Committing to Use Spiritual Gifts for the Church (Romans 12:1-8, part 2)
Sermon for May 17, 2020
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Greeting New Cut Church and Friends,
Last week, we began working through Romans 12:1-8. In Romans 12:1-8, we receive instructions in Word of God for living the Christian life. We focused last week on verses 1-2. Verses 1-2 instruct to us to be living sacrifices for God, meaning to be totally committed to following God. This week, we will focus on verses 3-8. These verses focus on the use of spiritual gifts in the church. The Word of God says in Romans 12:1-8,
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.
For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
God calls you to use your spiritual gifts to serve in the church. Let me tell you a story about a man who I will call David. David was someone I met during my rounds as hospital chaplain. David shared his past difficulties with the reformed church that he grew up in. He said that there were people in his church that would drink and sin Monday through Saturday, but then put on a righteous front on Sunday. The hypocrisy was unsettling to David. So, for most of his adult life, David left the church. When I first met David, our conversation was not particularly long and I mostly just listened to his story. Several months later on a Saturday, I was doing rounds and visiting patients when the pager went off. I got on the phone, and was told that someone needed to see the chaplain. That person was David.
David got the point quickly. He did not have much longer to live and knew that he was not right with God. He asked for help getting right with God. One of the biggest issues for David was that he knew that he had left the church. He said that the hypocrisy he encountered was wrong, but that he should not have left. I believe that during our conversation, David did get right with God again, and that he did rejoin with the Body of Christ, the Church. The gathering of Christian believers may have been small, David and myself, but nonetheless, as a part of David reconciling with Christ, he was reconciling with the Body of Christ, the church. He asked that I come back later in the day when his children would visit him. He wanted to tell them about his faith, but needed help doing so. Later in the afternoon, he did share his faith with his children. Then he died that night.
David’s story is one story in a big picture. Throughout the year-long hospital residency, I heard many different stories of how and why people left the church. Now, Romans 3-8 is about using spiritual gifts in the church in service towards others. This can’t be done without being a part of the church. Talking with many different people, I found three reasons why people leave the church. The first reason is hypocrisy. In David’s story, he was affected by the hypocrisy that he came across in the church. Another person said concerning why he left the church, “I just didn’t want to sit in a box with a bunch of dressed up hypocrites.” Certainly, hypocrisy is not something that should be condoned. However, many times when someone leaves the church because of the hypocrisy of others, that person is not seeing their own sin.
The second reason I found why people leave the church is an unwelcoming environment. One person shared with me how being in church just made them feel inferior and less than others. He felt this way because of his ethnicity. There was a church that he shared the same beliefs with. However, he was a minority in that church. When he went, he felt less than everyone else. He had been evangelized, but systemically, he was not made to feel welcome.
The third reason I found why people leave the church is anger towards the pastor. This was the most common reason. While I found cases of pastors maliciously hurting someone in the church or being grossly immoral, those cases were in the far minority. Most of the stories were petty. One man fumed with righteous anger towards his pastor because of what his pastor had said about the Lord’s Supper. He quoted what the pastor said. He told of how he confronted his pastor but his pastor just would not listen to him. So he left the church never to return. What caught my ear though, was when he quoted the pastor, it actually sounded like a quote right out of the Bible. I looked at my Bible later that day, and the man, quoting the pastor, had actually quoted word for word the words of Christ speaking about the Lord’s Supper. So he left bitterly angry with the pastor’s supposed heresy. But all the pastor had done was quote the Bible word for word in the proper context during a worship service.
There is something wrong with this picture of people withdrawing from the church. Being a part of the church is a commitment. In fact, any member of a church makes a promise before God and before others to be committed to the body of Christ. By the way, a promise before God is serious business, nothing to be taken lightly. But despite the seriousness of this promise before God, people are quick to jump ship. If the church is like a boat, people are quick to jump ship at the slightest rocking in the sea. Or even worse, people are quick to jump ship because the room service wasn’t to their liking. But this is not what God calls you as a Christian to do. God calls you, as a Christian, to humble, committed service in the church.
In Romans 12, believers are called to humble service in the Body of Christ. A problem in much of America, is a rugged, American individualism that says, “I can follow Christ on my own,” “that I don’t need anyone else,” and “I don’t owe anyone anything else.” This ethic frequently says, “Not only because of my freedom do I not owe anyone anything else, but because of my freedom I can hurt anyone else as much as I want without being called to account.” But the ethic that we find in Romans 12 is a different ethic from this rugged individualism.
We will begin with verse 3. Romans chapter 12 verse 3 says, “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” The verse starts with the word “for,” linking what Paul is saying now to what Paul had just said. In verses 1-2, Paul called you as a believer in Christ to present yourself to God as a living sacrifice. To be a living sacrifice means to be totally committed to follow God. Now, in verse 3, Paul transitions immediately to serving in the Body of Christ, and the word “for” grounds that service in the call to be a living sacrifice to God. Following God whole-heartedly is inseparable from humble service in the church. Notice also the language used to describe the gathering of believers in this passage. Like Paul does in other occurrences, Paul here refers to the gathered church as the Body of Christ. Rugged individualism says “I can hold grudges against the church and follow Christ on my own.” But the Bible says that the church is the Body of Christ, that you need the body of Christ, and owe your given gifts and talents to the body of Christ. While Christians can go through bad seasons of separation from God and the church, there is no such thing as the lone-ranger Christian.
Earlier, I gave examples of totally leaving the church because of hypocrisy, unwelcoming environment, and anger towards the pastor. Certainly, when someone totally leaves the church, they don’t give what they are called to give in the church, and they don’t receive and benefit from the spiritual gifts of other Christians. They don’t receive the gifts of Christ given through the Body of Christ. However, there are instances of Christians remaining present in the church, or in the periphery of the church, but intentionally withholding their spiritual gifts. The reasons for withholding spiritual gifts are similar to the reasons for leaving the church altogether – anger because of hypocrisy, feeling unwelcome, or anger towards the pastor. Also, this withholding can be because of anger with the church in general or feeling unappreciated and unrecognized for past service. This withholding is commonly known today as passive-aggressiveness.
Passive aggressiveness is when someone tries to hurt someone else or a group by withholding something that they would otherwise give. Passive aggressiveness is done to send an indirect message of disapproval to a group or an individual person. Or passive aggressiveness is done to simply hurt a group or individual person through withholding. Sometimes, passive aggressiveness is chosen because of fear of confrontation. Sometimes it’s chosen because it’s the easiest way to cause hurt without appearing to cause hurt. The problem with passive aggression is that the problems are largely unknown, and therefore cannot be resolved. When passive aggressiveness becomes prevalent in a group, an undercurrent of anger forms. Yet the problems and sources of those problems remain hidden. Sometimes, the problems remain hidden, because one engaging in passive aggression would rather nurse a grudge than seek peace.
Proverbs 18:9 says, “A lazy person is as bad as someone who destroys things.” A lazy person holds back. There is a link here with withholding and destructiveness. Withholding spiritual gifts and service in the church that you know you should be giving is just as bad as engaging in active destruction, whether the reason for that withholding is laziness, anger, fear, or anything else.
Often times, spiritual gifts are withheld with a sense of vindication. The vindication says, “I haven’t been appreciated enough for what I have done. So I’m not doing it anymore.” “I’ll make sure I don’t suffer for anyone else.” “I’ll make sure that my gift that wasn’t appreciated no longer benefits others.” The problem here is that the withholding, whether it be vindication, or perhaps laziness, or misplaced priorities, is actually sin against those who should be receiving the gift. Withholding is more in the category of sins of omission rather than sins of commission. Now, to withhold a gift requires knowledge of having gift. But in many cases, there is so little care for service of others in the church, that there is no effort to discover what gifts one has to give. Whether through withholding or neglect, not using one’s spiritual gifts in service owed to others is a sin.
While not exercising spiritual gifts in the church is a sin against those in the church who should receive a gift, it is first and foremost a sin against God. Again, note the progression from Romans 12:1-2 to verses 3-8. Service towards others flows out of the call of service to God. Think of Psalm 51, David’s confession after committing adultery with Bathsheba. In verse 4, David prays, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” David obviously sinned against Bathsheba. But his sin against Bathsheba, an image-bearer of God, was first and foremost against God. Now, withholding gifts within the church is a sin against those in the church. However, as we see from the principle in Romans 12 and Psalm 51, withholding spiritual gifts within the church is first and foremost a sin against God.
Job 35:6 says, “If you have sinned, what do you accomplish against him? And if your transgressions are multiplied, what do you do to him?” If you are sinning by withholding, wittingly or unwittingly, not serving the Body of Christ, know that you can’t accomplish anything against God. There is no self-vindication in the withholding. You can’t get one past God. It doesn’t work. But don’t worry. God will take care of his church. In the Book of Esther, Esther did not want to fulfill her call to intervene to the King for the People of God. She was afraid that she would die by coming in the King’s presence without permission. But in chapter 4 verse 13-14, Mordechai says by messenger to Esther,
Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and you father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?
God here has the power to save God’s people by any means. If Esther did not do the hard and risky work of serving God, God would have worked salvation by another way, and the only thing on Esther’s account would have been the sin of not fulfilling what she was supposed to fulfill. Dear friends, if you do not fulfill what is for you to fulfill in the life of the church, in the scheme of God’s redemptive plan, God will still accomplish his purpose.
Withholding won’t accomplishing anything, but will only add sin to your account before God.
If you have fallen short in this area of service to others in the Body of Christ, which everyone has, know that there is grace. This passage is an exhortation to use the spiritual gifts. However, it is not without grace. Paul says, “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you…” Paul spoke not out of his own authority or self-sufficiency, but by the grace, unmerited gift, that was given to him. It was this grace that gave him the purpose and ability to serve in his role. Likewise, it is by grace that you have the purpose and ability to serve. Paul also uses the word “faith” in this passage in relation to spiritual gifts. Paul continues in verse 3, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed each of you.” Faith works with grace. Spiritual gifts are not operated out of works-righteousness or one’s own resources, but the resources given by God.
Using the spiritual gifts is gospel-driven. Even when we are giving in church, we are still fundamentally those who have received. When it comes to salvation, we never gave to receive salvation. Jesus Christ accomplished salvation on our behalf. And we received the benefits of that work. Now, out of a posture of having received, we serve one another within the body of Christ. When we remember that we have received, then that, by God’s grace, keeps us from begrudging service, and energizes us to serve and love, even when it is difficult. Knowing the gospel refreshes us in our service and gives us rest in Christ. The spiritual gifts are gospel-driven by God’s grace from beginning to end.
Verse 3 says to “not think of yourself more highly than you ought.” This means a humble assessment of the spiritual gifts given to you and what measure those gifts are given to you. And since these gifts are in proportion to what God gives, there is no room for despair or comparison with others. There is no room for boasting. There is only room for assessing those gifts and serving others with those gifts. In one aspect, this assessment could mean not overreaching to gifts that you do not have. This means not pursuing spiritual gifts for vain glory and self-satisfaction. By tying to overreach to a gift you don’t have, you drift from serving the way that God has for you to serve.
Granted, you need to try things out to discover your gifts. A car doesn’t go forward in park. Trying thing out means not only discovering what you are gifted at, but also what you are not gifted at. There was a rescue swimmer I knew in the Navy. He was a very, very good water polo player. But he told of how he ended up being a water polo player at his level. His Dad had try out one sport after another. And he was terrible. So, he kept going through the sports until he tried water polo. His Dad said to him, “This is your sport to focus on.” He focused on water polo and excelled. You might be tempted to not serve in an area because of the possibility of failing. But figuring out what you are not gifted at is a part of figuring out what you are gifted at. Even if the process of learning your gifts can be clunky, you are called to serve in the Body of Christ. So serve, and as you serve, you will learn and further develop your gifts.
Also worth noting concerning spiritual gifts is that just as pride can cause you to overreach, pride can also cause you to under reach. Proverbs 26:16 says, “A sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven people who answer discreetly.” Notice that there is a link with laziness and pride. Pride, just as it can cause overreach can also cause under reach. In pride, one can determine that he or she does not owe spiritual gifts, service, and love to others. In pride, one can keep their gifts to themselves.
As you learn and develop your spiritual gifts, you learn more and more what your role within the Body of Christ is, and you learn how to stay within that role. Hence Paul writes in verses 6-7, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach.” This is called staying in your lane. You have gifts to give, but let other people operate their gifts as well, without getting into their lane of what God called them to do. You have something to give to them. They have something to give to you. This does not mean that spiritual gifts are stagnant over a Christian life-span. Gifts can grow or new gifts can be discovered. Some people have similar giftings. And a gift in a certain Christian service certainly does not mean totally neglecting another area of Christian responsibility. Certainly, even if you do not have the gift of hospitality, you should still be hospitable.
What this means is to give thought and prayer to how God is specifically calling you to serve, and then to serve in that role. And again, as a reminder, a car does not go if it is in park. If you enthusiastically and prayerfully serve, seeking God’s will, God will help you to see what your gifts are.
Now concerning the current circumstances of a pandemic, perhaps a question is, “How do I use my spiritual gifts during this pandemic?” Well, it depends on the spiritual gift I guess. If your spiritual gift is only functional if you are within six feet of another person and breathing on them, that’s going to be a challenge. If your spiritual gift only works in conjunction with coughing and sneezing on people, then that’s a problem to sort out. Otherwise, my encouragement, even during a pandemic, is to find ways to continue serving God and serving others with your gifts.
Grace and peace,