Invisible God, Visible Faith

“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you because the news of your faith is being reported in all the world. For God, whom I serve with my spirit in telling the good news about His Son, is my witness that I constantly mention you, always asking in my prayers that if it is somehow in God’s will, I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I want very much to see you, so I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, that is, to be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. Now I want you to know, brothers, that I often planned to come to you (but was prevented until now ) in order that I might have a fruitful ministry among you, just as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am obligated both to Greeks and barbarians, both to the wise and the foolish. So I am eager to preach the good news to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:8-17 HCSB)

There’s an old saying that goes, “the most important things in life aren’t things.” In other words, the things that really count and matter most in life are those things that are not physical or material – things of the heart and of the soul – the people we love and those who love us and matters of the heart and soul. They reach down deep into us and connect with us at levels that are often hard to express and even harder to explain. Often, we aren’t even aware of how deeply they are connected to our feelings and emotions until something causes them to be exposed and, like a nerve exposed through some physical injury, we suddenly feel powerful emotional pain over them or ongoing irritation towards them. The people we love the deepest are the same ones who wound us the deepest and irritate us the most.

In today’s focal passage, Paul begins to express his emotions about and feelings towards the Roman Christians. They are on his mind and in his heart because “their faith is being reported around the world.” Admittedly, Paul’s view of the “world” is not exactly our modern view of the world but that is still an incredible statement to make about a church. In last week’s lesson, we talked about Paul’s mission to lead them into “obedience of faith” and this week I want to speak to a little more detail what he means by that statement and how our faith must be lived out in a visible way. Let’s get started…

First, I want you to notice that Paul thanks God through Jesus Christ “for all of you” because the faith of the Roman Christians is being reported or spoken about in a positive way around the world. The prayer of thanksgiving that Paul makes to God is “through” Jesus Christ. In the past, I have mentioned about how scripture calls for us to “seek God” and to “walk with God,” but I want to be very clear in pointing out that our access to and relationship with God the Father is only THROUGH Jesus, the Son.

In fact, Jesus tells Thomas this very thing in the gospel of John… “Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6 HCSB Phillip counters with, “Lord, show us the Father, and that’s enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been among you all this time without your knowing Me, Philip? The one who has seen Me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:8-9 HCSB)

There is a very strong tendency in our modern culture to say that all religions and religious beliefs are equal and equally true. To use their terms, “all roads lead us to God” or “there are many paths up the mountain to God.” However, those who tend to hold this belief are generally not devout believers in any of the major religions. They might be “religiously minded” folks, but religion does not play a dominant role in their lives. In truth, devout adherents to all of the major religious beliefs tend to hold to an exclusivity claim regarding their own religious truths.

Ah, there’s the core issue. Truth. As Pilate pondered when confronted by Christ, “What is truth?” That question still lingers and, quite honestly, haunts us in our modern culture. Does truth exist? Is truth exclusive or can it be relative? If truth really does exist, can it even be known? Before I attempt to answer the question about the existence of truth and its exclusivity claims, let me start by addressing why we even question whether truth really exists. It really comes down to the issue of authority. Truth implies a source of authority that is above or beyond ourselves. In essence, the existence of truth outside of myself implies the existence of God. If truth exists and, thus, God exists then we’re responsible and accountable for how we interact with truth and respond to God. So, you and I must decide or determine whether truth (and by extension, God) exists and holds any sway or authority over our lives. It really is that simple. If God doesn’t exist, then truth can’t exist and if truth doesn’t exist then I’m the sole authority over my life, my choices, my identity and my destiny. Sound familiar? Now on to the question of whether truth exists…

To be honest, I often wonder how someone can even ask the question. We all rely on the existence of absolute truth in everything we do on a daily basis. We rely on the absolute truth of mathematics. We rely on the absolute truth of the laws of physics and nature. We rely on them in such fundamental ways, we don’t even think about it. If truth were relative, then math would not work and we could never be certain of anything that relies on mathematical calculations. So, all of our machinery, automobiles, computers, cell phones, televisions, the Internet and every other piece of technology would simply not work. If the laws of physics did not exist then life as we know it could not exist. Life depends on the consistent functioning of these laws and even a temporary disruption in them would cause irreparable damage and wreak havoc across the physical universe.

For example, imagine what would happen if the law of gravity was even temporarily disrupted. The gravitational pull of our sun is what keeps our earth in a stable, consistent and life sustaining orbit around the sun. If the law of gravity was removed or temporarily suspended, even for just a moment, the results would be catastrophic to life on our planet. Imagine if just the gravitational pull of our planet was intermittent or inconsistent. One moment you’re being flung away from the earth’s surface and the next you’re crashing back into it. I don’t think you could physically survive that way for very long, but the mental instability such a condition would cause would be completely debilitating.

Does absolute truth exist? Absolutely! I hope that I’ve adequately illustrated that we see it all around us every day and could not survive without it. In a very real sense, the existence of these absolute truths of mathematics, physics and natural laws are simply evidence of a much deeper and, yet, higher law of truth that emanates from the source of all truth, God. The existence of laws (math and physics), information (DNA), order, beauty and patterns (fractals, art, music), communication (speech) and logic (thought, understanding) all point us towards truth and God. One last comment regarding relative truth. People love to claim that truth is relative, until it is their truth that has become relative. To be blunt, nobody really believes that truth is relative. How can I be so certain? Just ask them two questions; 1) Are rape and murder wrong for everyone, or just you? 2) Is all truth relative truth? (If you don’t get the point of that last question, go read it again – if they answer yes, they’ve just made a statement of absolute truth and thus proven themselves wrong. Enough said…

If absolute truth exists in nature then why can’t it exist in our relationship with God? That is exactly what Jesus claimed, it does. The only way to know and walk with God as a human being is to do so with God’s human expression (or revelation) of Himself, Jesus. The author of Hebrews puts it this way, He spoke to us previously (the Old Testament) through Moses and the prophets, but “In these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son. God has appointed Him heir of all things and made the universe through Him. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature, sustaining all things by His powerful word. After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” (Hebrews 1:2-3 HCSB) So, I want to encourage you to seek to know God as He has only been revealed in and through His Son, Jesus.

Next, I want you to notice that Paul deeply desires to visit the Christians of Rome and, in doing so, impart some spiritual gift to strengthen them. The words have barely left his pen when he immediately clarifies by stating that they would be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. The church would benefit from Paul’s presence and teaching, but Paul would benefit and be blessed by the Roman church and its members. There’s little doubt that the church would benefit from Paul’s preaching and teaching, but Paul would benefit from them? Interesting… but entirely true. Let me illustrate my point.

I’ve had the privilege over the last 12 years or so to have traveled with several groups of students on international mission trips. I was initially approached by the Director of Oklahoma Baptist University’s mission trip program and asked if Tina and I would be willing and able to go on a trip and serve as mentors on a trip to Thailand. It just so happened, that our daughter-in-law was also going on that same trip. We agreed to go and began preparing and training. My initial thoughts ran something like Paul’s with the idea of how much knowledge, wisdom and spiritual maturity I could teach and impart to the students on the trip. My spiritual gift to strengthen them. However, I soon realized that I had been blessed and learned far more than I had blessed or taught the students on that trip. I am certain that I learned and grew just as much as the students I was mentoring and teaching during that trip. It was mutually beneficial and we established some life-long friendships on that trip and each of the subsequent trips we’ve taken.

What’s my point? You need to invest yourself in the people around you and as you see opportunities to teach, train, develop, mentor and bless others then you will also be blessed and will learn from them, too. In fact, I will guarantee that the blessings you receive and the lessons you learn will almost certainly surpass the blessings you give and the things you teach. The biblical principle of “sowing and reaping” is at play in these situations and circumstances. When you sow blessings and teach spiritual lessons to others then you reap personal blessings and learn from others. If you want to receive, then give. If you want to grow, then teach. If you want to be blessed, then bless others.

One last observation on this subject, if you aren’t serving God in some way in your local church then you are living in disobedience before God. Yes, that is a very bold statement but it is one based on scripture. Each of us is called to serve God in some way. The ‘go ye therefore’ clause of the Great Commission was not given to just the Apostles. After Jesus had washed the feet of the disciples on the night before His crucifixion, He then challenged them to do the same to and for one another. Loving and serving one another is the watermark of a vibrant and active faith in Jesus as Lord. In my opinion, the greatest misunderstanding among modern Christians is who should be performing the ministry of the local church. I’ll just leave this right here: “And He personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ,” (Ephesians 4:11-12 HCSB) The job of the pastor/teacher is to train the saints in the work of ministry… not to do all of it himself.

That brings me to my last point and primary emphasis for this week, Paul has stated that the Roman Christian’s faith is being talked about around the world. In my culture, a person’s faith is generally considered to be a “private” affair and, as such, should be kept out of the public space and one’s work. As you can tell from this passage, that must not have been the case in Paul’s mind or in the life of these Roman Christians. In fact, I would contend that faith, if it is real and alive in your life, cannot be kept private and will be visible and impact every area of your public and private life. With that in mind, I want to look at this in two ways… expressing your faith in your public life and expressing your faith in your private life.

As we’ve discussed before, the Apostle James states that real faith will have corresponding actions (see James 2:17). Some have seen James’ emphasis on works to be in contrast to Paul’s emphasis on faith but, in reality, these two Apostles do NOT disagree. Paul’s emphasis on faith is in response to Jewish false teachers who appear to stress salvation by adherence to the Jewish customs and laws even for Gentile believers. James’ emphasis on actions (or works) is in response to false teachers who appear to stress that faith is simple belief in God. However, James and Paul agree that real, life-changing, soul-saving faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior results in a life that lives out one’s beliefs in tangible and physical ways that are consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ. My childhood pastor put it this way, if you see a need and have the ability to meet that need then that constitutes a call from God to give them those things they need. The Apostle James put it this way, if you see a brother in need of food or clothing and all you offer to do is pray for them without trying to get them fed or warm, then your faith is just dead. That’s how your faith should respond in your public life… with real, concrete actions.

In my opinion, the greatest struggle every Christian faces is how to live out our faith in our private lives. First question, what is your private life? What I mean by “private life” is how you live outside the view of the public or, to put it another way, how you live with those closest to you like your immediate family and your closest friends. Why would I say that this is the greatest struggle? Because these people generally know you best and often see you at your worst. You tend to live your public life wearing the mask that gives the best impression of who you are and how you act. But when you get home, the mask comes off and the “real” you is on full display. I can still hear my mother scold me, “Gary Bradford, you don’t act that way in public!” I knew my mother was serious when she used my middle name, too. Things I might get away with at home, I sure didn’t get away with when I was out in full view of the neighbors, our extended family or GOD.

Don’t believe me, yet? How often do we offer more kindness, grace and benefit of the doubt to people we don’t know than we do to our own spouses, children or close friends? If your initial response is, “yeah, but…” then just stop right there, you just made my point. To put it another way, we let our hair down when we are at home. We don’t feel as obligated to look good or act right. We also don’t feel as obligated to ‘put on our Christian mask.’ If you find it easier to be nice to someone at work than you do your own spouse, something’s wrong. If you find it easier to forgive a co-worker or even a stranger than you do your child, something’s wrong. If you are nicer to a neighbor than your are your immediate family, something’s wrong. I’m really not kidding. There’s even a Wikipedia entry on the phrase, “kick the cat.” It is based on the idea that a man comes home from work frustrated at his boss or a coworker, and he releases his frustration by kicking the cat as he walks in the door. Sometimes it isn’t the cat, but another family member. That’s what I mean by living out our faith in our private lives.

Let me end by reminding you that real Christian faith should motivate us to love God above everything else and to love our neighbor in the same way we love ourselves. Who is your closest neighbor? For many of you, it is your spouse and sometimes we don’t treat them the way Christ commands we should treat them. One final observation, your children are watching to see if the faith you proclaim so loudly with your mouths is lived out in your interactions with them and your spouse. It won’t be necessary, but how would God judge your life if the only witness to your Christian faith were the comments and insights from your family and closest friends? Would He judge you faithful or a failure? Will He be able to say, like Paul did of the Roman Christians, people everywhere are talking about your faith? I hope so…

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