Thinking Christianly All Year — Part Two
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Thinking Christianly All Year — Part Two

Romans 11:36  (ID: 3637)

Are you in awe of God? With the old year drawing to a close and the new year set to commence, Alistair Begg reflects on the past twelve months of Bible study at Parkside Church, underscoring the importance of thinking Christianly in an ever-changing world. The apostle Paul proclaimed the wonders of God to be unfathomable. With this truth in mind, rather than accommodating the surrounding culture’s focus on self, we’re encouraged to give all glory to God alone.

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to turn to Romans and to chapter 11 and to follow along as I read just the closing verses of this eleventh chapter of Romans. Romans 11:33:

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”

As we turn to the Bible, we turn to God in prayer:

Lord, we have sung about your Word, and we acknowledge that we do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from your mouth[1]—that your voice is heard when your Word is read. “All flesh is like grass, the glory of man like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower falls, but the Word of the Lord endures forever.”[2] And it is to your Word we now turn, seeking the help of the Holy Spirit. In Christ’s name. Amen.

Well, I think many of you will know that this year has been a common year. A common year. Not every year is a common year. This has been the common year for the first time since the last common year, which was in 2017. The next common year will be, God willing, in eleven years’ time, in 2034. I leave it to you to have fun this afternoon googling—and stop googling right now—to consider what it means to be a common year. This is the first year since 2017 that has begun the first day of the year on a Sunday and has ended the last day of the year on a Sunday as well. And it is the year that God has made, and it is a year that provides us with all kinds of opportunities for consideration and for reflection.

And I want, this morning, to do that. I don’t want, this morning, to try and expound a passage of Scripture, although I hope that everything that is said is within the framework of Scripture. But I want us to recognize together that we set out on this journey—those of us who were present—on the first Sunday of the year, thinking about how important it is to think Christianly. To think Christianly. Some of you may remember that. And we said that to think Christianly is not simply to think about Christian things, but it is to allow the Bible to be what the Bible is (a lamp to our feet and a light to our path)[3] and so for the Scriptures to be the framework in which we consider absolutely everything—the considerations of life and marriage and rest and relaxation and science and art and whatever it might be. Because it is in the Bible that we discover not only who God is but also who we are and why it is that we need a Savior.

Psalm 139

Now, as I say, I want to reflect on this a little bit and to remind you. I hope that this only triggers in your mind happy remembrances. But we began on the back of that statement on that first Sunday by reading together and considering, over a period of four weeks, the 139th Psalm. And in the reading of the 139th Psalm, we saw that that psalm challenges a kind of view of the world which is part and parcel of everyday life as we simply move amongst our friends and our colleagues and as we’re also tempted ourselves to view the world as if we were the center of the universe—to think that somehow or another, it all begins with me, that my orientation is first of all around myself. And the psalmist disavowed us of that very quickly, and we saw that God knows all about me, that God is with me, that God has made me, and that God judges righteously.

It is in the Bible that we discover not only who God is but also who we are and why it is that we need a Savior.

Now, the reason that we study the Bible in that way is so that we might go out and interact with the world in which we live. None of us lives in a box. None of us is isolated from the everyday events of life. You could argue that pastors are more so than some others. I suppose it’s an inevitability to that. I do envy the ability to go in amongst a workforce that uses strange language and has a lifestyle that is not similar to my own. I recognize that the world in which we studied the 139th Psalm is a world which largely believes “I am what I choose to be.” “I am what I choose to be.” The psalmist says, “God made you, God is with you, God surrounds you, and God judges justly.” The world in which we live suggests that words mean what we decide the words should mean. The 139th Psalm says, “No, life is derived from God, it is sustained by God, and it is given meaning by God.”

When we think of the literature of our generation, when we think of the songs of our generation, we realize that many of them express the great longings of the human heart for meaning—trying to come to terms with why it is we even exist, what we’re doing as we walk the journey of our rather short lives. And the reason that we study the Bible is in order that we might be assured of these things but in order that we might go out into the world and tell them about this great truth: “You were made by God, you’re sustained by God, and he’s a God who comes to seek you.”

Now, what we read at the end of Romans 11 is not unique. For example, when Paul writes to the Colossians, he writes very similarly. “For by him,” he writes, “all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities.” Now, think that when you’re just tuning in to whatever your favorite news broadcast is and when you’re about tempted to nudge the person next to you and say, “Can you believe this? I mean, what in the world is going on here? How are we dealing with this?” Now, this is where you need your Bible! “Whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”[4] “In him all things hold together.” The great vacuum that is at the center of twenty-first-century life is a vacuum that is only ultimately addressed by God himself.

We don’t want to overstate the circumstances in which we live, but we don’t want to be naive to them either. We live now at a time in our culture where institutions are pretty well passé, whether it’s the police, the school, the government, or the church. The idea that there are norms—that there are norms which are absolutely binding and absolutely timeless—that idea is regarded as implausible if not absolutely irrelevant. And men and women, waiting for the great ball to drop in New York City tonight, are living in an environment… The fabric of our twenty-first-century Western culture is unraveling before our eyes.

And that is why if moms and dads and grandparents are not themselves convinced of the truths that we considered in Psalm 139, there is no observable way in which those under our care will be able to navigate this strange environment. Our young people, whether we like this or not, are gaining more of their values from their peers and from social media than they are getting from their parents. Fact! The issue is huge. These words weren’t written in 2023; these were written in 1964:

Come, mothers and fathers
Throughout the land,
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand.
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command;
Your [own] road is rapidly agin’.
[So] get out of the new one
If you can’t lend [a] hand,
For the times they are a-changin’.[5]

True. Changing! Where is the unchangeable in the midst of a changing world?

Why do you think it is that thousands and millions of young girls are now referred to as “Swifties”? Now, I’ve got nothing to say about the lady who’s the Swift. I’ve paid no attention to her at all. But what is it? Well, it is because they’re living in a world where image is more significant than substance, where making an effort to build your character is secondary at least to making an effort to manage the image that you are presenting to your peers: “Do they like me? Do they not like me? Do they know me? Am I in? Am I out? Where do I go? How do I make sense of this?”

“O Lord, you have searched me, and you know me. You know when I sit down and when I rise.[6] I’m fourteen years old, and I’m in my bedroom, and I’m surrounded by all of these cries and longings. O Lord, where could I go from your presence?”[7] You see? That’s why we studied Psalm 139: so that we might discover what it means when a man or a woman is in Christ, when they become a new creation, when the old things are gone,[8] when they are ushered into this amazing process, this journey of sanctification whereby God, having taken hold of us, is in the business of conforming us to the image of his Son,[9] making us just like Jesus.

And we have to recognize that we’re, many of us, not very much like Jesus. The church in many ways is a hospital. The church is—okay, maybe a gym. But it’s like a convalescent ward! Because we’re living our lives in a kind of fragile convalescence. We know that in Christ, we are filled with all his fullness. We imagine ourselves to be strong and healthy and holy. But in actual fact, we’re weak, and we’re sinful, and we’re sick. And under God’s care, we’re getting better, but we’re not yet well. That’s why we studied Psalm 139.

The Book of Jude

From there we went to the book of Jude. You remember Jude? You might want to even check and see if it’s still in your Bible. Now, there was a progression of thought, at least in my mind, in our studies throughout the year: “We want to think Christianly. Okay, let’s think about our world as God has made us, and then let’s think about the church.” And that’s why we studied Jude together, because Jude issues in his day this call to the people of God to “contend for the faith”[10]—not to become contentious in their approach but to be very, very clear about what the story of the Bible is, about who God is, how he has made himself known in Jesus, what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and what that rules out as well as what it rules in.

And we paid careful attention to that, because we said instead of regarding the great dilemma that we face as being all these bogeymen out there, in fact, the history of the church shows that the church collapses better from within as a result of default than it collapses as a result of any oppression from the outside. In fact, church history bears testimony to the fact that the blood of the martyrs has proved almost inevitably to be the seed of the church.

And so we studied Jude, and we recognized the creeping influence of a godless way of thinking. We read very carefully how Jude was concerned not about something that might happen but something that was happening: “For certain people have crept in unnoticed.” They were in the community where Jude was the minister. Their condemnation has been known long past. Who are these people? They’re “ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”[11]

Now, what he’s addressing there is not a first-century phenomenon but an every-century phenomenon, where people will seek to take the grace of God and so teach it as to turn it into a license for immorality. And that’s why we studied all the way through Jude. (I can’t remember how many studies there were—perhaps a dozen.) Because we realized that in every generation, it is imperative that the church in that generation pays attention to what it means to be in Christ and for Christ, and how easy it is for a church family to accommodate itself to the thought forms of a culture, and to accommodate itself to the thought forms of a culture within the framework of Christendom that is itself losing the plot, that is now questioning things which are verities, that is now prepared to take on board dialogue concerning matters about which there is no need for dialogue—ideas, practices that suggest that the way to reach a generation is with a kind of trimmed-down Christianity, one that is far easier to accommodate than that which speaks so clearly from the Bible and so on.

Writing in 1994, in his book God in the Wasteland, David Wells says whenever a church is prepared to toy with those kinds of ideas, a number of things are inevitable. Number one: worship loses its awe—loses its awe, a-w-e. “Come, let us worship [God]; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!”[12] The gathering of God’s people is first of all to God, with God, for God. It’s not an assembly whereby we simply see if we can have it put together in the way that fits us best. One of the first signs is a very, very thin experience of worship. We began purposefully this morning: “O breath of God, come fill this place.”[13] This is not like any other gathering. This is not a meeting of people post–high school who got together because it was the last week of the year. This is the assembly of the righteous in the presence of the risen Christ, who stands amongst his people to lead us in our praise. When we miss that, we miss everything. How does it happen? The grace of God.

Trivialized, worship loses its awe. The truth of Scripture loses its ability to compel. To compel. People say, “Well, he has some ideas. We’ll consider the ideas.” No, the compulsion is not from the lips of the preacher. The compulsion is from the lips of God! It is the Scripture that compels. When this happens, obedience loses its virtue. We begin to toy with the idea: “Somehow or another, I’m not sure I have to be as obedient as all that. Did Jesus really mean it when he said, ‘If a person loves me, he will keep my commandments’?[14] No.”

And inevitably, the church loses its moral authority. In the wider constituency of Western thought, the church has by and large lost its moral authority. Why? Because of immorality within the church. How in the world do we speak to a generation about the authority of God, the love of God, the compelling influence of God when we ourselves pay scant attention to it at all?

John’s “Truly, Trulys”

That was the second series. Then we went from Jude to John. (I told you we would get back to Romans, but just bear with me.) Then we went from Jude to John. Now, we went to John’s Gospel in order that we might fill our minds with the words and the works of Jesus. And as you know, we have begun that journey. We’re on that journey. We’ve taken a brief pause. We’re looking at the statements that Jesus made prefaced by the two words “Verily, verily,” or “Truly, truly.” And in the course of that, we reached the sixth chapter. And in the sixth chapter, we paused, and we have completed the sixth chapter now, having done seven studies there.

And as we read each of these passages, we discovered very clearly that there’s a certain group of people that are intrigued by Jesus. Jesus, because of what he did and because of what he said, had begun to gather a large crowd around him. And in the gathering of that crowd, he spoke very clearly. And as we saw in John chapter 6, a number of the people that had been part of the concentric circle had decided that they were no longer going to be following him. They’d no longer follow him because they began to say to one another, “You know, we don’t like these hard sayings that he’s making. We would like it if it was a lot easier than this, it was a lot more accessible,”[15] and so on.

But Jesus, of course, had spoken so very clearly to them. They’d asked for signs. They’d had their tummies filled. They were aware of his miraculous activities. And yet they stumbled, because he said,

I[’ve] come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.[16]

Well, again, that’s not a new phenomenon, is it? We recognize that people turn away from the consideration of Jesus, and many of them have done so because their only interest in Jesus was an interest in self-fulfillment. Church had become for them a kind of variegation of the idea of “You can have your needs met. You can answer your questions. You can have everything put together for you.” So it became a sort of deified self-help mechanism—and so, as soon as we had secured sufficient help, then we could just drift away. Or, worse still, if we discovered that that help came at cost, since our interest was in self-expression and we discovered that it came in the realm of self-surrender, we said, “No, we don’t do self-surrender. We’re looking for self-expression.” And, just as in Jesus’ day, many of them wandered away.

The gathering of God’s people is first of all to God, with God, for God.

Someone put it this way: “The gospel of [today] frequently is unthinking and superficial.” Thinking Christianly. Frequently, “the gospel of [today] is unthinking and superficial, frequently is believed and preached without urgency, and the reason is that it has yet to dawn [up]on many in the church that God in his holiness is deeply and irrevocably set in opposition to the world because of its sin”[17]—that the real issue of man is the fact of our alienation from God, that we are distanced from God on two fronts: on our side, on account of our sin; and on God’s side, on account of his wrath.

Well, is that really the story of the Bible? That we have offended against God, that God must punish sin? Or is it simply that Christianity is whatever you want it to be? That you come, you see if it’s nice for your children, if you fulfill yourself, and so on. You can be doing that, but that’s not the gospel. Am I preaching in vain? No, the reality is that we need someone to reconcile us. And the story of the gospel is: despite our rebellion and on account of God’s wrath, God has come to seek us out—hence Christmas, hence the atonement, hence the prospect of a new heaven and a new earth, in which dwells righteousness.[18]

You see, if you just listen to people tell you their testimony of saving faith in Jesus, it becomes very, very clear. That’s why we often sing this song that goes “I once was lost in darkest night.”[19] Really? Where do you come up with that? I’ve actually never been lost in darkest night. I’ve been in darkest night, but I’ve never been lost. What is the hymn writer on about? Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. [He that] follows me will not walk in darkness.”[20] By nature, we are lost in darkness. We need the light of Jesus to show us the fact that we’re lost.

I once was lost in darkest night
Yet thought I knew the way.

That fits, doesn’t it? “Oh, I had it figured out. I didn’t need Jesus. I don’t need God. I don’t need the Bible. I’m not taking your New Testament. Why would I read that? I like coming here, but that’s not what I’m on about.”

The sin that promised joy and life
Had led me to the grave.
I had no hope that you would own
A rebel to your will.
And if you had not loved me first,
I would refuse you still.

That’s John 6. “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never [turn away].”[21] The gospel.

Romans 11

It’s a mystery, isn’t it? It’s actually the mystery that many of you were considering as you, in Bible studies, worked your way—and here we go, Romans chapter 11—worked your way through Romans chapter 9, 10, and 11. And along with those who were teaching and all who were listening, you found that you were greatly encouraged by the way in which Paul finally throws up his hands, as it were, at the end of the wonders that he has been proclaiming. And the wonders that he’s been proclaiming take his breath away.

You will notice, if you turn to it, that there are two exclamation marks: one at the end of verse 33 and one at the end of verse—both of them, halfway through 33 and at the end of 33. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” Paul has written this amazing letter. And whether this reference is simply to what he has been immediately identifying in chapters 9, 10, and 11 or whether he’s referring to the entirety of it, both fit.

And the fact of the matter is, he is saying that God’s counsel is incomprehensible. Incomprehensible! It’s not just that the things that he has chosen not to make known are incomprehensible. In actual fact, the things that he’s chosen not to make known are inapprehendable. We cannot apprehend what he has not made known. It is what he has made known that is incomprehensible. His riches! His wisdom! His knowledge! His kindness! It is this which is incomprehensible! It is unsearchable! It is the very antithesis of trivial and accessible.

Now, Jim Packer uses a wonderful illustration in one of his articles, where he says, “Imagine a two-year-old son of a man with a brain like Einstein. The son could not possibly understand all that was going on in his father’s mind, even if he told him. In the same way,” says Packer, “it would be beyond us to understand all that goes on in the all-wise mind of God.”[22] So the genius would then need to accommodate himself to his boy. He would need to speak in baby talk. He would need to come down to where he is. No highfalutin nonsense! No strange ideas! Making that which is incomprehensible comprehensible.

Now, you see, here’s the thing: God’s incomprehensibility beyond the limits of what he has revealed is without question. It’s without question. For some of us, you see, the gospel we proclaim is boring. The approach that we take is banal—and partly because it hasn’t really registered with us. I mean, have you ever knelt on your knees and said, “O God, how incomprehensible are you, and how wonderful that you search me, and you know me, and you made me, and there’s nowhere that I can go out of your presence”? Have you? Do you know God? What do you mean when you say “God”? Do you believe God?

When we studied on the first of the year, we had a quote concerning the doctrine of providence which fits in this place as well. David Calhoun says that this great and vast mystery “does not answer all our questions, but it enables us to live without answers until the time comes when we will live without questions.”[23] The problem for some of us is we’re living without questions. We should be living with questions.

And so Paul says, “I’ll give you two questions”—one in 34 and one in 35. Question one: “Who has known the mind of the Lord, or … has been his counselor?” Nobody. Question two: “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” Nobody. Nobody! The Westminster Confession is so straightforward and clear: there is only one living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, unchangeable, boundless, and incomprehensible.[24] So we cannot know him unless he comes down to us and speaks to us. The writer to the Hebrews begins in that way: “In many and various ways of old, God has spoken to us by the prophets. But now, in these last days, he has spoken to us in his Son.”[25]

You see, we do not come to biblical conviction, we do not come to the reality of this, by speculation, nor by way of imagination. Every time you find yourself saying, “I like to think of God as,” be careful, ’cause you’re planning on diminishing the reality of who God is. We come by way of revelation.

And he gives it to us in the thirty-sixth verse, in a nutshell: “For from him and through him and to him,” everything! Where do all these things come from? “From him.” How do all these things come into being? “Through him.” Why are all these things brought into being, including you? In order that you might live your life “to him.” And that’s why he ends, “So all the glory—all the glory—belongs to you.” We need to know that, January 1, all the way to December 31, so that when we look to January 7, we will be ready to worship God and make sure that we give him all the glory. Because the glory is his alone. Amen?

Well, just a brief moment of silence, and then we will sing.

“For from him and through him and to him are all things.” To him alone be the glory. Amen.

[1] See Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4.

[2] Isaiah 40:6–8; 1 Peter 1:24–25 (paraphrased).

[3] See Psalm 119:105.

[4] Colossians 1:16–17 (ESV).

[5] Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (1964).

[6] See Psalm 139:1–2.

[7] See Psalm 139:7.

[8] See 2 Corinthians 5:17.

[9] See Romans 8:29.

[10] Jude 3 (ESV).

[11] Jude 4 (ESV).

[12] Psalm 95:6 (ESV).

[13] Keith Getty and Phil Madeira, “The Risen Christ (O Breath of God)” (2003).

[14] John 14:15 (paraphrased).

[15] John 6:60 (paraphrased).

[16] John 6:38–40 (ESV).

[17] David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

[18] See 2 Peter 3:13.

[19] Jordan Kauflin, “All I Have Is Christ” (2008).

[20] John 8:12 (ESV).

[21] John 6:37 (ESV).

[22] James I. Packer, “Theism for Our Time,” in God Who Is Rich in Mercy: Essays Presented to Dr. D. B. Knox, ed. Peter T. O’Brien and David G. Peterson (Homebush West, NSW, Australia: Lancer, 1986), 18. Paraphrased.

[23] David B. Calhoun, Knowing God and Ourselves: Reading Calvin’s Institutes Devotionally (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2016), 73.

[24] The Westminster Confession of Faith 2.1.

[25] Hebrews 1:1–2 (paraphrased).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.