The Goodness & Severity Of God
The Goodness Of God

In a Brief Survey of the Epistle of Paul to the Romans
Based on sermons preached in PCC Worship Services, July 2003 to Sep 2005
Part 55b of 83

22 Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off. 23 And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again” (Romans 11:22-23).

[We saw previously that this exhortation of the apostle is very much built upon his Olive Tree metaphor (v. 17). And the Olive Tree, no doubt, represents the Church Visible. Local congregations may be viewed as branches of this tree; while individuals may be viewed as sprigs and children as shoots.

In this follow-up instalment, we will consider what goodness of God means in this context. In the next instalment, we will look at the severity of God. —JJL]

2.  The Goodness of God

a. The apostle says:

Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.

When we consider the fact that the Olive Tree refers to the Church Visible, then we have to conclude that membership in the Church Visible is one of the ways we enjoy the goodness of God. Therefore, to continue in the goodness of God is not just a mental notion of humbly recognising the mercy of God, and relying upon Him for our salvation.

It must include not despising the goodness of God in giving us the means of grace in the Visible Church. What are some of the means? Our Larger Catechism, Questions 154 & 108, teaches us that they include: “the Word,” “the sacraments,” “prayer,” “church government and discipline” and “swearing by the name of God, and vowing unto him.” To this list, we may add “singing of Psalms” (WCF 21.5).

Consider how these things reflect the goodness of God.

·        The Word is that by which God ordinarily feeds our souls that we may more and more die unto sin, and more and more conform unto the image of Christ. The Word-preached is meant to shut us up to Christ, to fans our love for Him and cause us grow in Him and die unto the world as we prepare four our eternal home. Such is the goodness of the Lord in giving us the Word.

·        The singing of Psalms is the worship ordinance by which we may praise God in union with Christ with the words He supplied. It is also the means by which we may teach and admonish each other on regularly (Col 3:16) rather than waiting to do so in reaction to perceived failures and sin (cf. Heb 3:13). Such is the goodness of the Lord in giving us the Psalms to sing. 

·        The Sacraments are the means by which God exhibits and applies the benefits of the redemption purchased by Christ unto us. They are, as Calvin says “shown… under things of flesh, to instruct us according to our dull capacity, and to lead us by the hand as tutors lead children” (ICR  4.16.6).

·        In baptism, God assures us of our cleansing from sin by the blood of Christ as well as the Spirit of Christ. Paul calls regeneration the washing of regeneration because water-baptism is intended to signify Spirit- baptism. Baptism is also the outward means to ratify our ingrafting into Christ. Without baptism we cannot have any assurance that we belong to Christ or are part of the Olive Tree. Such is the goodness of God in giving us baptism.

·        The Lord’s Supper is the means by which God assures us that Christ died for us and we are united with Him. It is also a means by which God strengthens our inner man. Without the Lord’s Supper, we shall easily lose our assurance that Christ died for us; whereas by the Lord’s Supper, our faith is strengthened. Such is the goodness of God in giving us the Lord’s Supper.

·        Prayer is the means by which God allows us to petition in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ for our needs at His throne of grace. As such it provides us with the assurance that we are heirs, joint-heirs with Christ. Prayer is also a means by which believers in Christ may strengthen one another by praying for one another. Without prayer, our faith becomes powerless and our religion become fatalistic. Such is the goodness of God in giving us the privilege of prayer.

·        Church government is also an ordinance of God for our good. A lawfully ordained church government is merely a representative of Christ our King. With a lawfully ordained church government over us, we would not only be kept accountable for our faith, doctrine and practices. But we have the assurance that we are being watched-over by Christ’s under-shepherds so that should we stray, we have those appointed of Christ to bring us back by loving admonition or discipline. Such is the goodness of God in giving us church government.

·        Vows and oaths in the name of the Lord is also an ordinance of the Lord by which we may bind ourselves more strictly to serve Christ our Lord. We make use of vows so that when we are tempted sore by the devil to stray from the Lord, we may be compelled to return to the Lord, —firstly, by the reminder of the many loving eyes who witnessed the vow, and secondly, by the Lord’s chastising hand. Such is the goodness of God in giving us the ordinance of vows and oaths.

Now, all these things are part and parcel of God’s blessings upon the members of Christ’s covenant body or the Olive Tree. Those who are outside the Visible Church simply do not have the privilege of experiencing these blessings. Someone may say, “but I can read the Bible at home by myself.” Well, the apostle Paul does not call the church the “Pillar and ground of truth” (1 Tim 3:15) for no reason. Someone else may say: “but I can pray at home by myself.” Well, it is not without reason that the Lord says: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20). It is an undeniable fact that NO ONE who is outside the organised Visible Church can experience the benefits of the means of grace in the same way as one who is a faithful member in the church.

Indeed, as each local congregation is an organic expression of the Universal Visible Church, we must conclude that membership in a faithful local church is essential for every Christian—if he were to experience the goodness of God. You see every Christian, —whether he is young or old, —is like an olive shoot. Olive shoots don’t grow out of the trunk of the tree. They grow out of branches. Local congregations of Christ are like branches. We must be part of the Olive Tree by being members in the branches.

Now, I am aware that many conscientious Christians struggle with the issue of church membership because they could not find local churches which they could with a clear conscience believe to be faithful to the Word of God or to the historic faith. And many of have to leave the church of their previous membership because they could no longer with clear conscience worship in the congregation. But these situations are exceptions rather than the norm today. We live, do we not, in a day when church membership is taken very lightly by a vast majority of professing Christians? We see the symptoms everywhere don’t we?

We think of large congregations where a relatively small percentage of the worshippers are members. We think of the congregations where members do not make any effort to get to know other members in the church. We think of Christians who see their duty to Christ and to His church as being accomplished if they only go for worship once a week. They have no desire to pray for other members in the congregation or to attend any of the other appointed means of grace.

Then we think of how church discipline is almost non-existent in most churches in Singapore so that if any church tries to discipline an offender, the offender can simply leave the church for another and be received as a full communicant membership there. Indeed, any church that attempts to exercise church discipline would be seen as sectarian and unloving. Church membership, in other words, is no more than some form of club membership in some churches; and so many modern Christians have very little idea of the value and responsibility of being members of a church of Christ.

This lax attitude towards church membership was foreign to believers in the early church. In fact, in the early church a person who is not a member of a church would generally not be considered a believer. This is why the apostle Paul himself, when he was converted on the road to Damascus “assayed [i.e. attempted] to join himself to the disciples” (Acts 9:26). Now, the word translated “to join” in Acts 9:26, is the Greek word (κολλά, kollaō) which literally means “to glue” or “to unite closely.” The word requires that there be an existing body of believer who are already united together. Paul was clearly desiring to be part of the existing body. He was, in other words, trying to join the membership of the church at Jerusalem.

Dear reader, what is your attitude towards church membership, whether for yourself or for your children? I trust that you can see that the concept of church and of Christianity of the apostles and the Lord Jesus Christ includes membership in the local church.

We live in a day when may professing Christians view Christianity merely as a personal or individual relationship with Christ. The Church is optional and really can be done without. But the Bible teaches us otherwise. The Bible teaches us, and our Confession confirms, that outside the church, there is in fact no ordinary means of salvation. For the Lord, the king of the Church has committed to the branches of His body the means of grace, whether it is of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, or preaching of the Word, or government and discipline.

One who despises these things, despises the importance of church membership and therefore despise the goodness of God. The goodness of God relative to the Olive Tree, is after all, in a large part manifested through the means of grace appointed to the church.

May I, as such, encourage you to cultivate a biblical attitude towards the church and to church membership!

Make no mistake. This message is not only for you if you are not already a faithful member of a true branch of Christ. It is for all who are already members too. Of course, the membership size of a congregation is not the most important issue. What is important, rather, is the glory of Christ and the well-being of the church of Christ. And what matters is that the Protestant Church in our land is in disarray because of a failure to understand the meaning and importance of church membership.

The question we must ask ourselves is: “Do I have an individualistic attitude or a biblical spirit when it comes to my responsibilities pertaining to church membership?” Am I clear in my mind that as a believer, I must be attached to the Olive Tree to enjoy the goodness of God, and that as a branch or shoot of the tree, I have privileges as well as responsibility.

But now, we ask thirdly, What is the severity of God?

…to be Continued Next Issue

—JJ Lim