Using the Gifts

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways” (Romans 11:33)! Saint Paul lifts his voice to give praise to our Lord, to rejoice in His divine wisdom and majesty. He declares the wonders of God that are far outside of our control. God is not answerable to us. He is not dependent on us and yet He has come near to us, called us His children, impacted our lives and given His gifts. This is worthy of our praise, worthy of our thanksgiving and joy. Paul declares, “From Him and through Him and to Him are all tings. To Him be glory forever. Amen” (11:36).

What is surprising about this refrain from Paul is it comes right on the heels of some astonishing revelations. Paul has taken a long, hard, and sober look at the reality of the Church in his day and what he saw was not a pretty picture. At least it was not what he had hoped for. It was not what he wanted to find when he looked at the body of Christ. What was missing was his own people. This pained him so much that, back in chapter 9, he would say, “I wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3). In other words, he would willingly sacrifice himself if it meant his people might come to faith. He goes on to talk about the good and faithful olive tree that produces the fruit of the kingdom, a tree that he grew up knowing. Its roots are the roots of the faith he treasured. But the branches that do not produce, that reject the gifts of God, are being cut off. These wild branches, these outsiders, are being grafted in. When he looked at the Church what he wanted to see was dying off and what he found living was something unexpected.

Yet, he praises God. Why? Because the tree is still growing, the branches are still producing fruit. Life is still being given. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked a lot about the Church, about the fellowship of believers that gathers around the gifts of God. In his book Life Together he said, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.” That is, we all have our dreams of what the Church ought to be, how it ought to act, and what it ought to look like. If we love that ideal more than the reality we participate in, we become a destroyer of the Church itself. For we learn, as Paul learned, the Church is not always what we want it to be. The Church is the Lord’s Church and He will give it growth and life as He sees fit.

So, having taken a good hard look at the Church, having voiced his laments and then proclaimed the praises of God, he turns to you and says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1). He makes an appeal based on the mercies of God, grounded on the gift of grace He has given to you in Christ alone. He then calls for you to present yourselves as living sacrifices. If you notice, what Paul is doing is not calling for you to somehow offer yourself to God because God needs what you have to give, he is calling for you to give of yourselves for one another. He is turning you to each other, to the fellowship He has created to serve and care for one another.

To do this Paul says we must, “not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2). This world stands in opposition to presenting your bodies as living sacrifices. Which means it stands in opposition to the life and blessings rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Which also means this world stands in opposition to the Church. Now, perhaps you did not really hear that. Perhaps you thought I was simply throwing out some platitude about turning from the bad and embracing the good. This is not an abstract concept or some distant warning. What I am saying is this world wants to conform you to it, and it already has all the tools to do it and it is tirelessly at work. The world does not want you to be bound together as a fellowship of God’s children, it wants you to be in alignment with the word’s ideals, the world’s values, the world’s idols.

Instead, Paul says, you must be transformed by the renewing of your mind. The way to resist being conformed to this world is through the transformation provided by God. The Word of God which spoke all of creation into being, the Word that established the universe and our place in it, is the instrument by which you can be transformed. For that Word is the same Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, the Word that suffered and died in your place upon the cross, He is the Word that rose again on the third day to proclaim salvation for you. By His Work you are renewed for it is into His death and resurrection you are baptized, you are born again. You live now as the children of God and heirs of eternal life. So, it is here in the living Word of God that you find transformation. It is in the Word that you find strength and the very ability to resist the consuming work of the world.

To maintain this separation from our world, our resistance to the attacks of the evil one that continue to come, He has given you to each other. Out of this world of sin and confusion and deception He has given to you a fellowship. It may not be what you had imagined or what you had hoped it would look like but here it is. He says this gathering, these children of God are all members of the body of Christ. He says, “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:4-5). Each of you are members of the body of Christ. Each of you has a role to play in that body. Each of you is different, possessing different gifts, different strengths and weakness which is why we all need one another.

Paul’s appeal for this living sacrifice that resists the conforming nature of the world is to use the gifts you have been given. Use them right here for each other. He lists out some of the gifts, a small sampling of the great abundance of gifts that mark the people of God. He speaks about prophecy and serving and teaching and exhortation and contribution and leadership and acts of mercy. And he calls for you to use these for each other, give of yourselves to one another. Love one another, forgive one another, be kind to each other.

This is what our world does not want you to do. It does not want you to take care of each other. It does not want you to protect and lift one another up. It does not want you to circle the wagons and build up each other. For when you do, when you live out the love of Christ for each other, then their attacks begin to fail, and their victories become far and few in between. For what chance does this dying world have when faced with the thriving, living body of Christ? Look around my friends, for this is it, this is the time, this is the moment. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!… From Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen.”