauce but bad meat.” That is exactly right. A good gravy can make a roast meal taste that much better, but if all a host served were gravy it would make a poor meal. Tomato ketchup helps to flavour French fries but who could eat just tomato ketchup? So with recreations, they can refresh and reinvigorate us but if they become everything to us they will compromise our spiritual life. A third Puritan said think of the sun. We need the sun to live; we need its light and its warmth. But if we stay out in the direct sun for too long we get burnt. Too much exposure to sport and our faith is destroyed. I think of a man who supports the Welsh soccer team avidly, and follows their games everywhere. He has got spiritually burnt. He has been out under that harsh unredeeming sun too long. He is living on tomato ketchup.
Recreation is God’s gift to a Christian, but it must be done with a consciousness that we are to be ‘redeeming the time, because the days are evil’. What I mean by this is that in our precious temptation-prone evenings, and when we are relaxing we have to be aware of the age in which we live, that the ‘days are evil’, that the mindset of ‘the world’ is one that is anti-God. So if we listen to music or watch television or explore the world wide web we must be aware of that evil mindset and not allow ourselves to slip into it. Even a film or a programme which may not have any objectionable language or images may yet subtly present something to us which suggests, say, living together before being married is alright. We must always be critically aware of the morality we witness in our recreation.
You can understand how Paul considered the behaviour of these Christians in Rome, some of them were soldiers, others worked in Nero’s palace, some were slaves, others were slave owners, some owned vineyards and made wine and others would never drink it. There were young men who enjoyed games, and there were poets and painters. All of them had the law of God and the indwelling Saviour, and each of them wanted to put the Lord first and obey God. Paul could see this and he rejoiced in such a congregation.
And so I have prepared you and myself to understand this last exhortation of Paul, “but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil” (v.19).
2. THE CHRISTIAN IS TO BE WISE ABOUT WHAT IS GOOD, AND INNOCENT ABOUT WHAT IS EVIL.
You can understand what Paul is exhorting from all that I have said to you. Parties, and evenings, and shopping, and sport, and recreation, and music are all good. There is nothing evil in any of those things per se, but they can all become the servants of evil can’t they? We know that. Men in their folly can turn God’s gifts into impurity, and excess. They can make an idol of them; they can become addicted to them; they can become their only end in life. They can become predatory in their activities drawing in the young and pretty and impressionable into a dissolute pursuit of such things.
There are many times when there is no hard and fast rule about our involvement in these areas and then we are thankful for what Paul says here, “Be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.” What is he saying? Be wise. If it makes your body healthier, and your mind happier, and your immortal soul purer, and your service of Christ more energetic then that is the sort of enterprise you ought to be involved in. Go for it with a good conscience! Be wise about it of course. Don’t let it dominate your life; don’t let it become your chief end, but take it as God’s gift and dedicate it to him.
An old Christian was once admiring a hunting hawk on its perch, stroking its feathers and cooing to it. This irritated a young Christian who thought the old man’s pleasure in the bird was a bit over the top, and he exhorted him about the sinful world in which men live and the need to be doing the Lord’s work. The old man was silent and then he said to the young man, “If a bow is always kept bent and taut by the string, and never allowed to straighten then it will soon lose its power. Regularly releasing the bow keeps it strong and useful.” So it is with the Christian; you must show wisdom and appreciation in everything that is good. Professor John Murray had his flock of sheep. Dr. B.B.Warfield had his love of horses and his expertise in shorthorn cattle. Dr. Derek Thomas has his love of music especially Wagner’s Ring Cycle and his collection of CDs and vinyl. John Blanchard has his golf. Don Whitney’s wife has three beehives and she also paints. Be wise about everything that is good like sheep and cattle and horses and golf and music and bees and painting. Some of you have fine gardens, others of you are photographers, you sing in choirs, you play the piano, you keep tropical fish, you play soccer, you collect stamps. We need to say to some students, “For goodness sake go for a walk on the promenade. Go for a swim. Join the ramblers and climb a hill. That is as important as spending all your time at your books.” And if someone asks you why should you be interested in such things, then the totally sufficient answer is, “I enjoy them.” I can think of a Christian who became a very dry stick because all he has done is research old records in the National Library year after year. Be wise about what is good. Don’t dismiss anything in God’s creation as if it were bad.
Some of you know what happened to Charles Darwin as he records it himself in his book Recollections, something he wrote for his children. Until he was thirty years of age music and poetry gave him intense pleasure and very great delight, but then he immersed himself in his scientific activities and he reached a point when “he could not endure to read a line of poetry.” He said, “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of a large collection of facts.” Darwin comes to this conclusion, “If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and injurious to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.”
Be wise about what is good, but be innocent about what is evil. Be immune to every solicitation to evil. Look at the world around us living for the latest film, or another night out, or the next drink, or where they can purchase more drugs. There are certain leisure activities that are evidently evil. A lot of leisure activities are centred on gratuitous violence. Pornography has infiltrated the world of reading, the world wide web and music. It would have been impossible for the Christians in Rome to enjoy what went on in the Roman Coliseum. Christians could not watch wild animals goaded to attack one another, or gladiators fighting one another, or public executions. All that would have been abhorrent as the scenes of torture and beheadings posted on the web are horrible to us today. What you do in your leisure time supports some values and undermines others. What goes on in a typical rock concert undermines Christian moral values. So do most soap operas on television. They are hostile to historic Christianity. Be innocent about what is evil. You don’t need to know about all those wicked aberrations. Be like these Roman Christians in that your obedience to God is known everywhere and a widespread cause of rejoicing. Be wise about what is good and innocent about what is evil.
20th May 2007 GEOFF THOMAS