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(Romans 15:14) Three Radical Refusals

(Romans 15:14) Three Radical Refusals

Ref: Romans 15:14

The life of the apostle Paul was indeed an extraordinary one, but what was so extraordinary was not his natural gifts and abilities; it was his whole-hearted devotion to God. In Paul's letter to the Romans, we get a glimpse of his commitment to holy living and discover that holiness demands that we are willing to say "no" as often as we say "yes".

Additional messages from this series are available here: Holy Obsession


“Three Radical Refusals”

Romans 15:14

One hundred and 70 years ago there appeared briefly, in Scotland, a man considered today by Christian’s world-wide to be a shining light. His name was Robert Murray McCheyne.

He entered the pastorate in 1836, at the age of 23, but he would only serve for 6 years.  He died in a typhus epidemic when he was 29.  His passion for Christ had already made it’s mark.  His life-style and passion for holy living became almost legendary.  His sermons and writings were heard and read throughout Scotland and influenced untold thousands to give their lives in total surrender to Jesus Christ.

If you read much of Robert Murray McCheyne’s life, you come away with the thought that this man was obsessed with the things of God.

He was obsessed with the glory of God.

He was obsessed with the preaching of the gospel.

He was obsessed with the grace of Christ.

He wrote these words in an address, challenging believers to live a similar life – obsessed with godly priorities; “Remember, you are God’s sword, His instrument – a chosen vessel unto Him to bear His name.  In great measure, according to the purity of the instrument, will be the success.  It is not great talent that God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus Christ.  A holy [Christian] is an awesome weapon in the hand of God.” 

Adapted from, “The impact of Robert Murray McCheyne” by J. Harrison Hudson (originally published in the January 1987 issue of Life and Work, the magazine of the Church of Scotland.)  & Holman New Testament Commentary (Holman , 2000), p. 444

If any word best described the heart and life of the Apostle Paul, I think it could be the phrase, “holy obsession.”

Like Robert Murray McCheyne, Paul was obsessed with the glory of God and the gospel of God and the grace of God.

And he was always challenging the believer with potential and purpose as an instrument in the hand of God.

 In Romans chapter 15, the Apostle makes a shift in his writing to inform us that he is now in the process of wrapping up his letter; which doesn’t mean he’s finished.  He actually has a lot more to say . . . he’s like most preachers who say, “Now, finally” . . . and you know he’s no where near finality.

Don’t think for a moment that Paul is finished teaching in this letter –  in verse 14 of Romans chapter 15, Paul does, in fact, begin his closing comments . . . they are personal and passionate and provocative.

And concerning you, my brethren, I myself am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able also to admonish one another.

Paul is commending them; it’s a rare thing for Paul to write a letter without even one rebuke, and yet the letter to the Romans arrives without even one reprimand.

So much different than his letter to the Corinthians where he refers to them as immature babies, unable to receive even the most basic teaching of truth (I Corinthians 3:1).

Or like the writer of Hebrews who referred to his scattered audience as people who are poor listeners and slow learners (Hebrews 5:11-13).

Instead of any of that, Paul is able to entirely commend these believers who are living in Rome.

Paul writes . . . I am convinced you are people of:

  • Character (full of goodness)
  • Conviction (filled with all knowledge)
  • And Competency (able to admonish one another).

What I want to do today is turn these three phrases around to give you a different perspective on them.

What I want to present to you are three refusals in the life of every believer who desires to be an awesome weapon in the hand of God.

  • A person who is good is choosing not to be evil or bad;
  • A person of conviction is choosing not to float down the stream of relativism;
  • A person who is competent to admonish is choosing not to ignore other people.

For those who are truly obsessed with holy living, your life will say “no,” as much as it says “yes.”

A holy life is as much a life of refusing the wrong things as it is a life of accepting the right things.

And if there was ever a need for radical refusals, to take place, it was in the days of Paul and in our generation as well.

These Romans believers were living in what Seneca, the first century playwright, called “the cesspool of iniquity” . . . a reference to the capitol city of the Roman Empire where Paul was mailing this letter.

The immorality of Rome was almost beyond description.  Everything from bisexuality to bestiality were applauded. 

The highest political leader of Rome was a known pedophile; abortion was commonplace; unwanted children were left on doorsteps to be taken and eaten by wild animals or worse yet, if their can be a worse yet, human predators who would raise these children and then turn them out as child prostitutes. 

A man and a woman who married and remained faithful were mocked by the Roman philosophers as prudes and simpletons.  

The religions of Paul’s day worshipped a pantheon of gods as wicked and petty as human beings.  Their chief god was in reality the human body. 

Drug abuse was so widespread that when Paul preached in Ephesus the people gave up their mind altering drugs.

If there was ever a day when people needed to learn how to refuse corruption and immorality and superstition and drug abuse and sexual promiscuity and drunkenness and on and on and on – it was then and it is now.

The radical refusal of the believer in Rome needs to be the radical refusals of every Christian today in order to pursue holy living.

If a Christian is to have these holy obsessions – that is, to be passionate/gripped/preoccupied/fixated/fanatical – or any other synonym you can uncover – over holy things . . . there must be radical refusals in order to see it happen.

First, you must radically refuse mediocrity. 

If you want to put this in a positive light – a Christian should be characterized by acts of goodness.

Notice again that first phrase Paul uses to describe these believers – I myself am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness.

The original word translated “full of” is the same word used of a sponge when it is full of some liquid.  Whatever is in the sponge will come out when the sponge gets, what?  Squeezed. 

Paul said, in effect. “When life squeezes you, what ought to come out is goodness.”  Which means it is goodness that you have been building up on the inside.

It’s interesting to me that this word for goodness is also given to us as one of the fruits of the Spirit of God.

When the believer surrenders to the internal reforming work of the Holy Spirit, fruit emerges . . . The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and goodness, Galatians 5:22.

Since God is entirely and essentially and absolutely good, (Matthew 19:17), when we grow into the likeness of Christ, goodness squeezes out.

It is the work Christ in us, through the Spirit of God. Which means, goodness isn’t something you drum up . . . it isn’t the result of self-effort. It isn’t a new year’s resolution; nor is it a reward for attending church and never skipping Sunday school. 

It is the process of reformation – it is the making of a holy heart.  To borrow a popular expression; it is an extreme makeover where the Spirit of God bulldozes everything to the ground and starts from scratch as you surrender to Him.

People will say of that man or woman – under reconstruction by the Spirit of God – that is a good man; that is a good woman.

It is becoming, more and more, a rare commendation of someone, isn’t it?

Many years ago, Mark Twain said with a cynical grin on his face, “Always do the right thing; it will gratify some people and astonish everybody else.”

The Daily Herald in Chicago ran an article a couple of years ago about two Newlyweds who lost all their money.  This couple had left a black zippered case – the size of a personal calendar – on the roof of their car as they sped away from their reception to begin their honeymoon.  The case had all their wedding gift money and other cash gifts from their parents zipped up tight in this black case.  When they reached their destination it was gone.  The newspaper ran the story.  Two days later the same newspaper carried the headline, “Finders Keepers?  Not Everyone Believes It.”  David Yi, an unemployed suburban resident had found the black case with the $12,000 dollars inside.  In spite of the fact that he was unemployed and had mounting bills, he tracked down the couple and gave it back to them.  After this hit the newsstands, David was inundated with job offers – you can imagine – employee theft is in the billions every year. 

The truth is, goodness is so rare that we are surprised when it happens and aren’t quite sure how to respond.

A USA Today poll found 1 out of every 2 employees admitting to some form of unethical or illegal activity.  Whether it is cutting corners on quality control or covering up incidents or lying about sick days or deceiving customers and on and on.

I find it fascinating that Justin Martyr who lived in the second century in Galilee made an interesting observation about Jesus Christ’s work as a carpenter.  You remember that the Lord was a carpenter until the age of 30, when he entered the ministry.  Justin Martyr actually wrote about farmers still using plows and yokes for the oxen made by Jesus Christ – 75 years later.

Goodness isn’t necessarily discovered in church – it is demonstrated at work . . . in life.  It is the refusal of mediocrity.

Track the word goodness or good through your New Testament sometime and feel the urgency of God to see his children demonstrate excellence in character, in occupation, in relationships, in all of life.

Earlier in chapter 12 verse 9, Paul said we should abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.

Those are strong words – we are to despise sin and literally glue ourselves to good.

Twice in chapter 13 verse 3 Paul challenges the believer to do what is good as a citizen of earth and heaven.

Paul gave a pep-talk to the Galatians as he wrote in chapter 6 verse 9,  And let us not lose heart in doing good . . .”  Why do you think Paul had to write, “don’t lose heart in doing good?

Because you can easily lose heart . . . doing good doesn’t automatically result in thank you cards . . . notes of appreciation . . . a promotion or a bonus at work. 

Maybe you have felt the discouragement and perhaps resentment when it’s the lazy, conniving employee who gets employee of the month.  And you are the one who has been sweating it out, faithfully taking on not only your tasks, but even helping that other employee out.

I learned firsthand the perils of working a little too hard while I was in college.  Several of my friends and I worked on an assembly line, making microwaves.  All I had to do on this assembly line was attach two metal legs onto a small motor and then press a plastic fan onto the motor – it would be a small internal fan used to cool the microwave.  When I finished making it, I’d hand it over to the worker on the assembly line just a few feet away and then start on another one.  When I was assigned this post, the guy before me had only a couple of them assembled and ready for the assembly line.

I was afraid it might be a difficult spot.  However, after working for only 3 hours, I had boxes of them stacked around me, ready and waiting.  I pulled a box of them over to the line and all the guy had to do was reach in and he was ready to go.

I thought, this is too easy!  In fact, it was so easy that it became downright boring.  What I didn’t realize was that the guy before me wanted it to appear that it was difficult, so he wouldn’t have to do anything else.  He wanted to be bored . . . he lived to be bored.

So I naively jumped onto the line to help anywhere I could.  Only to discover after a few days that I was upsetting people I was trying to help.  I was disturbing the culture of mediocrity.  One guy muttered under his breath to me, “What was I doing trying to make everybody look bad?”   The guy whose place I’d taken earlier was literally seething over what I had inadvertently done.  A week later the foreman settled the matter by assigning me to making microwave doors – the most difficult spot on the line, where you could barely keep up.

Maybe this is the verse for you – don’t lose heart in doing good. 

How do you not lose heart when you’re penalized for doing good; when you lose clients because you can’t tell a lie; when you’re made fun of for your honesty; when you lose a relationship because you won’t loosen up?”

The rest of Paul’s statement to the Galatians prophecies, “Don’t lose heart in doing good . . . for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary.” (Galatians 6:9)

Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good…” (Ephesians 4:27)

In other words, do your best . . . don’t steal from your company.  For those of you in the business of selling, that means, in simple terms, stop scamming people!  Stop doing business like the world! I know as well as you do, people will believe anything; and if they believe the sales pitch, well, it’s their own fault for not being more discerning!

I was sent this email audio file . . . it’s made its way around the country, I’m sure.  It is an audio version of something sort of like catching somebody on Candid Camera . . . some unsuspecting person who is tricked and embarrassed.  This particular setting is a radio scam where a couple of DJ’s regularly see if they can fool some unsuspecting person into paying more than they should, for things that don’t even exist . . .  listen to this . . .

For the believer who is passionate about holy living, being full of goodness is no small commitment.  This is no trite resolution.  No scamming . . . no taking advantage of another person for real . . . no dishonesty . . . no shoddy work.

Here’s the standard – it is Jesus Christ who, Luke wrote, “went about everywhere doing good!” (Acts 10:38)

Now we know that when he made a plow or a yoke, He made it to last.

And He will personally one day, sit at the bema seat where he will say . . . and oh to one day hear this commendation from our Lord for those who mirrored and modeled His character, “Well done thou good and faithful servant.”  Matthew 25:23

Becoming a person obsessed with holy living means to radically and entirely and completely refuse mediocrity.

The second phrase Paul delivers indicates that the Christian must also refuse lethargy.

Notice verse 14 again, I am convinced that you are full of goodness, and filled with all knowledge.

If a refusal of mediocrity meant you were marked by character; this phrase means you are marked by conviction.

Now don’t misunderstand Paul here; when he says that the Roman believers are filled with all knowledge, he doesn’t mean that they have all knowledge or that they don’t have anything else they need to learn. What he means is that they have all the knowledge they need to proceed in their walk with Christ.

R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Augsburg, 1945), p. 877

In fact, Paul will say in the next verse that they only needed to be reminded of the truths of this letter; indicating they had already received apostolic instruction – more than likely through believers who had been taught by Paul who now lived in Rome. 

Paul is commending them for their openness and teachability and passion to learn the things of God.

They were likewise obsessed with the truth of God’s word.

Surrounded by paganism . . . relativism . . . idolatry . . . immorality . . . corruption on every hand.  They had one primary question, “What do the scriptures say?”

No wonder Paul would open his letter in the first chapter by writing this amazing compliment, “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world.” (Romans 1:8)

Oh to be like the Romans!  Is there ever a need for the clarity of the gospel . . . the conviction of the truth of God . . . never more needed than today.

From WORLD Magazine, an article covered a story that took place last year.  Two researchers from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill conducted research along with the national Study of Youth and Religion.  They surveyed 3,000 teenagers about their religious beliefs and wrote their findings in a new book.  They summarized the teens’ beliefs with these 5 statements:

  1. there is a god who exists who created and ordered the world but simply watches over human life on earth.
  2. this god wants people to be nice and fair to each other, as taught by the Bible and most of the world religions
  3. this god doesn’t need to be involved in anyone’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem
  4. the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself
  5. and finally, good people go to heaven when they die.

Gene Edward Veith, a believer and columnist, summarized the findings, by saying that “Even these secular researchers recognized that this creed is a far cry from true Christianity, with no place for sin, judgment, salvation, or even Jesus Christ.  They have a religion of works and a god who doesn’t really care.”

Edited from Gene Edward Veith, “A Nation of Deists” WORLD Magazine (6/25/05)

In a journal that arrived at my home just this week, another survey taken by the Harris organization found that 96% of adults who identified  themselves as Christians, believed that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.

Before you get too excited about that statistic, 50% of the same people believe in the existence of ghosts; 27% of the same people read the horoscope for daily direction and 21% believe they were someone or something else in a previous life before being reincarnated.

“Casper Friendly Theology,” Leadership Magazine, Spring 2006

No wonder Paul wrote to the believer, “Study to show yourselves approved unto God; workmen that need not fear being ashamed, correctly interpreting the word of truth.” (2 Tim. 2:15)

Put this book aside and throw away your rudder and oars and life-jacket and compass.

All scripture is inspired by God – that is, it is the breath of God, Paul wrote to Timothy, and it is profitable for doctrine – this is what you believe; for reproof – this tells you where you are wrong; for correction – this informs you when you are right; and for training – this helps you do what is right – that the man of God – the believer may be adequate and totally equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16, 17)

Equipped –that’s the Greek word used for a ship that was loaded down with supplies before setting sail; it was also used of  a wagon that was packed with all that was necessary before the journey began.

In other words, “pack this book in your wagon . . . put it on your ship . . . carry it in your backpack as you head out into life and you will have all that you need!”

Now I must quickly add that in Romans 15 and verse 14, Paul isn’t necessarily talking about intellectual knowledge . . . biblical facts.

In this text he uses the word for knowledge that means to apply what you know – or to know by means of application and experience.

Paul wrote, “That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings.” (Philippians 3:10)

Wasn’t Paul a believer?  Didn’t he know Christ as his own personal Savior?

Yes!  But he used this same word – ginoskw – which implies not merely intellectual activity but obedient application.

Paul was saying, “I want to know the life of Christ, not just through propositional truth, but through personal testing.”   

This is the believer who looks into the word and is not merely a hearer of the word who deludes himself, but a doer of the word (James 1:22) James goes on to say, “And this one who is not a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in whatever he does. (v. 25)

I often think of the parable of the CEO who had to leave town on urgent business.  He didn’t have any time to meet with his key leadership or any of the employees in his company.  So on his flight out of the country he wrote a lengthy letter informing them that he’d be gone for some time, and while he was gone, they were to accomplish a number of things.  He was gone for 6 months. 

Without any notice he pulled into the company parking lot and immediately noticed the weeds growing next to the building.  He had left instructions on the landscaping he wanted done while he was away.  As he entered the reception area he immediately noticed the dust that had collected on the furniture; the receptionist immediately put away her nail file and sat up and said, “Good morning, sir.”  He walked past her and into the warehouse where some of his staff had put up a ping-pong table. 

The equipment was silent; his staff involved in what seems to be a party . . . they all stopped when they saw him and came over to him.  He stammered out, “There were things I wanted accomplished – but the equipment is silent, weeds are growing outside, staff are playing instead of working the phones . . . didn’t you get my letter?”  Oh, that!  You bet, we got it . . . made photocopies for every employee . . . we all took an entire day off just to read it.  Man what a letter – it was great.  In fact, we’ve created smaller groups of employees who meet weekly to discuss the letter . . . some of our employees have even memorized parts of the letter – it is so good.

Then everyone fell quiet under the gaze of the CEO who asked,  “Did you do what I told you to do in the letter?” “Oh no sir, you see sir . . . we’re still studying the letter.”

Paul is commending the Roman believers for refusing that kind of dichotomy . . . that kind of contradiction.

He commends them for refusing lethargy . . . refusing the urge:

  • to examine the truth but never execute the truth
  • to analyze the Bible but not apply the Bible
  • to read the word without every reproducing the word in life.

Yes, go deep in your study of the word . . . just make sure you surface.  What good is it unless people see your depth in the word become a demonstration of the truth of God’s word.

Refuse mediocrity . . . refuse lethargy; one more . . .

Thirdly, the Christian who is obsessed with the pursuit of holy living will refuse apathy.

Notice verse 14 once more, “I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and thirdly, able also to admonish one another.

This word “admonish” is from nouthetew which gives us our word nouthetic.  Jay Adams popularized the concept of “nouthetic counseling” in his book entitled Competent to Counsel – taken directly from this phrase – able to counsel.

The word is a compound Greek word made up of nous – for mind or intellect; and tithemi – to put or place.  Put them together and you have the idea of conveying something into someone’s mind or understanding which will correct them.

We have the common expression, “Let me lay something on your mind.”

The words “teaching and admonishing” appear together in Paul’s writings.  In Colossians 3:16 he tells us that the believers are to teach and admonish one another.

The word “teach” seems to be used most often as a positive declaration; while “admonish” seems to be more corrective.

Admonish one another, Paul wrote to the Romans.  Literally, correct one another; it has the idea of stirring one another up.

Why?  Because we have the tendency to settle down into a rut; we are creatures of habit – we go home the same way; we eat the same things; we have our routine.  We even sit in the same seats in class or even in church.

Adapted from John Phillips, Exploring Romans (Moody Press, 1969), p. 253


I can remember in elementary school thinking that my name was “Settle down.”  Every time Mrs. Jolly or Mrs. Stickle saw me they’d invariably have to say, “Hey you . . . settle down . . . you, settle down.”  I figured that was my middle name – Stephen Settle-Down Davey!

Trouble is, you get old enough and you start listening to that advice.  You not only settle down, you wear down.”

Yet the Christian life is called a race . . . a war . . . a match . . . it calls for discipline and drive and determination.

So we need one another to provoke each other . . . we need prodding . . . stirring up . . . admonishing, because we tend to float in the current . . . worse yet, we tend to slide away. 

D. A. Carson wrote, “We do not drift toward holiness. We do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith and delight in the Lord.  We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith.  We cherish the lack of discipline and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and think we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.”

D. A. Carson, quoted in “Reflections,” Christianity Today (7/31/00)

No wonder we need to admonish one another – to provoke each other and challenge one another to live for Christ.

I received a letter this week from a young lady who listens to Wisdom for the Heart in another part of the state.  She thanked us for the book she had received – she finished it in just a few days.  Every time the program comes on the air she gets out her Bible and her notebook and takes as many notes as she can.  She asked several questions in her letter which was addressed to me.  She asked questions about how to discover the will of God for her life.  You can easily tell by her letter that she is passionate about living for Christ.  She writes, “I’ll do anything God tells me to do. I often tell the Lord; “Lord, show me what to do.  I am totally open to you.”

What challenged me most about this letter is that it was written by a young lady who happens to be in middle school . . . not even a teenager yet. 

She signed the letter, “Your friend in the Lord.”


Paul would say of her . . . as he said of the Romans and I trust of you and me –

We are people who make 3 radical refusals in our quest for holy living for the glory of God:

  • We will refuse mediocrity . . . we will not settle for second class workmanship.
  • We will refuse lethargy . . . we will not stop with learning the word without living the word.
  • We will refuse apathy . . . we will care enough to cheer one another on in this race we call the Christian life.

Whether it’s through a phone conversation; a Bible lesson; an arm around the shoulder or maybe a card or letter like this one, that ends with the words, “Your friend in the Lord.”

It’s true what Robert Murray McCheyne once wrote . . . it isn’t great talent that God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus Christ.  A holy [Christian] is an awesome weapon (an awesome tool; an awesome encouragment) in the hand of God.

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