Romans 15:8-21

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As we have examined the argument of the preceding verses, we have seen that the barrier between the strong Christian and the weak, the one who appreciates his liberty and the one who remains confined to obligations that no longer exist, is, in general, the barrier between the Jewish Christian and the Gentile Christian, a barrier that Christ’s ministry and the ministry of his apostles had dismantled. [Moo, 875-876] This is the point of the following verses as Paul completes his argument. Paul is going to demonstrate that Gentile Christians – living as Gentile Christians – are full members of the people of God and thus to be received and welcomed fully as much as any Jewish Christian. In other words, one does not have to live like a Jew in order to be a Christian in full standing. The distinction between Jew and Gentile should not trouble the unity of the church.

Text Comment

v.8       You remember that the Lord Jesus did not have a ministry to Gentiles. He made a point of saying that his ministry was to be to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 15:24). God had promised eternal salvation to the patriarchs and their descendants and Christ delivered on that promise! But there always were others, non-Jews, who were likewise the object of his saving work.

v.9       Now follow four OT quotations that demonstrate that it was always God’s intention that through Christ the Gentile nations would glorify God.  The first is a citation of Psalm 18:49 (cf. 2 Sam. 22:50). The speaker is David and perhaps Paul intends it to be understood prophetically or typologically, with David speaking in the name of the Christ.

v.10     The second citation is from Deut. 32:43. Now it is not David or Christ praising God among the Gentiles but the Gentiles themselves praising God and doing so alongside Israel.

v.11     The third is Ps. 117:1, a summons to the Gentiles to praise the Lord.

v.12     The fourth, from Isa. 11:10 has the Gentiles putting their hope in the Jewish messiah.

v.13     This verse completes the argument that began at 14:1, gathering up several threads of the argument in a prayer for the peace and joy of the believers – strong and weak alike – in the unity of their faith.

v.14     As Paul begins a new section of the letter he takes care to ensure that his readers don’t take his strong exhortation of the last chapter and a half to suggest that he doesn’t trust them. He knows full well their spiritual maturity.

v.16     Paul’s special calling from God was to be a minister to the Gentiles. That calling explains his special interest in the question of Jewish/Gentile relations in the church and the special authority with which he speaks.

It is very interesting, by the way, and important that Paul identifies the nature of his ministry with that of the Old Testament priesthood. American protestants often shy away from the term priest, as if it connoted some kind of Roman Catholic doctrine of the minister as a mediator between God and man, able to forgive sins and so on. Roman Catholics call their ministers priests so we don’t want to do that! But remember, OT priests were simply ministers of the Word and superintendents of the worship of God’s house. That was their calling as it is the calling of a Christian minister today. And the English word “priest” is simply an old transliteration into English letters of the Greek word presbyteros, the Greek word ordinarily translated in the New Testament as “elder.” It is a commonplace of biblical teaching that the ancient ministry of Israel’s priesthood was carried over in the NT ministry. What the priest was then, the minister is now. I am a priest, Mr. DeMass is a priest, and Mr. Krulish is now a priest, because we are ministers of the gospel, preachers of the Word of God, and superintendents of the worship of God’s house. That is what priests are and do; what they have always been and done.

v.19     In other words, Paul has had a pivotal role in the bringing of salvation to the Gentile world. Illyricum was on the western coast of the Balkan peninsula, where modern Albania, Serbia, and Bosnia are found. Between Jerusalem and Illyricum one would find the churches Paul had founded in the Gentile world. The message has been proclaimed and strategic churches planted in all the areas in between those geographical termini.

v.21     In other words, Paul’s mission was to plant the gospel where it had not yet been planted. That was his special calling as a missionary evangelist and church planter. His was not the work of building up settled churches or of remaining to pastor them.

Verses 8-13 of chapter 15 complete the argument that Paul has been making since 14:1 about strong and weak Christians and the necessity of their bearing with their differences, welcoming one another as Christ welcomed both of them, and living so as to build each other up. In the church of Christ unity in faith and love is more important than complete uniformity of doctrine and practice.  We’ve given some attention to that argument and I don’t think we need to go over that ground again.

Verses 14-21 of chapter 15 begin a new section in which Paul will describe his plans for an evangelistic mission to Spain. We will hear the details of that plan next Lord’s Day morning, God willing. The verses we read are an introduction to that subject. But there is something characteristically Pauline about what the great apostle says here and something I think important to notice. It is not the main point of the paragraph that actually continues to the end of chapter 15, but it is an important part of Paul’s reasoning, a foundation of his remarks. We’ll attend to the remarks next time, but I want us to notice something that we almost always pass over with little or no thought when we read such things being said by Paul in his letters.

And I think it is particularly important for us to pay attention to what Paul says because he does not take the view of things that has become particularly popular of late in evangelical circles and in Reformed evangelical circles. Paradigms of understanding can often blind us or deafen us to what we see or hear in the Bible. Because a remark doesn’t fit into our scheme, we don’t notice it. It is as if the statement is not even there.

I am speaking about Paul’s pride, his proper pride, his Christian pride. His was a life of achievement and he is not unwilling at all to admit it. He is very careful to say, as he does in v.18 that everything he has accomplished Christ, in fact, has accomplished through him. He is very careful to say, as he does in v. 19, that the impact of his ministry in the Gentile world was entirely the result of the power of the Spirit of God. He is delighted to honor the Lord and to give him all the credit for his achievements.

But, nonetheless, he speaks proudly of his achievements. “In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God.” Paul’s pride is in Christ Jesus and so we might describe it as a kind of humble pride, but it is pride nevertheless. The fact that he gives glory to God does not mean – it very plainly does not mean – that Paul is not proud of what he has done and accomplished by the power of God. All pride is not bad; some is simply the honest acknowledgement of what the Lord has done in and through a person. But we have little doubt of what we would think of someone else speaking of his pride in his accomplishments in Christian work. We would very likely look down on that man.

There is a way of thinking abroad in our churches nowadays that finds Paul’s expression of his pride uncongenial. It seems to some to reflect a spirit incompatible with the gospel of God’s grace. I attended a commencement, the graduation ceremony a few years ago of one of our institutions of higher learning. During the proceedings the time came to acknowledge the accomplishments of the most outstanding students. These were awards that had been given to the most outstanding students for many years. But it was painfully clear that the administration was somewhat embarrassed to single out such special achievement. We were given an explanation as to how everyone was the same in the Kingdom of God and how we can do nothing apart from Christ’s grace in us. It was clear that they felt acknowledging accomplishment was tantamount to denying God’s grace. But this is not the way the Bible speaks. It is never an embarrassment in the Bible to acknowledge accomplishment; far from it.

We know very well that much of human pride is sinful and utterly dishonest. Perhaps most of the time the Bible addresses human pride it does so to condemn it. “God condemns the proud, but gives grace to the humble” we read in Proverbs and James and Peter. “Pride goes before the fall,” is the famous warning of Proverbs.

But what of Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 1:12:

“For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you.”

The same word group gives us both “boast” or “boasting” and “pride” or “taking pride.” The English words “pride” and “boast” are different, though very close to the same in meaning, but the Greek words are the same. Paul not only takes pride in what he has done, he wants his Christian friends to take pride in or boast in him and his work.

“We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart.” [2 Cor. 5:12]

In other words, Paul is saying, the Christians who know him can be proud of him for all the right reasons, sincerely proud of him.

And Paul returns the compliment. He is often found writing about the pride he takes in his Christian congregations and Christian friends, even friends yet unmet, as here in Rome.  He does that in this very place, in v. 14, where he writes:

“I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.”

He doesn’t use the word pride there, but he is complimenting them and expressing his confidence in them. And elsewhere he uses the word. In 2 Cor. 1:14 he expresses his hope that

“…on the day of our Lord Jesus you will boast of us as we will boast of you.”

Or consider this from 2 Thess. 1:4:

“Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.”

And he writes to the Corinthians (7:4):

“I have great pride in you.”

And he goes on to say that he has boasted to Titus about them, about their virtue and constancy and earnestness.

“For whatever boasts I made to him about you, I was not put to shame. But just as everything we said to you was true, so also our boasting before Titus has proved true.”

And I could multiply such citations about Paul’s boasting. Once again, this is the same Paul who writes that no one should boast before God, or boast in men, and that he will not boast on his own behalf and so on. Indeed, earlier in this same letter to the Romans Paul has condemned the sort of boasting he found in the self-confidence of the Jewish legalist. In 3:27 we read:

“Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded.”

But here Paul boasts himself. Same word. There is no way of reconciling these two classes of texts except to admit that there is a wrong sort of boasting and a right sort of boasting. It is this right, proper sort of boasting that we have here in Romans 15 and so often elsewhere in Paul’s letters. And it is this boasting that gets short shrift in Christian thinking and Christian preaching nowadays.

We think that to be proud of ourselves in any way would be the equivalent of robbing God of the credit that is due to him alone. We think that being proud of others will puff them up and undermine that humility before God and man that is the foundation of all Christian goodness.

But this must be incorrect else Paul would not boast as he does, take pride as he does, and encourage others to be proud as he does throughout his letters.

In fact there is no contradiction between this sort of pride, such as Paul expresses here, and the gospel of free grace to unworthy sinners. Not only does Paul happily acknowledge that he owes all his accomplishments to God, but God himself boasts in his children. When we arrive in heaven the Lord would be entirely within his rights to say to us: “Well, you have me to thank for getting here!” Or, “You know, don’t you, that you would never have made it here unless I held you up every step of the way?” That would be true, would it not? But that is not what the Savior says. Instead he says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” as if the servant had done something worthy; as if the servant had accomplished something; as if the servant had made his master proud! Obviously the servant has done that or the Lord wouldn’t have said “Well done!”

The Lord loves the accomplishments of his children, as any loving parent does, and is very quick to take pride in those accomplishments. And all through the Bible he does so. He compliments David, no matter all his terrible blunders, as a man after God’s own heart. He takes pride in Abraham and calls him his friend. He takes care to say that John the Baptist was the greatest man ever born of woman. And on and on it goes. The Bible is from the beginning to the end a book of heroes whose accomplishments are celebrated even as their sins are admitted, then covered and forgotten. And what is true of the great figures of biblical history is true of the smallest men and women. The poor widow whose offering of two pennies made the Lord so proud of her; the sinful woman whose offering of perfume to anoint his body for burial he promised would be celebrated as long as the world endures, and on and on. “You have heard of the patience of Job,” we read in James. Well, most of Job concerns his impatience, but it is his virtue that God is proud of and celebrates in his Word. Such is the Lord’s own pleasure in the accomplishment of his people and we are only imitating him when we take a proper pride in those accomplishments – ours or others – and acknowledge that this is what a man or woman did by the grace of God.

This kind of pride is very like the love of self as that is taught in Holy Scripture. Self-love is ordinarily a bad thing, we think. “Men will be lovers of themselves,” we read in Paul’s description of the last days. But in the law of God we are taught to love others as we love ourselves.  To be sure, some have taken that to mean that we should love others as much as we happen to love ourselves, though we shouldn’t love ourselves that way. We should love others truly, in other words, as much as we love ourselves sinfully.

But most of the greatest minds in the history of the Christian church have argued that this is not the meaning of the commandment. It commands us to love others as we love ourselves. Love as a proper regard for one’s worth or happiness is what we are to have for ourselves and what we are to extend to others. There are not two different sorts of love, one good the other bad, in the same great commandment. It is hard to explain, indeed as has been argued by Augustine, Aquinas, the Puritans, Jonathan Edwards and others – it is hard to explain why it would be correct for others to love us, even to be commanded to love us, but that we should not love the same being others are obliged to love. God has not made a human being who is not worthy of loving regard, including ourselves. As Lewis famously summed up the point:

“I would prefer to combat the “I’m special” feeling not by the thought “I’m no more special than anyone else,” but by the feeling, ‘everyone is as special as me.” [Letters, 242]

Well, in the same way that there is an improper self-love – a love of oneself that is selfish and leads to indifference or active hostility to God and to one’s neighbor; a self-love that is the contradiction of true love – in the same way as there is an improper self-love and a proper self-love, so there is an improper pride and a proper pride; there is a kind of pride that ignores our sin and our utter and absolute dependence upon the grace of God, and a proper pride in what that grace and divine power has accomplished in us and others.

You know it is the right kind of pride because it rejoices in acknowledging that whatever has been done Christ has done it in and through us by his Spirit. And it is the right kind of pride, the gospel kind of celebration of accomplishment, the proper sort of satisfaction because it delights as much or more in the achievements of others as in one’s own.

Early Christians were very proud of Peter and Paul; they gloried in their achievements without ever once imagining that what those great men accomplished was not the work of Christ in them. I’m sure you are proud as I am of the two Iranian young women, Maryam Rostampour and Marzieh Amirizadeh who were released on May 22nd after being confined for 259 days in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. They were arrested, in effect, for being outspoken Christians and resisted all efforts by prison officials to induce them to recant their faith. I’m proud, I’m sure you are of the Iraqi Christians whom we have come to know through Jonathan Webb’s work in Iraq, men and women who have suffered greatly but remain utterly committed to Christ and the gospel. Think of that young man Bashir who publicly shares the gospel and distributes Bibles in a place where being an outspoken Christian is enough to earn you a death sentence and where such sentences are regularly carried out. Surely if the Lord Jesus is proud of such a man, you and I ought to be as well.

But it is more than pride simply in Christians who endure persecution, magnificent as such faithfulness to God is. I’m proud of you. Proud of many things that the world takes no notice of whatsoever and even other Christians often ignore. I’m proud of your furious repentance after sin, proud of your kindness to others, proud of your faithfulness at worship, proud of your commitment to the church, the bride of Christ, proud of your reverence for the Word of God, illustrated beautifully by your coming back again of a Lord’s Day evening to hear more of the Bible read and preached. I’m proud of your outspoken fidelity to the gospel and the witness you bear to others. I’m proud of your honesty and industry in the work place. I’m proud of the fact that you – despite all your sins and shortcomings of which you are all too well aware – I’m proud of the fact that you are committed to your marriages and to your children. I’m proud of your loving regard for others and your attention to their welfare.

I often boast about you when I am elsewhere just as the apostle Paul boasted about his congregations and as he boasted about the Romans whom he knew only by reputation.

There is real achievement in the Christian life: the Bible says so a thousand times. God made human beings to think and to act and to be responsible for their lives, and when he saves them from their sin he saves them to a new way of thinking, of acting, and of being responsible. And when they practice that new life with a vengeance God is proud of them. The Bible says he is. What is surprising about that? Every good parent is proud of the accomplishments of his or her son or daughter. Why else would there be so many juvenile drawings in crayon affixed with magnets to refrigerator doors? God loves his children and he loves them to do what is right and to accomplish what is worth accomplishing. And so with a friend who takes a natural and reasonable pride in the accomplishments of his friends. And so with a husband or a wife, a boss or a worker. And so with the pastor of a congregation. There is a reason to take satisfaction from what one has done by the grace of God. And because that is so, there is a great deal of pride expressed in the Bible and everywhere we look in Holy Scripture people are being singled out for praise, appreciation, and remembrance.

This Wednesday is Marion Paist’s 91st birthday, though she will not appreciate the fact. I am immensely proud of Marion and of her dear husband Jack who left us for heaven in the autumn of 1986 just days after my youngest son was born. What good people, what stellar Christians, how wonderfully committed to the church, what a tremendous contribution they made to the rebirth of this congregation in the years of their retirement! I have always been proud of Mr. Paist and have sung his praises more times than I could count. Was I wrong to do so? Did I in someway diminish the glory of God by thinking so highly of Jack and Marion Paist? No. If God can tell that good man that he did well, as I am sure he has, certainly I am free to add my paltry two cents!

You don’t undermine the grace of God when you are proud of what he has enabled you to do or, even more, when you are proud of what he has enabled others to do. You are celebrating that grace in the very way that God has taught us to celebrate it, in the very way he celebrates it himself.

It is not the main point of Romans, to be sure, this Christian pride that Paul expresses in the Romans and in his own life and work. But it is surely striking coming as it does in a letter that so powerfully lays every man in the dust before God and teaches us that we owe not only our forgiveness but our daily life of righteousness to God’s grace worked in and through us by the Holy Spirit. It is striking that Paul should speak as he does. But that is his view of human life. And it is an important feature of his view: that there is real accomplishment in the kingdom of God by the people of God, accomplishment to note, to praise, to take satisfaction in and to be proud of.

Who is like our gracious and generous God who encourages us to be proud of what he accomplishes in our lives!