Sermon preached on Romans 12:3-8 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 3/3/2013 in Novato, CA.
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Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Having Then Gifts Differing”
Unity in diversity. Tolerance and acceptance. These are popular ideals advocated by our culture today. Sometimes you get the sense that the world is saying that if we just had more of these things, then the world would be a far better place. Likewise, Christians are told that they must accept people with different religious views than themselves. They are told that we must accept things that the Bible calls sin as just part of this spirit of diversity we are called to embrace. The irony of all this is that we are being called to disregard many biblical truths in the process. Evidently, the tolerance and acceptance doesn’t go both ways.
But this isn’t just something happening from the outside. This has something that has been infiltrating churches. Liberal theology in churches today tends to just be a voice of the world within the church. And so it’s no surprise that liberal pastors proclaim things like unity in diversity, tolerance, and acceptance from the pulpits as well. In fact, I could see a passage like today being used by them for such a purpose. Today’s passage does celebrate unity in diversity. Today’s passage does call us to appreciate differences among others.
And yet today’s passage doesn’t say what such liberal pastors and the world tend to want to say. Unity in diversity is not an end in itself. Nor, does appreciating differences mean that God accepts all differences as morally good. You see, liberal theology, if it wants to co-opt this passage for its purposes has to ignore two little words in verse 5. They are two little words, but they set the context for this unity in diversity. They are the words “in Christ.” These words make all the difference. The unity in diversity in this passage is about unity “in Christ.” Unity within the Christian church, not with the world at large. And the ways we appreciate the differences among others, in this passage, is seeing that God has given people different abilities and gifts, in his church. It’s not saying we rejoice in every difference between you and someone else in the church. No, the very gifts given by God to people in the church are to help Christians change and grow. To help Christians turn from immoral lifestyles and sinful habits and pagan thinking.
So then, this passage continues the exhortation we saw from last week. We studied verse 2 last week and it told us that we need to think differently from how the world thinks. We need to have our minds renewed, that we would be transformed. We should seek to be conformed to Christ and not to the world. Paul here gives an example of some of this renewed thinking. Starting in verse 3, Paul tells us we need to have renewed thinking about ourselves. Particularly, we need to have renewed thinking about ourselves in relation to others in the church. And so Paul addresses in verse 3 “everyone who is among” the Roman church. And he tells them each to, “not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.” In other words, Paul says, we need some honest self-reflection. Don’t think too highly of your yourself. Have sound judgment about yourself. Humility is especially advocated here. But it’s more than just humility. After Paul says we need to have a renewed mind, he then tells us something to be thinking about. Think about yourself. Have the right perspective of yourself. As he says, this means that you don’t have too high of a thinking about yourself. But that would also mean that we ought not to have too low of a perspective of yourself either. No, renewed thinking means we need to have God’s view about ourselves. I heard a quote this week that I though said it nicely: “Humility is not denying our strengths; it is being openly honest about our weaknesses.” And so we need right thinking about ourselves and our place among fellow believers in Christ’s church.
The point here is pretty clear. Paul goes on to explain further what he’s getting at. Every Christian is part of a larger group. That group is the church. We all have different functions. We all have different gifts to use in the church. We each have a responsibility to use those gifts in the church. And so our minds need to realize our place in the community of Christ’s church. We need to evaluate in faith the place God has assigned us. We need to seek a realistic appraisal of ourselves. If God has given you a certain role, but you think this isn’t glorious enough, and you try to take on something more glorious, then you are setting yourself up for trouble. Pride is to be removed from the renewed mind. On the other hand, if you tend to be someone who is always too negative about your skills and think you have nothing to contribute, that too can cause problems in the church. Self-pity, too, needs to be removed from the renewed mind. And so, Paul wants as part of our mind renewal to have a realistic understanding of our skills and talents and purposes in the church. None of us is the savior of the church. But all of us have a role for good in the church. Have renewed thinking about yourself and your role in the church.
And so that’s the first point today. See this passage as an example of renewing our minds. We need to think rightly about ourselves. I want to turn next to think further about the church as one body. In other words, let’s dig deeper into this renewed thinking about us within the church. And so let’s see what this passage says about the church as one body. This is stated explicitly in both verses 4 and 5. The church is a body. Notice that this is an illustration. We know that illustrations help us to understand things. But sometimes we miss the examples and illustrations that are in the Bible because we are so used to them. We call the church the body of Christ so much that we forget that the language of being a body is actually an illustration. In other words, look around. We are not literally a body. Jeff is not literally a hand. Mary is not literally an ear. We are not literally a body. But we are a body. Maybe it would help to bring out the analogy if we said the church is a human being.
And so verse 4 is actually the analogy here, and verse 5 applies that to the church. I think we can miss out on the fact that verse 4 is actually the analogy because it uses the language of members, and we might start thinking about church members. But that’s not the meaning in verse 4. The word for “members” in verse 4 means “body parts”, like limbs, etc. Verse 4 says that we all have many parts in the body, and not all the parts do the same thing. Just take a human anatomy class. I know many in this church have begun to appreciate this literal truth all the more, as they’ve lost the function of certain body parts due to advanced age. And so verse 4 is the analogy. Verse 4 is saying that just as this is true in our physical bodies, it’s true in the church. That’s verse 5. We are one body, in Christ. Christ is what unites us together. Christ is why we have this connection that we otherwise would not.
And this connection is an important one. Several things jump out at us concerning this connection. First, the analogy of the different functions stands out. If we know that each physical body part is important, then we know that each person in the church is important. We each serve a common purpose, but we do it in a different way. Some parts you can survive without, but there is something missing when you do. We see that true in the church too. The passage goes on to talk about the differing gifts that each in the church has; well, that’s the reason for the different functions in the church. And so here, again, we see diversity. This kind of diversity is a good thing.
But there is still the unity. Not only is the point made that we are one body, but the last part of verse 5 goes as far to say that we are individually members of one another. The idea is basically that we all belong to each other. Use the example of the body. The hand can’t think it belongs to itself and can do as it pleases. The foot can’t think the same. Think of what kind of chaos your body would have if the individual parts disregarded the rest of the body. No, the hand and the foot and the eyes and the ears, and all the parts, all belong to the same body. Together they make up the whole. Together the body works. Apart from the rest of the body, any particular part would have lost its purpose. That’s like us. That’s why the Bible says it is so important that we gather as a church. That we have Christian fellowship. That we assemble. We are members of one another. As a Christian, this is what you have become. Be renewed in your thinking about this!
So then our second point is to see that we as Christians are individually joined together into something corporate. This is likened to a body. We each have a part to play in this body. This brings us then now to our third point for today. This passage goes on to show, then, that we must each be faithful to do our function as a part of this body. This is verses 6-8. Let’s pick up in verse 6 first. “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them.” Different gifts. Not the same. These gifts are grace from above. The church as this example of a body, needs the different gifts. They enable us as different parts to do our functions. God equips his church with the different kinds of gifts in order for us to function properly. Just like the body needing the different working parts. So too, Christ’s church.
The passage then goes through 7 different gifts: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhorting, giving, leading, and showing mercy. These should not be understood as exhaustive. The reason I say that is simply because there are other spiritual gift lists in the Bible. 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, 1 Peter 4, contain similar lists and functions, but not identical. Other scattered verses mention a gift here or there. So, there’s no good reason to think this is an exhaustive list of gifts. This is more an example listing of some gifts we find in the church.
But three things especially stand out in this list of gifts here in Romans 12. First, not everyone will have all the gifts. We’ve already said that. We have differing gifts according to the grace that’s given us. But we see this in the list as well. Our pew Bibles only translate one “if” for us, verse 6, if you have the gift of prophecy, etc. But actually the Greek has four ifs stringing together these 7 different gifts. It serves to really emphasize that you may not have all of these gifts. You probably won’t. You may have some in differing degrees. But we ought to think in faith about what gifts we do have. That’s part of that renewed thinking we said we need to have. Here’s where that humility comes in as well, to also recognize those gifts that you don’t have. That we don’t think more highly of ourselves than we ought.
The second thing that stands out in this list of gifts, is that if you have a gift, you need to use it. That’s the clear implication here. For three of these gifts, Paul mentions the gift and then essentially says to use that gift. The first two are in verse 7. If you have the gift of ministry, then he says to minster. By the way, some have thought this ministry refers to the ministry of the Word. That’s possible. The Greek word is the general word for service, actually, where we get the word for deacon. Some therefore have thought this refers to diaconal work. That’s possible too. However, given the limited context, I think the best read of it is to take the word in its most basic definition: service. If you have the gift of service, then serve. That’s a broad notion, but that’s okay. You can then consider what specific kinds of service you’ve been most gifted in.
The next gift in verse 7 is stated in the same way. If you have the gift of teaching, then teach. And then the next one in verse 8 is the same way: if you have been gifted to exhort, then exhort. And so, the point here is that some of these items in this list of gifts are as stated as simply as that. If you’ve been given the gift, then use it. Don’t squander the gift. Don’t bury it in the ground. Don’t be shy and become afraid to use it. Don’t fall into that self-pity we talked about earlier and think yourself not useful. No, you have a function. I’ll be selfish here — the rest of us will suffer if you don’t use your gifts. You are part of this body and need to do your job! This is a call to be faithful to use your gifts.
The third thing that stands out in this list of gifts, is that there are wrong ways and right ways to use your gift. We just mentioned that for some of the gifts, Paul just essentially says to use that gift. If you are gifted to teach, then teach. But for four of the gifts he gets more specific. For four of them, he describes a way they are to use those gifts. Verse 6, if someone has the gift of prophecy, then they are to do so in proportion to their faith. This is not a gift we expect to see as part of the normal ongoing life of the church, now that the canon of Scripture has been completed. It certainly lives on in the preaching of the Word that expounds prophecy which has already been received. But the point is that someone needs to proclaim the prophetic word from faith. They ought not to proclaim it in unbelief.
Verse 8 goes on to list three more gifts that Paul also qualifies in how they are to be executed. He who give is to give with liberality. In other words, they are to have a genuine generosity. This has in mind likely more than just giving to the church, but someone who goes around giving to people who are in need; helping the poor, etc. Next in verse 8, He who leads, is to do so with diligence. In other words, leaders need to lead by taking appropriate action. If a leader never follows through with his responsibilities, then he’s not really leading. Last in verse 8, he who shows mercy is to do so with cheerfulness. The kind of mercy showing that is in mind here is the idea of showing care and concern and even pity for someone in their hour of need or trial. You might go visit someone in the hospital, for example. But at the end of visiting them, if they thank you for coming, it’s not the right response to say, “We’ll I felt I had to.” No, it’s better to say, and mean, “We’ll, I wanted to come and visit you!” That’s cheerfulness in showing mercy. And so the point then here is that we see in this list of gifts the need to use our gifts in the right way. As we said at the start, this passage is not just about blind acceptance of other people in their differences. It’s about each person in their differences looking to use their differences in a way that God would have them.
So then, we see in our third point for today the call to be faithful to use our gifts. Examine what gifts you have. Be faithful to use them. And use them in a way keeping with how God would have you to use them. This is the diversity of Christ’s church working together in unity. For a corporate good. And unto the service of God. Let me add here, by the way, that your functions in the church may change from time to time. How God is gifting you may be something that changes, or that you might grow in. Even looking at this list, you see that there are some things you hope we all would do. But we may not all have the same opportunities or abilities to do so. Take for example the giving. Surely there is a call for us all to give. Whenever we give we should do it generously and without strings attached. But not all of us will have the same ability and opportunity to give. But that will likely change at different points in your life. You might have in the past been the one to need to receive a gift from someone. Now, you might have the ability to make some special gifts to others. My point is simply to remind us to be ever examining ourselves and the body of Christ. That was the point to start this passage out. Think rightly about yourself in relationship to the rest of the church community. See where you fit in at the current time. See your function or role at this point in your life and the life of the local congregation. Be examining and evaluating this all the time that we can serve the Lord in the best way!
Well, as we’ve been talking about all of this today, I hope we don’t lose track of God’s grace in it all. That we don’t lose sight of the indicatives in light of the imperatives, if you remember my sermon from two weeks ago. The fact that we are in the church is all about grace. Remember, we are this united church in Christ. By the grace of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Through faith in him. And our ability to serve in the church is all about grace. Verse 6 said that the gifts are according to the grace that he’s given us! Yes, different graces in a sense with regard to the different gifts we have at any one point in our Christian life. But grace nonetheless. And if we have these gifts by grace, it means that our role in the church is not so much about you as it is about God. About God’s providing all that the church needs by giving you the grace to do your part. So, then, we should be encouraged as we are called to do our part among the body of Christ. We should give glory to God who has seen fit in his grace to put us in a position to serve. What an honor we have! That God would not only forgive us our sins, but put us in a place to serve. And what a benefit we have. That he not only puts us in a place to serve, but he puts others in places to serve, to meet our needs as well. If God puts people in the church to show mercy, it’s because some Christians will have need of such mercies. That may be you at some point in your life. But God’s got it covered. He graciously uses you to bless your fellow Christians. And he graciously uses other Christians to bless you.
This is of course Paul’s explicit example. Paul’s example show’s he acknowledges it’s all about grace. That’s how he started things off in verse 3. This all applies to him as well. Verse 3 Paul said, “For I say, through the grace given to me…” Paul says he’s exhorting them right then and there, how? Through the grace given to him! Paul too is a recipient of gifts from above according to the grace given to him. Paul been given this gift of teaching and exhortation, and so he speaks to them. But he acknowledges how he can do and how he must do it: through the grace given to him.
Let us then too, brothers and sisters, serve through the grace given to us. We started off our message today by noting how the world thinks that things like unity in diversity, and tolerance and acceptance can change the world. The world seems to think this is the way toward great progress in society. And though we rightly critiqued the world’s thinking on this, there is surely some truth behind this. A truth that we can find for us today. It’s the truth of what we see here today. That the church of Jesus Christ could accomplish so much if we would more fully embrace what is here. Just think of how good it would be for the church if we better attended to the body of Christ. If we all focused on what we can do, instead of trying to do the things that we can’t do. If we all focused on doing our jobs in the church instead of trying to do someone else’s. If we had the humility to know and accept the place God has put us. If we had the boldness to embrace without fear the functions to which God has called us. Let us pray for the measure of faith and grace needed to excel all the more in this. That the church would work this way together “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” Amen.
Copyright © 2013 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.