Summary: Paul describes God’s expectations for disciples of Jesus to grow in Christ in Romans. Through quick commands and slowed down exposition, Paul encourages us to live out Christian character in our everyday lives.
In my last post, I talked about the character chains in the New Testament and how we grow in Christ. In this post, I am beginning a miniseries on Christian character from the Pauline epistles.
We’ve been talking about developing Christian character of the disciple of Jesus for a while in these posts. I began this series on Christian discipleship and being conformed to Christ with the basics, then spiritual disciplines, followed by the Sermon on the Mount. We have now moved into the rest of the New Testament. Now we will focus on the epistles of Paul, beginning with Romans.
Paul has a structure in most of his writings that begins with the current reality of the churches and Christians he writes the letters to. In the second step in his writings Paul lays a theology of what the reality of the saints should be. His third section on character development, and how we get to the reality he shows us in the second step gives us things we can do to mature in Christ.
We turn our attention to this third step in each of his epistles. I can’t cover all this in one post, so I have broken up his writings into six parts. We begin with the first epistle of Paul. He has written so much of the New Testament that I will focus on main items in these letters. Many times Paul rattles off a list of Christian virtues and character traits. I will slow these lists down so their full impact will hit us. Let’s get started.
Character Development in Romans
Romans is first in the canonical order of Paul’s letters. It’s a powerful, complete theology of how Paul sees the power of the gospel working in human history. He first explains how Jews and Gentiles receive revelation from God (Romans 1-4). Next, he talks about the full power of the gospel (Romans 5-8). Third, he turns his attention to his native people, the Jews, and his desire to see all of them come to Christ. The fourth section of Romans is our focus, what the developing disciple of Jesus looks like (Romans 12-16).
Most of the content of Christian character happens in Romans 12-15. Paul starts by talking about being a living sacrifice to God (Romans 12:1-2). The disciple’s life starts and continues with sacrifice to God. We offer the works of our bodies in worship to Him. It is a reasonable/spiritual service to God.
Paul goes next into some gifts of the Spirit. I have written extensively about the gifts of the Spirit and my Seek the Gifts blog miniseries. You can poke around and find all kinds of posts about the gifts of the Spirit, Even the ones from Romans 12. He finishes chapter 12 with a slew of the hallmarks of being a disciple.
I categorize them under the headings of love, humility, and peaceful conduct. Christian love is unconditional, and so it is genuine. We don’t have plastic smiles and faces. We love deeply the way Jesus loves us. That love brings us to live life together, rejoice with one another, endure persecution together, weep together, show hospitality, and live in harmony with one another.
These are the notes of harmonious music we make with unconditional love. You won’t get unconditional love from the cold, dark world around you. You must come into the warm home of Christian love to experience God’s love through your faith community. He highlights prayer, being fervent in spirit, serving the Lord, and contributing to the needy. Community life is one of generosity with all our resources.
He also strikes a chord of humility. Paul is a master of showing and not just telling us how to be humble. He tells us to outdo one another in honoring the other person. We bless those who persecute us. Though we want to curse them, we must bless them. He says to not be haughty. We resist thinking we are wise. This requires us to seek the wisdom of others.
When Paul talks about peace, it usually includes our enemies. This may be the most character stretching the Spirit will do in us. God calls us to be patient in tribulation, repay good for evil, not take vengeance (for the Lord will defend us with justice), and treat our enemy with Christian hospitality.
Though it goes against our nature, we bless our persecutors instead of cursing them. We provide for their needs. Although this kills our fleshly desire to repay their evil in kind, our kindness toward them will drive them crazy. Surely they will want to understand why we are kind when they are evil. It provides an open door to share the good news of Jesus with them.
Paul calls Jesus’s disciples to respect and obey the authorities in Romans 13. Our only recourse is if they make laws that go against God’s laws. If this happens, we can peacefully protest, and even suffer the consequences for following God’s laws over man’s laws. He describes love with the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. Loving your neighbor fulfills the Ten Commandments. We should not owe others, putting the weight of our debt on them.
He finishes chapter 13 by calling us to live as children of light, living out the light and revelation of Jesus, the Christian lifestyle. We avoid the sins of our fleshly desires from before we met Jesus. We put on Christ and don’t give our fleshly former desires an opportunity to tempt or overcome us. As a disciple of Jesus, you will fight your flesh every day. The difference is that you fight as a free man with the Holy Spirit help.
Paul introduces a powerful principle of loving Christians around us by describing how to show love to a weaker brother or sister in the Lord. We must not be the one who ignites fiery quarrels and arguing with those younger in the faith. Be careful not to pass judgment on them, for we are all at different stages of our Christian walk and maturity.
Don’t give your opinion about something that may not have even entered the mind of your weaker sibling in Christ. Don’t pass it off as “wisdom.” My practice is to only offer wisdom or guidance when I’m asked about an issue they might be struggling with and come to me.
Paul gives examples of how we can unwittingly pass judgment on younger Christians. These examples fit Paul’s day well, but you will have to make this a principle of living in Christian community. The examples you have will be different from Paul’s. Considering one another calls us to not become our sibling’s tempter. If we know they have a preference on a controversial matter, we should not parade our “liberty in Christ” that will make them stumble.
One example of this happened to me in my first pastorate. I went out to eat at Applebee’s with a couple in my church. The husband before he ordered his food asked me if it would bother me if he had a beer. In our denomination, alcohol intake of any kind can be frowned upon. I told him it didn’t bother me. He was following Paul’s principle about the weaker brother to the letter. I was proud of him. He told me if it bothered me, he would order another drink. Though I was his pastor, he was making sure it didn’t bother me to watch him drink when he knew I didn’t drink.
This is what Paul is getting at. We don’t need to cause undue strife to a sibling in Christ if we can avoid it. We have all decided in our hearts before the Lord what pleases Him on the minor doctrines and practices of the Christian faith. Younger believers have not necessarily developed this practice on every issue confronting them.
So, we can be a help when they ask for it and keep from being a hindrance when they don’t. This is one way we live in love and harmony with other believers. This principle is so important that Paul slows down the rapid fire commands to explain it and give examples.
In Romans 15, Paul expands the commands to live in harmony and encourage one another. Everyone needs to be built up in the faith. With every action we do and every word we speak, we are from one another in love and in faith. Jesus was the best example to us. And we must be good examples to others. We show hospitality to each other to serve and help one another. We worship Jesus together and put others before ourselves.
As an example through the rest of chapter 15, Paul talks about his desire to come to Rome and meet the Roman believers. He had not founded this church, but wanted to see them in action when he came as a prisoner in change for the gospel. He wanted to take a collection of offering for Jewish believers in Jerusalem who had fallen on hard times. The way he talks about this offering shows the Romans to be generous in their giving. This is a lesson for all of us.
What part of Romans 12-16 stuck out to you? If you noticed something you need to work on, ask the Holy Spirit how to apply it to your life, and then do what He says.
We’re just getting started through the Pauline epistles and what they teach us about Christian character as Jesus’s disciples. Next, we will look at how 1 and 2 Corinthians guide us in growing in Jesus.
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