6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.
9 Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
How do you know if someone is really a Christian? I mean reeeeally a Christian. Well, according to the ESV’s heading on this text (which the translation we are using), this is it. The ESV adds its own title to v. 9 and following “Marks of the True Christian.”
In fact, do this: Take out one of the pew Bibles and turn to Romans 12. The ESV has this text falling under two headings. The first comes before v. 3 and is “Gifts of Grace” which is used for v. 3-8. I think that is an accurate heading for those verses. But then you get to v. 9 and all the way to the end of the chapter, all of that falls under the heading “Marks of the True Christian.” Those headings are not part of the Scriptures. The translators and editors of the various translations added them. Sometimes, they are fine introductions to what is going to come. But I would encourage you to ignore them more often than not because they influence the way you read the text.
From the heading there before v. 9 and the way the ESV reads here, I counted twenty-two commands/imperatives that follow in the translation. Twenty-two things that Christians are commanded to do if they, at least according to that heading, are true Christians. With that understanding, it would be easy for a sermon on this text to turn into a stern lecture on what you should be doing; how you are not doing it; and how you would be blessed if you actually got around to doing it. But here’s the problem.
First, there is no Gospel in the translation of those verses. And, second, if true Christians have genuine love; abhor evil; hold fast to the good; love with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor; are never slothful in zeal; fervent in spirit; serve the Lord; rejoice in hope, etc. If these are the marks of the true Christian and you take an honest assessment of yourself, how are you doing so far?
Speaking for myself, I would have to conclude that I’m not a true Christian because I’m missing a lot of those marks most of the time. And, when I don’t have those marks but still confess that I am a Christian, I need to find some comfort for myself. So, the easiest thing for me to do is to start comparing myself to others. I look at myself, and then I look at you and you and you. Then, I figure, “Well, at least I’m better than that person at obeying these ‘Christian’ laws.”
You have maybe heard the joke about when Sven and Ole were out walking in the forest and see a bear. Ole bends down and starts tightening his shoelaces, and Sven says, “Ole, you don’t think you can outrun a bear, do you?” And Ole responds, “I don’t have to run faster than the bear, Sven. I just have to run faster than you.” Well, guess what. When the bear of God’s Law is finished eating the guy who is slower to obey than you, it picks up your scent and resumes its pursuit of you because its appetite is never satisfied by eating up sinners.
Lord, have mercy. If our response to our failures and shortcomings is to compare ourselves to others, we are not doing what this text wants to inspire in us. We are not showing brotherly affection. We are not associating with the lowly. Instead, we are being haughty and wise in our own sight. Lord, have mercy. Comparing ourselves to others is not what the Holy Spirit intended when He inspired these words of Scripture. Only Jesus can satisfy the Law’s appetite. And, God be praised, by His death and resurrection He has done exactly that.
In reality, there are only four commands in this text. Three of them are in v. 14: Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them. And one at the very end in v. 16: Never be wise in your own sight.
In reality, to be a Christian is not to keep twenty-some commands. Instead, Paul here is holding up a picture of what genuine love looks like (similar to how he does in 1 Cor. 13). Listen to this translation of v. 9-12. “Love is genuine/without hypocrisy, abhorring the evil and clinging to the good. [Genuine love] is showing brotherly affection for one another, in honor leading the way for one another, in zeal not [being] lazy, in the Spirit fervent, serving the Lord, rejoicing in hope, enduring persecution, holding fast to prayer.”
These verses are, in fact, perfectly describing Christ. Remember, that God is love (1 Jn. 4:8, 16), and that means that Jesus is love embodied. And, yes, as Christians – which means ‘little Christs’ – we should be like Christ. But because we are sinners, we fail to live up to God’s Law. God’s Law always accuses us.
There’s a better way to understand these verses, and to get at that understanding, I’m going to connect this text to our theme for the year – “Sacred.” In Lev. 19:2, God speaks to His people, Israel, and says, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” And Peter repeats those words for us Christians in 1 Pet. 1:16. In English, this sounds like a command because of the word ‘shall.’ But in both Hebrew and Greek it isn’t a command/imperative. A better translation for both is, “You will be holy.”
When the original people (both Old and New Testament) heard that, they would hear three things at the same time. First, it is an unfinished action – something like, “You will become holy.” Second, and closely related, it can be a future promise, “You will be holy.” And third, it is a soft command/imperative, “You are called to be holy.”
Yes, God wants our behavior to be consistent with His holiness. God is your heavenly Father, and He wants you to be chips off the old block. But it is also a process that God has begun in your Baptism, and He will be faithful to bring it to completion (Php. 1:6). God will continue to make and shape you after the image of Christ.
Dear saints, the genuine love that is pictured here is what God has called you to be. When you don’t measure up to your sacred calling as Christians, when you don’t have the marks of a true Christian, run in faith to Christ. Romans 8:3-4 says, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
In the arms of Jesus’ love and mercy, you will find forgiveness for your failure and love despite your lack. Receive what God gives to you. He gives you Jesus. Because He has died and risen again, Jesus delivers the very mercy and forgiveness that you need.
“Are you really a Christian?” Well, do you trust in Christ for the forgiveness of your sins? That is the mark you need. Yes, you fail in your calling. But faith in Christ, and faith alone by grace alone, makes you a genuine child of God. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.