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Septuagesima: Matthew 20:1-16

Grace is not grace if it is in any way earned or deserved (Romans 11:5-6). This is exactly what the Jews failed to understand. God chose Israel purely by grace out of all the nations of the earth (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). God preserved faithless Israel purely by grace for the sake of His holy name and the promises which He had made (Ezekiel 20; 2 Kings 8:19, etc.). Yet Israel responded either with hypocrisy (Jeremiah 7:1-4) or pride (Luke 18:9-14). Even the rich young man, whose question about eternal life in Matthew 19 forms the context for this parable, placed his trust in his keeping of the commandments.

Yet I think it would be equally problematic to see in this parable a kind of divine equality, as if God’s free grace meant that heavenly rewards are all the same. This would make Jesus’ answer to Peter in Matthew 19:28-30 difficult to comprehend. Jesus does not rebuke Peter for his question. Those who have left everything will receive a great reward in the world to come. The key in understanding grace is in Matthew 20:15: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” It is God’s freedom of action that makes grace to be grace. Anything else is an attempt to bind Him and make it an issues of wages.

The parable opens with a master seeking workers for his vineyard. The Lord refers to Israel on several occasions as His vineyard (Isaiah 5; Jeremiah 12:10; Ezekiel 19:10; Psalm 80:8-11). Like the master of this house, the Lord calls us out of the world and into that vineyard. Idleness is the way of the world. The Lord set Adam to labor in the garden before the fall into sin (Genesis 2:15). If anyone will not work, let him not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). The Lord calls us to holy labor and sets our hands to the task.

The different hours that the master calls workers only accentuates the difference between the first called and the last. When the evening has come, all are given the same amount: a denarius, or a normal day’s wages. The amount is instructive for us. If the master in desperation for laborers promised some extraordinary amount, we might draw the conclusion that the reward for our labors is the key. “When you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10). Yet the reward that is set before us, the crown of righteousness (2 Timothy 4:8), is sufficient for us. It is not worthless even if we might regard it as petty according to our standards, because grace is not grace if it is a matter of wages.

This, then, highlights the earlier point. God is free to do what He pleases with what belongs to Him. “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15). Grace is not a birthright, a matter of the flesh. God owes no one anything, because we are all lawbreakers. The master of the vineyard would be perfectly just if he hired no one. Those who labored twelve hours didn’t deserve more for their labor, because they didn’t deserve to be in the vineyard in the first place. May our eye not be evil because God is good! Righteousness comes by faith, not by works, and the Lord’s steadfast love endures forever, because He chose us when we were yet His enemies.

The reward of righteousness, then, is also purely a matter of grace. The right hand and the left hand of Christ, indeed places of great honor, belong to those for whom the Father prepares them (Matthew 20:23). To judge the twelve tribes of Israel on twelve thrones is indeed a tremendous honor (Matthew 19:28). Yet they are not a matter of right. The last will be first and the first last, because God gives to each of us according to His pleasure, not according to our desires or imaginations. If we are in the vineyard, let us rejoice for that reason alone, for it is already a sign of God’s undeserved love for us. The crosses which God makes for us will be different from Christian to Christian, because He is working out His own purposes in us.

Trinity Sunday: Romans 11:33-36

The epistle reading for Trinity Sunday begins with the conclusion. Romans 11:33-36 forms the concluding thought of the section beginning in Romans 9. Liturgically speaking, the emphasis is on the nature and attributes of God, which come into focus on Trinity Sunday. However, understanding Paul’s point here means first having a clearer picture of the context.

Why did some out of Israel believe while many continued to reject the Gospel? Paul addresses this very question throughout Romans 9-11. They had the promises and were sons of Israel according to the flesh. If anyone on earth should have believed, it was them, yet they rejected Christ. Had the promise failed? Was the Word of God null and void? Of course not! “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Romans 9:6). Being one of the sons of Israel is a matter of faith, not flesh.

Yet if it is a matter of faith, then God, and not man, makes one a part of the great congregation. “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:15-16). It is God’s action, not ours, that creates faith. It is God’s action, not ours, that sustains faith. God freely elects, freely chooses, those who belong to Him. Salvation is of the Lord from beginning to end, apart from any human considerations.

However, the Gentiles, who did not have the promise, have come to believe in the promise. “What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works” (Romans 9:30-32). The Gentiles have been grafted into the living tree.

Israel has been hardened because of sin. Their hardening means that the Gospel goes out to the Gentiles (Romans 11:25). Israel stumbles in sin so that the Gentiles would be brought in. Paul himself rebuked the Jews for the hardness of heart, saying “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46; see also Acts 18:6). Through God’s perfect Providence, the evil of Israel’s sin turns into a great good for the Gentiles, because now they hear the preaching of the Gospel.

Yet the mercy shown to the Gentiles is meant to call Israel back from their hardening. “They too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy” (Acts 11:31). Israel according to the flesh becomes jealous when strangers occupy their promised inheritance. Because of their jealousy, they will turn from their wickedness and seek after the promise according to faith, called from death back to life.

Paul’s conclusion, the reading for Trinity, therefore emphasizes the glory and the mystery of God’s providence in the world. God controls all things, and this perfect control also means that He uses what are dark and mysterious paths to us to accomplish His goals. What men mean for evil, God intends for good, bringing about the salvation of His elect without fail. Even though Israel stumbles from their own sin, God intends it to be salvation for the Gentiles. Even though the Gentiles walked in darkness from their own sin, God intends it to be salvation for the Jews. “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To be Him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36)!

The Fourfold State of Man


The fourfold state of man distinguishes between the four different ways men relate to God: prior to the fall in innocency, after the fall in sin, regenerated by faith, and perfected in glory. Rev. David Appold joins Rev. Grills and Rev. Heide to talk about this distinction, focusing on why it’s important to talk about anthropology, the will of man, and Adam before the fall.

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide
Guest: Rev. David Appold
Episode: 6

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Epiphany: Ephesians 3:1-12

Ephesus, like so many of the newly formed congregations in the days of the apostles, struggled with the question of how the Gentiles and Jews, now both Christians, related to one another.  Peter himself received a vision before going to Cornelius that confirmed to him the will of God.  Seeing the Holy Spirit descend on the Gentiles, how could those  who heard his report say anything else other than “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18)?  But though God had clearly revealed his will, old rivalries still remained.

Paul addresses this question by pointing to the Gospel of Christ.  The Lord “predestined us for adoption to Himself as sons through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:5).  Being sons, He also chose us from the foundation of the world to be holy in His sight, not divided according to the fruits of sin, but as one in Christ.  He poured out the Holy Spirit as a “guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Ephesians 1:14), so that we await the fullness of our redemption.  However, we are no longer divided in the way of the world, but alive and united in Christ.  “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).  Predestination, therefore, is as much about being chosen to believe as it is being chosen to be holy in His sight.

Paul points to his ministry as a proof of all of this.  He is a steward of God’s grace to the Gentiles, that through Christ all who believe have access to the Father.  Jew and Gentile are no longer two, but one in Christ, so that the new man is neither Jew nor Gentile, but Christian.  Yet Paul did not know this “mystery of Christ” except through revelation, much like Peter.  This mystery “was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Ephesians 3:5), a clear testimony that the Lord moves progressively throughout the history of salvation, to His glory.  “For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:17).

His ministry, therefore, is not a matter of right, but of grace.  Only through the “working of His power” could Paul, or any man whom the Lord chooses to be a minister, proclaim this great mystery.  “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart” (2 Corinthians 4:1).  Paul regarded himself as the “very least of all the saints” since he had once persecuted the Church (1 Corinthians 15:9), yet the ministry of the Lord is not a matter of right, but of grace.  No man deserves to proclaim the Gospel.  Paul’s sin does not make him uniquely qualified or anything similar, as if greater sins made for greater preachers.  Paul’s sin magnifies his own inadequacy to make the grace of God all the clearer.

All of this “was according to the eternal purpose that He has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:11).  God chose Paul from before the foundation of the world, not only to believe and to be holy in His sight, but also to be one who “turns many to righteousness” (Daniel 12:3).  If faith is through God’s mercy, and the ministry is a matter of mercy, then, as Paul says, those who fulfill this ministry do so according to the will of God (2 Timothy 4:5).  Pastors therefore may be encouraged, knowing the Lord’s will for their lives.

That God places men into the ministry through His own will is not an opportunity for laziness.  The call to preach the Word in season and out of season is not a call to pride.  Such proud and lazy men are “enemies of the cross of Christ,” who “do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites” (Philippians 3:18-19; Romans 16:18).  It also follows that occupying the office of the ministry is no proof that it is the Lord’s will.  “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do” (Matthew 23:2-3).  “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep” (2 Peter 2:1-3).  False prophets and false teachers, though they have all the outward appearance of the office of the ministry, are waterless clouds, swept along by winds (Jude 12-13).  You shall know them by their fruits!

But for the one whom the Lord has chosen and placed into the ministry by grace, Paul calls for him to struggle mightily for the sake of God.  The ministry is not a matter of words, but of power, the transformative power of the Holy Spirit which raises from death to life and sin to holiness.  “Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:14-15).

Sanctification and Holiness

Because of sin, grace has a way of inviting abuse. Paul fights against this misunderstanding extensively in his letter to the Romans. Sin prompts the equally sinful idea that once God’s favor has been gained through Christ, sin no longer has the same consequence as before. “Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:15)? Not at all!

To demonstrate his point, Paul uses the analogy of slavery, one which he fully recognizes has its shortcomings (Romans 6:19). However, no other image can suffice in explaining the all-encompassing nature of God’s grace in the life of a Christian, even if it is imperfect and should not be taken to extremes.

Paul asks: “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness” (Romans 6:16)? A Christian, therefore, always has a master, either sin or God. There is no neutrality, nor does being set free from sin imply a master-less existence. This does not mean that we will win favor with our new Master with such obedience. Paul makes it abundantly clear that no man will be justified by what he does in God’s sight (note especially Romans 3:28 among others). But it does mean that a transfer of ownership has occurred, using Paul’s imagery. “But having been set free from sin, you have been enslaved to righteousness” (Romans 6:18).

This leads to an important theological question: what is the nature of the Christian life? To put it another way, what is sanctification? In Romans 6:19, Paul uses the word hagiasmos. This Greek word comes from hagios, which means “holy.” Adding “mos” to the end changes the adjective holy into a noun. But how should it be translated? “Holiness” typically means a state, that is, a static way of being. But sanctification comes from the Latin sanctus, which also means “holy,” and ficio, which means “to make.” Sanctification strictly speaking means “to make holy,” which implies a process or a movement. Which one of these does Paul have in mind here?

After admitting the imperfection of the metaphor in Romans 6:19, Paul then sets up an important parallel. You were once slaves to uncleanness, while you walked in your former sins. Further, you were enslaved to lawlessness. But note especially the wording here. The word often translated as “to” has a directional force. The Greek reads most literally as “lawlessness to lawlessness,” but that direction in the word “to” implies increase, which is why many translations render it as “lawlessness leading to more lawlessness.” But Paul sets it in parallel to the rest of the sentence and states that we should present all our members as “slaves to righteousness to hagiasmon.” He uses the same wording as before, which implies the same kind of movement, or in other words, “slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” This is reemphasized in Romans 6:22, because the end or the goal of hagiasmos is everlasting life.

There is, of course, a great tendency to misunderstand Paul here. Paul is not saying that sanctification means that we become more acceptable in God’s sight. He explicitly states that what we do does not make God favorable toward us. Paul is also not saying that perfection is possible in this life. In the following chapter, he says “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Sin remains close at hand through this earthly life. Nor is Paul saying that this happens on our own, as if sanctification was something that man does all on his own. As he says at the very end of chapter 6, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

But we are being made holy in Christ, formed into Christ. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14). Many other such examples could be multiplied. But the point is clear: because Christians have a new Master in God, they are no longer subject to the old master of sin, and the Christian life is therefore a war.

However, this does not mean that translating hagiasmos as “holiness” is illegitimate. Holiness in the Biblical sense has to do with being “set apart” (such as in 2 Timothy 2:21). It is God who sets us apart (Galatians 1:15), and it is God who calls us in holiness (1 Thessalonians 4:7). Holiness does not happen because we make it happen apart from God. Rather, “as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).