Many of you will know the name CS Lewis. Lewis was a scholar and great apologist for the church in the 20th Century. He wrote many famous books which have challenged adults (e.g. Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, etc.) and inspired people of all ages (The Chronicles of Narnia series).
But Lewis was also a poet – and a masterful one. One such poem is called “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer.” The poem reads as follows:
From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score;
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.
Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.
Ultimately, this prayer is about humility. It is about the need to understand that nothing we do, nothing we think, nothing we are really matters – at least not as we think it matters. Everything about us is a credit to God. We should remember that. We must remember that.
Paul knew that. The Romans did not. As I said a few years ago when we were studying Mark’s account of the gospel, the Romans were much like us. They were doers. They learned in order to do – something, anything. Americans, especially, are the same way some twenty centuries later. And so, we often think that what we do must please God somehow. It is as if we expect God to honor us for our work. It is as if we expect God to say, “Thank you,” so we have the ability to say back to Him, “You’re welcome.”
But we have no such right. None of us do now. And no one did then. And that is the main thrust of Paul’s argument so far in Romans. But lest anyone think otherwise, Paul makes this idea clear again as he transitions to the importance of faith.
The final paragraph of Romans 3 is not near as great as the preceding paragraph, but the ideas in this paragraph (known as verses 27-31) build on the previous verses and prepare us for the next piece of Paul’s argument about faith.
And faith is the key. Because faith is the equalizer.
Paul begins verse 27 with another not so hypothetical question. He is still having this “conversation” with a non-existent person and asks about the place of boasting after revealing that God is the one who redeemed mankind and stands as both the just and the justifier. Those who boast have already justified themselves or, at least, what they have done.
We see this everywhere – from athletes to entertainers to politicians. “Look at me! Look what I have done! Look at my accomplishments! Aren’t you glad to know me or at least, know who I am?”
The problem with boasting is that it turns others away. Even if the person is right and “deserves” the accolades, excessive boasting turns most people away. And those who remain loyal often want something from the person.
That is the issue in Romans 3.27-31. The Jews were boastful – and I would contend most Christians are no different. The Jew boasted in three things, and while we might have different labels today, I think we boast in much the same way. Let me share these three areas of boasting and then I will tie us into these areas as well. First, the Jews boasted in:
The Law (Romans 3.27-28)
We have seen this truth over and over again thus far in this letter. The Jews thought that they had a leg up, indeed, they thought that they were favored because God gave them the law. Yes, the Jews were God’s chosen people, but their salvation was by faith as Paul stated clearly in verse 22 (and v. 24, “grace” – see Ephesians 2.8). Specifically, that faith was in Jesus (v. 22) because of His sacrifice (vv. 24-25).
The boasting that the Jews did was not only that they had been given the Law, but that they kept the Law. But Paul has refuted their understanding of faithfulness and law-keeping from Romans 1.18-3.20, concluding that, as it relates to sin, they are like the Gentiles, because “all” have sinned (Romans 3.23).
So, it is not the law which saves – at least, not a law of works. It is the principle of faith. And because the “law of faith” is what matters, Jew and Gentile are on equal footing.
I would argue that most Christians are not much different than the Jew. But hold that thought because I have two more areas to cover first. Second, the Jews boasted in:
Their Nationality (Romans 3.29-30)
The Jews were an exclusive group of people. They were God’s chosen people. That is quite an honor. But as I have said before, and as Paul will write later in this letter (particularly Chapter 15), the Jews were to be a light to the Gentiles. The OT makes this clear. But the Jews did not honor that calling.
Now, one thing that separated the Jews from other nations, particularly the Romans (and Greeks for that matter), was their belief in one God. One of the most well-known verses to the ancient Israelite, Hebrew, Jew, etc. was from Deuteronomy (6.4) which begins, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
The Lord OUR God. The Lord is ONE. Two big statements that if we are not careful could be considered a contradiction. But they are not contradictory, because OUR does not mean that the Israelites possess God; rather, they acknowledge this God – the One true God, as theirs. But, and here is Paul’s point in these two verses, if their God is the one true God, then that God must be the God of all people. Therefore, if this God that they worship is real, and if He has only given the law to one group of people, then either He does not want others to be saved OR He has another plan in mind.
Now the Jew was not opposed to someone claiming their God (YHWH) as God, but to do so, meant that an outsider (i.e. a Gentile) had to embrace their laws and their rituals, of which one of the most important was the ritual of circumcision. But Paul said that God does have another plan – a plan that did not focus on circumcision; rather, the focus was, and is, based upon faith.
Again, I think Paul’s words have application for us, but let me cover the third aspect of the boasting by the Jews. The third area of their boasting was tied to:
The Old Covenant (Romans 3.31)
Verse 31 is a transitional verse to where Paul wants to take the argument. The Jewish people had a lot of pride. They had a heritage that stemmed back the great founders of their nation – Abraham, Isaac, and their namesake, Jacob (whom the Lord renamed Israel, Genesis 35.10). And God made a covenant with Abraham which was important to the Israelites, and later Jews, regarding not only their origins, but their divine calling by God as His people.
But the other covenant that was so dear to them was the Mosaic Covenant, which is what Paul has called the Law throughout this letter. It is this holding of the law, this covenant, that gave assurance to the Jews. But it is this same covenant that Jesus replaces when, at the Lord’s Supper, He speaks of a “new” covenant (Luke 22.20). Thus, the Mosaic Covenant, the Law, is the Old Covenant. The New Covenant, from Jesus, is based upon faith.
And this is Paul’s point as He begins to talk about Abraham in Romans 4. Abraham was justified by faith, not works, because Abraham’s faith was what was important BEFORE the God gave the law (about 400 years before). So, justification has always been by faith, not works.
And because Jesus came to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5.17), our faith in Christ is actually a testament to the validity of the Law. We are no longer bound to the Law itself, but by faith in Christ, and obedience to Christ, we effectively uphold the Law – which pointed to Christ in the first place. (I will have more to say about this in Wednesday’s daily video this week).
So, we have seen the three areas of boasting for the Jew – the law, their nationality, and the covenant (which is the law, but goes deeper). Now it is time to briefly show that we, as Christians, and particularly those who are Christian and live in America, often do the same.
First, we often justify ourselves by what we do. In fact, for most people, when someone asks what you do, the answer is not “I worship God,” or, “I go to church.” No, we answer based upon our career or vocation (or we qualify that by stating what we want/plan to do if we don’t think our present position matches up). But as it concerns our faith, many Christians believe that it is by grace through faith that we are saved, but then work to make sure they don’t lose some benefit with God. The Reformers used the terms by faith alone (sola fide) and by grace alone (sola gratia) to show that nothing more is necessary, and more importantly, nothing more is possible for salvation. But that doesn’t mean that in our world of earning favor from people, or earning paychecks from companies, etc. that we don’t try to earn salvation from God. But it is not possible. Furthermore, trying to earn salvation is not only impossible, it cheapens the work of Jesus.
Second, we must ask about our nationality. God recognized nations and empires. God called nations by name. He calls empires and emperors or kings by name in various prophecies of the OT. So, He knows America. But like the Jew of yesteryear, I think many Americans have a false sense of security – or, at least had a false sense. Many called this a Christian nation. Many say that our founders were Christian. Well, yes, our law and nation were established on Judeo-Christian ethics, but it is hard to pin down the faith of many of our Fathers. In fact, some were outright Deists and thus did not hold to an orthodox view of God, and therefore, of faith in Christ. The issue we have faced is that many people are Christian Americans with the focus on America. But God is focused on His Kingdom, not a country. And He wants people who put Him first, not as a descriptor. Thus, we must be American Christians, with Christians being the noun, or whatever nationality one claims serving as the adjective.
Third, we have a document that is near to us as Americans. As I have said numerous times, our Founding Fathers, despite their faults, were trying to answer questions that had never fully been asked. And one of the answers, the US Constitution, has stood the test of time for 132 years. But like the Old Covenant, our focus cannot be on a set of laws meant to govern our actions; we must look to the One who has given us a course of action. The US Constitution is still important (in my opinion), but it is not pre-eminent. The pre-eminent document for me is the written Word (the Bible) because only the Bible points to the truth of the living Word (Jesus).
At the beginning of this post, I shared CS Lewis poem. Lewis was a brilliant man, but he humbly considered himself nothing as compared to God. In fact, it is Lewis that gave us the great quote about humility. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”
Lewis was brilliant. Others knew it. He had to know it as well. But his brilliance did not allow him to have an inflated view of himself. He knew that it was God who mattered, and that without God, he would be nothing.
Paul was similar. Paul does talk about boasting in a positive sense in 2 Corinthians (see 10.13-18). In 2 Corinthians 10.17, he wrote, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” Why? Because we can commend ourselves, but that matters not. Only the Lord’s commendation truly matters.
Our boasting in our own work, even when serving God, actually moves us away from God (James 4.6; 1 Peter 5.6. If boasting causes others to dislike us, how much more does our boasting turn away God? We cannot do anything to earn His grace or pleasure except live by faith (Romans 1.17) in response to His gospel. Our boasting causes challenges in relationships. We are to love God and love others, but pride and boasting get in the way of both.
So, it is not our place to do stuff hoping we get to say to God, “You’re welcome” as if we might boast about what we have done for God. Instead, with humility, in recognition of what He has already done for us, He wants to hear from us is “You are welcome” as in, “you are welcome to do in, and to, and with, and through me, what you want to do for your Kingdom and your glory.”
And that is why our JOURNEY letter for this week is:
JOURNEY: R – REVERE
When we focus on who God is and what He has done, we have less opportunity to boast in ourselves. As John the baptizer said of Jesus, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3.30).
LIVE. This week, take time to move from thinking, “You’re welcome,” to God to saying, “Thank you, God.” When we focus on thanking God for giving us our abilities – both big and small – we lose the tendency to make ourselves out to be more than we are. So, this week, as you live, whatever that means this week – working at a job, in the home, on a garden, etc. or whatever it is you do, say, “Thank you.”