The life of the Christian shouldn’t be characterized by how we dress or the things we do with our time, but by the way we act out God’s divine love. Christ's gift of righteousness enables us to respond to the love we’ve been shown with good deeds that put love into action. In this sermon, Alistair Begg encourages us to never lack in zeal, living lives marked by enthusiasm, patience, and generosity.
I invite you to turn to Romans, to 12, the chapter that we turned to this morning, and then turned away from. Romans chapter 12—I think it’s page 803, if you’re looking around in those church Bibles. Verse 11: “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”
Father, help us now. Write your Word in our hearts, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, we summarized this this morning without ever turning to it. We did so purposefully because we want to make absolutely sure that we understand that what we’re dealing with here in these verses as—taking it from the Scottish minister of yore—what we are seeing here is “The Divine Righteousness Applied.” And that righteousness, which is ours in the Lord Jesus Christ, is worked out in the everyday events of our Christian lives, in our dealings—as we’re going to see in chapter 13 if we ever get there—in our dealings in the political realm and in society, in the dealings of our interpersonal relationships in family life, and also in the way in which we are brought together and live together in the family of God.
And those three words that I use this morning are the words, actually, that John Stott uses in his commentary to summarize these three verses. And I had other words that I’d used, but when I looked at my words and then I looked at his words, I thought his words were by far the best. And so I thought, “Well, why use my second-rate words when I can use his first-rate words?”
And so, we look at verse 11 under the heading of “enthusiasm.” Enthusiasm. “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.”
There are just three simple parts to this. The first part is a warning not to allow laziness or lethargy to take over our lives. Some of us, more than others, are prone to laziness. The book of Proverbs has a fair amount to say about the dangers and the results of a lazy life. And those of us who go through the [Old] Testament in a year will have come upon some of those verses even in the last few days. And some of them are vaguely humorous. It describes a man who is so lazy that, having put his spoon into the bowl from which he’s eating, he doesn’t bring it out again because it’s too much effort to bring it back out. And in verses that we used to quote to one another when we were feeling very righteous because we were up early in the morning and our roommates were still in bed, we would call out to them from the book of Proverbs, “As a door turns on its hinges, so turns a lazy man on his bed.” It’s a wonderful picture of being absolutely immobilized as a result of laziness!
Well, what he’s saying here is something that he says in writing to the Galatians, you will remember, where in Galatians chapter 6, making very much the same points as he begins to draw the Galatians to a close, he says, “Let us not become weary in doing good.” It’s possible to become weary in doing good. And therefore, the directive—or the corrective—against laziness, or against lethargy, is well-meant, is necessary, and needs to be taken to heart.
The other danger, of course, is that we reach a point where we just discover that we’re far happier letting somebody else take care of everything: “Well, someone else’ll do it. Someone else’ll get to it. That is something that somebody else, I’m sure, will take care of.” And the exhortation that is given here, of course, is not to do that: “Never”—never—“be lacking in zeal. Instead keep your spiritual fervor.”
If you have visited farmhouses in Britain, you will have, in many of them, come across their stoves, which are AGAs—that is, I think, A-G-A. Some of you ladies may know of these, some of you may possess them, and some of you may actually covet them as you see them in the magazines. It’s not my purpose this evening to become a salesman for this particular kind of cooking operation, but essentially what happens is that once it is installed and it is on, it is never off. And the mechanism that it provides for making porridge or oatmeal properly, for being able to boil a kettle almost instantaneously, is on account of the fact that these cast-iron mechanisms and heating plates—which are trapped underneath more cast iron so that your cat doesn’t fry itself by jumping up on the stove—those mechanisms will, in virtually an instant, provide you with boiling water. You don’t have to go through the 120-volt scenario that is true here in America, where it takes just… one of the reasons, I’m sure, that people never drink tea properly is because it takes so jolly long to actually get water to the correct temperature for the infusing of tea. And it is somewhat of an elaborate process, which has been circumvented by just drinking tea that is neither iced tea nor hot tea, just sort of a kind of weird tea. But that is another matter again altogether.
I mention this because the picture of being able to move very quickly into boiling is the picture that is provided here in this terminology—that we are to keep, if you like, the pot boiling. We’re not to allow things just to ebb and flow. We’re not to go hot and cold. We’re not to be enthusiastic at one moment and then drifting off at another point —people don’t know whether we’re in or whether we’re out, whether we’re engaged or whether we’re disengaged.
So Paul says, “Now, listen: don’t do that. Make sure that you’re not lacking in zeal, that you don’t dwindle in your zealousness. Instead, keep your spiritual fervor.” And that fervor, of course, is that which is provided for us, again, in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. And this fervor is not a self-energizing thing, but it is that which is implanted in us and then is cultivated by us . So, for example, when Paul writes to the Philippians, and he begins that series of questions: “If you are encouraged in your union with Christ, if you have this, if you have that, if you have the next thing, then make my joy complete by having this same mind among you.” In other words, it is because all of these things are true—all of these things are poured into us by means of our union with Christ—that we may then respond to this exhortation.
And then, thirdly, this is essential because of what it is we’re doing: “As you serve,” or as we serve, “the Lord”—“serving the Lord.” This is, of course, the important thing for us to keep in mind all the time, isn’t it? That what we’re actually doing, all day, every day, is serving the Lord. It is when we recognize that, that even the most trivial thing can become an act of service. Even the most routine part of our day—the way we greet a client, the way we clean up, the way we load or unload the dishwasher, the way we teach, the way we take notes, the way we give an injection, the way we respond—all of these things are expressions of the fact that the Christian is somebody who is engaged in serving the Lord Jesus Christ.
We ought not to have to wear a hat, as it were, that indicates this. It ought to be that as we don’t lack zeal, that as we keep our spiritual fervor, that as we serve the Lord, we give occasion for people to say, “You know, there’s just something about the way that nurse takes your blood pressure. I don’t know what it is about her. I must remember to ask her.” “There’s just something about the way that fellow holds your gaze and looks at you with a genuine sense of interest.” And when they ask a reason, then you could tell them: not simply that you’re trying to be a religious person or that you’re keeping the commandments—which, of course, you are doing—but you are serving the Lord.
You remember the famous story of Sir Christopher Wren, in building St. Paul’s Cathedral, I believe; I hope Wren was the architect of St. Paul’s. Was he? Yes? Well, we’ll go with it for now until we find out differently. But as somebody went through the raising of the structure, they came on different people, and they asked them what they were doing. And one person said, “Well, you know, I’m putting in some of the flooring here,” and somebody else said, “I’m actually involved in working in the chancel area,” “I’m putting some of the pillars into the nave,” and so on. And somebody said, “And what do you do?” and he said, “Well, I’m putting in the roofing,” and everything else. And they came to a little chap who had some menial little job; I can’t remember what it was he was doing. And they said to him, “And what is it that you’re doing?” And he said, “I’m helping Sir Christopher Wren build St. Paul’s Cathedral.”
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, [and] not for men.” I’ve discovered in my own life that when I allow myself to be overcome by discouragement, when my spirit begins to faint, it is almost inevitably because the claims of the Lord’s service are not uppermost in my thoughts —that when I’m tempted to discouragement, when I’m tempted to fainting of spirit, when I really analyze things, it’s because I’ve taken my eye off the Lord. And you may find that when you say to yourself, “I don’t know why I have to do this thing again; I don’t know why I ever signed up for this thing; I don’t know if anyone in my fourth-grade class ever listens to me; I don’t know if I can play in this band for another Sunday,” discouragement and fainting of spirit may be attributable to many things, but it may be right there. “Never lacking in zeal, keeping our spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.”
That’s verse 11. Verse 12, under the heading of “patience.” And I think “patience” is good, because patience is right at the heart of this little triplet, again: “Joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” There’s something very down-to-earth about these exhortations— each of these phrases. First of all, “joyful in hope” is a reminder to us of the fact, as we saw this morning, that the believer’s life is radically different from the life of the unbeliever. Romans chapter 5: “Therefore, since [we’ve] been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.”
So our status has been changed, our focus has been changed, and now, he says, “given that you’ve been brought into the realm of assured hope, make sure that that is the occasion of your joy.” So in other words, what he’s saying is, we are not energized by a consideration of what we are doing for God, but we are actually energized when we think about what God has done for us—that he has done for us, in giving us forgiveness, what we don’t deserve, that he has borne our place, and that “he has transferred us from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of the Son that he loves.”
And that progression in relationship to hope and the glory that is attached to it runs, as you know, through the whole of Paul’s treatment of Romans. And when we studied chapter 8 together, we reminded ourselves there in Romans 8:22, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we … eagerly [await] our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Here we go: “For in this hope we were saved.” “For in this hope we were saved.” And Peter, again, Paul’s friend, does it perfectly when he says we’ve been “born anew to a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
I still remember the striking impact that was made by our current president when he took up the very theme of hope. It was no surprise to me that it would be well responded to, because when hope dies, life is absolutely futile. And one of the characteristics of the righteousness of God applied in the life of the child of God is that the child of God is “joyful in hope.” And when that word there is used, it’s not as we’ve seen so many times, not “I hope it isn’t snowing when we get out”—the eventuality of something that may or may not take place—but it is the absolute certainty of that which God has promised, not yet experienced but held out before us.
I quoted earlier in the year or at the end of the year—I can’t remember now—the book of philosophy All Things Shining, which I’ve continued to read. And one of the things that the writers observe in there, as they suggest that their readers may find meaning in a secular age by a rereading of classic literature—one of the reasons that they’ve endeavored to bring all these “shining things” before their readers is because they observe that contemporary Western culture, they say, is in part marked by a pervasive sadness—by a pervasive sadness. You know, that there’s just a sort of thin veneer protecting men and women’s fragile lives from an undercurrent that is increasingly futile and without meaning. And the Christian, as God’s righteousness is applied, is “joyful in hope.”
Secondly, “patient in affliction”—“patient in affliction.” Don’t you love the fact that the Bible is so straightforward and honest and realistic? Why would we need to be patient in affliction if when you became a Christian you were removed from the realm of affliction? There’d be no need to put this in the Bible, would there? But Paul recognizes that we live with affliction. Again, in chapter 8, he begins one of his sections there, doesn’t he, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us”? He’s not saying that the glory that is revealed in us smothers all affliction. The people to whom he was writing in Rome were up against it because of their Christian convictions. If they were prepared to tolerate Jesus as just one of a number of possible religious figures, then they could live their lives quite happily. But if they were going to continue to declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, if they were going to keep their spiritual fervor, if they were going to serve the Lord Jesus, then they were going to be up against it. And so Paul recognizing this—not only the persecution that comes from without but just the routine pressures that come from everyday existence, not least of all the challenges of personal relationships, the difficulties of employment or unemployment, the pains of disappointment and unfulfilled hopes, dreams that have been shattered, lives that are marred by sickness. So he says, “I want you to be patient in affliction.”
And the word there is the word for “endurance” that you find later on; I think it’s when he says in Romans 15 that “all these things that were written in the past were written to help us out so that by endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures”—I’m just going to look for this—“so that by endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Yeah. That’s actually it. It’s Romans 15:4: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance”—it’s the same root there as the word for “patient”—“so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves.” In other words, this is not something that we have to just go inside and dig up for ourselves, but this is something which comes, again, as the Word of God is ministered to us, as we read it on a daily basis and we realize what’s happening.
For example, as we’ve gone through the Psalms, we’ve seen evidence of this. And the process that is described here—“patient in affliction” and “joyful in hope” and then “faithful in prayer”—I discovered, actually, when I was reading, the very process in Psalm 28. You needn’t turn to it, but here’s the progression. Psalm 28:2, David says, “Hear my cry for mercy as I call to you for help, as I lift up my hands.” That’s his prayer: “Hear my cry for mercy. I call to you; I lift up my hands to you.” Verse 6: “Praise be to the Lord, for he has heard my cry for mercy. The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy and I will give thanks to him in song.” What is he doing there? He’s actually taking this little triplet here and applying it in his own day.
We’ve “received the Spirit of sonship”; we can call God “Abba, Father.” Sometimes “we [don’t] know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit … intercedes for us.” All of that is Romans 8, remember. And what Paul makes clear is something that is easy for us to forget, and the devil always wants us to forget it—namely this: that prayer is the means that God has ordained for the supply of grace that is necessary to be joyful in hope and patient in affliction. What is the conduit, if you like? What is the avenue down which God meets with us and pours to us the grace that is necessary to be joyful in hope and patient in affliction? The answer is, in prayer. “Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? We should never be discouraged.” Why? “Take it to the Lord in prayer.”
“Lord, I cry to you for mercy; I lift up my hands to you. I can’t face this. Thank you, Lord; you have heard my cry. You energize me in hope, you stir me in endurance, because you have made me faithful in prayer.” That’s verse 12.
And just a word on verse 13, under the heading of “generosity.” “Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” I just was struck, when I read that simple sentence, with the description “God’s people.” “God’s people.” It’s interesting how he uses that phrase, isn’t it? “Share with God’s people.” He’s actually distinguishing between those who are God’s people and those who are not God’s people. Of course, everyone is God’s, insofar as he is the Creator. But not all are the people of God, except by grace, through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And the people of God are a funny bunch of people, as we’ve been seeing in these studies. And as I mentioned this morning, at least in one of the services, it would be one thing if we were all brought together in a kind of homogeneous unit, whereby everybody felt entirely comfortable in the presence of everybody else. But the fact is, we’re not. God’s people are a supernatural fellowship of people, in many cases very unlike ourselves, to whom we are now united by grace. And we’re to “share with God’s people who are in need”—“who are in need.”
This, actually, you will notice in these three simple verses, gives the lie to so much of the nonsense that’s on television about triumphing always over affliction. “No,” he says, “what you need to do is to be patient in affliction.” This also gives the lie to the idea that if you are the people of God then you will be able—provided you press the right buttons and give to the right individual and respond in the right way—you will be able to become, you know, triumphant and victorious in the realm of financial status. But when you read the Bible, you realize, “Well, that’s not the apostolic message.” And Paul’s not here saying, “Now that you have been united with Christ in his love and so on, now you’re going to be removed from the realm of affliction, you’re going to have all that you ever need and more besides, you’re going to be tremendously set up for the rest of your life.” No, you gotta “share with God’s people who are in need.” Because the people of God are often in need.
And that’s why when he writes, for example, in Ephesians about the transforming impact of Jesus in the life of somebody, he says, for example, “He who has been stealing [should] steal no longer, but [instead] … [do] something useful with his … hands, [in order] that he [might] have something to share with those [who are] in need.” It’s the same process! So that what is entrusted to us in the variegated dimensions of life, in different stages of financial privilege or different levels of financial privilege—just as in every other gift that God has given us—is not there for our own selfish aggrandizement but is there in order that we might again testify to the righteousness of God applied in our lives, not simply because we’re “patient in affliction” and “joyful in hope” and so on but because we are “shar[ing] with God’s people who are in need. ”
And two words to finish it: “Practice hospitality.” “Practice hospitality.” Hospitality in these days was an absolute necessity. They weren’t pulling into town and saying, “Do you want to stay at the Courtyard Marriott, or do you wanna go to the Omni, or wherever you want to go? Do you want to go to bed-and-breakfast?” By and large, the people of God had no place to go unless the other people of God welcomed them into their homes. So hospitality was not something you did when you managed to get the right kind of silverware, when finally you had the proper glasses, when you finally got the china that your great Auntie Fanny was going to leave to you, when finally you could set the table in the right way. Nothing to do with that at all. No. Peter says, “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling”—“without grumbling.” Yeah, I love the realism of that as well, don’t you?
“Why did we invite these people over?”
“Well, it wasn’t my idea.”
“Well, I think it was your idea, actually.”
You ever had that conversation?
Phillips paraphrases it, “[Offer hospitality] to [one an]other without secretly wishing you hadn’t got to!” That gets it dead-on. “Offer hospitality without secretly wishing you hadn’t got to.”
Well, there it is: enthusiasm, patience, and generosity. How attractive—how unbelievably attractive—will be a community marked by these things, and more besides! This really is, to use my heading now, “love in action.” This really is Christ revealed among his people. This really is the divine righteousness applied and displayed. This really is “letting our light so shine before men, that they may see our good deeds, and glorify our Father who is in heaven.”
We have not been saved by works, but we have been saved for works. And every day that you waken, God has protected you and preserved you through the night in order that in this new day we may then do the good deeds that he has foreordained for us to do. That’s Ephesians 2:10. It’s an immense thought, isn’t it? “Now, Lord Jesus Christ, let me do today the things that you have foreordained for me to do. And help me—with my family, with my work colleagues, with the people amongst whom you’ve set me at Parkside Church—to be marked by an enthusiasm that doesn’t flag, by a patience that doesn’t quit, and by a generosity that loves to share.”
Father, thank you that the Bible has a wonderful clarity to it; we’re the ones who mess it up by our misunderstanding or our misapplication. But it’s hard to misstep this. And we want to be as lights in a dark place. We do want to shine for you, Lord Jesus Christ. We want your light to shine in us and to shine through us, so that, in the darkness of our day, in a society that is increasingly marked by a pervasive sadness and a sense of futility and pointlessness, that we might be those who are joyful in hope and patient in affliction and who have a generosity that extends to those who are in need. Hear our prayers, O God. For Christ’s sake we ask it. Amen.
 See Proverbs 19:24; 26:15.
 Proverbs 26:14 (paraphrased).
 Galatians 6:9 (NIV 1984).
 Philippians 2:1–2 (paraphrased).
 Colossians 3:23 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 5:1–2 (NIV 1984).
 Colossians 1:13 (paraphrased).
 1 Peter 1:3 (paraphrased).
 Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (New York: Free Press, 2011).
 Romans 8:18 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 8:15 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 8:26 (NIV 1984).
 Joseph Mendlicott Scriven, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (1855).
 Ephesians 4:28 (NIV 1984).
 1 Peter 4:9 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 5:16 (paraphrased).