Dr. David Briones is professor of New Testament at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.
Well, it is indeed a pleasure to be with you all this morning. As Paul was eager to preach the gospel to those who are in Rome, I am very much eager to preach the gospel to those who are at RBC. We will be in Romans 11:33-36. Let me go ahead a read, Romans 11 beginning at verse 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.
Father, we thank You for the truth of Your word as You have revealed Yourself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the immortal God who is transcendent before whom seraphim and cherubim fall down and worship. You are indeed holy, holy, holy. Father, I pray for us, who are constantly engaged with Your Word and with thoughts about You in Your Word, by Your Spirit. That it would result in more than just doxology, that it would result in humble adoration. I pray that You would help us understand Your Word by the power of Your Spirit and that we would be a humble people, confirmed to our humble Lord. Lord, we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
You’re here at RBC because you love theology. You came to RBC, more than likely, not just to find a spouse, although that happens quite a bit here, but to know the text of Scripture. That’s not the only reason why you came. Most of us who come want to not only know the text of Scripture, but to know and love the God within Scripture who has revealed Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By just being here, your very presence coming under the curriculum, under the tutelage of all these professors who long to fill you with a knowledge of God. By just being here you have been entrusted with the great privilege of handling sacred Scripture. And that’s precisely why you and I need to be careful.
Why is studying theology so dangerous? It is dangerous. Why is it dangerous? Studying theology is dangerous because it is your greatest privilege. As Warfield says, “Think of what your privilege is when your greatest danger is that the great things of religion may become common to you.” The reality of studying theology is that if it is met with a cold, impassive heart when your studying sacred Scripture, and handling His scared Word, the scared will inevitably become common. The divine will inevitably become mundane.
I had a friend in seminary, we started at the same time and ended the same time, and we took every single class together the first semester, and I sat right next to him. After that semester, I had to stop sitting next to him because every single time we went to class, and the teacher was communicating the words of life, he’d fall asleep. And time and time again, I would say, “How on earth can you fall asleep? There are people who would die to be in the seat that you are occupying.” The scared can become so common that it becomes boring. To avoid that danger, Warfield encourages us to ask this question, “Are you, by this constant contact with divine things, growing in holiness, becoming every day more and more men and women of God?” Because if not, he concludes, “You are hardening.”
Now we can give you a pass as professors if you’ve pulled an all-nighter and you fall asleep during one of our classes; that’s one thing. But if it’s become so mundane to you that it’s actually affecting your spirituality, where you don’t care to pursue holiness anymore then there is something deeply wrong, at the deepest level of who we are. You see, there is no neutrality in studying theology. You are either softening, or as Warfield says, “hardening.” You are either being built up in faith or shrinking in unbelief. You are either having humility being promoted in your life, and becoming more and more humble, or, by engaging theology, you are feeding your own pride.
In my own experience, both within my own heart and within the academic context that I’ve been a part of, I have discovered that pride is the most prevalent sin in our Bible colleges and seminaries. The very places where people are being equipped to be shepherds of the folk of God and to lead them with all humility is the very place where people come to feed their pride. We need to be careful.
Our theology will either promote a life of humility or a life of pride. And it will be devastating, believe me, for the churches where we minister; where we are a part of the flock, where we serve, where we teach children, and women, and men, they will suffer the consequences. Your studies will either turn you into a John the Baptist who points to the Lord Jesus, and says, “He must increase, and I must decrease,” or your studies will turn you into a Herod who did not acknowledge God, did not give glory to God, and so suffered the grave consequences. Theology has the potential if met with a cold, unbelieving, unaffected heart to turn you into a prideful Pharisee who is so thankful he’s not like the guys he’s next to who are struggling with sin, so thankful for that. But if theology is met with a warm, a believing heart, an affected heart that comes under the gospel frequently, that has the potential to turn you into the humble tax collector who beats on his chest, can’t even lift his eyes up to heaven, and says, “Be merciful to me, a sinner!”
We need to remember that our greatest privilege is also our greatest danger. And that’s precisely why I’ve entitled this sermon, “From Theology to Doxology to Humility”; this is the argument that Paul unfolds before the Romans in the first century and unfolds to us today. As he carves this argumentative path through chapters 1-11 of theology, Romans 11:36 to doxology, and the life that should perceive from that a life of humility, which I wish I had more time cause I’d into Romans 12 to 15. Because there you can just see it clearly, this is the argumentative path but it’s also the path of the Christian life. Especially for those who are studying theology, especially for those who, as Warfield says, “Are daily and hourly into the very presence of God. His ways, his dealings with men, and the infinite majesty of his being.” Especially for those who experience that.
So, what I’d like to do is begin with Romans 11:36, as that great transitional point in the letter from indicative to imperative. And from that particular vantage point, consider the rich theology that proceeds and the humility that should follow. So, let’s begin with Romans 11:36, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever.” Theology, belief about God, and doxology, worship of God, are inextricably connected. You cannot have one without the other. If you have doxology but no theology, you worship an unknown God and commit idolatry. If you have theology but no doxology, you do not understand theology but stand over God as some specimen to be examined in a purely academic way, with a purely secular spirit. Against these alternatives, Paul models for us a life that holds them together.
After 11 chapters of theology, Paul responds doxologically, “From him, through him, and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.” His theology leads to adoration of the Triune God who is the source, the means, and the ends of all things. The phrase “all things” here does not primarily mean God’s common grace in creation. Oh no, it’s better than that. It primarily refers to God’s special grace in Christ. This is the same thing he does in Romans 12:1, “in view of God’s mercies,” which points all the way back to chapters 1-11, that rich theology within. It refers to all of the salvific benefits that are found solely in the person of Jesus Christ. And it’s nicely summarized in Romans 8:32, which says, “He who did not spare his Son, his own Son, but gave him up for us all. How will he not also, with him, graciously give us all things?” With the gift of the person of Jesus Christ comes all of God’s gracious gifts of salvation. All the benefits of redemption are found in Him.
Calvin is certainly right in the beginning of book three of the Institutes when he says that, “You cannot have any of the benefits of Christ apart from receiving his person because they are inseparable.” They are absolutely inseparable. “The treasury of the blessings of Christ…”, Bavinck says, “Has been deposited nowhere but in Christ.” That makes Christ the gift of all gifts, which you’ve heard me quote this before if you’ve had any classes with me, a Puritan prayer says, “O source of all good, what shall I render to you for the gift of gifts, your own dear Son? He became God incarnate to save me to the uttermost as man to die my death, to shed and satisfy blood on my behalf, to work out a perfect righteousness for me.” And then he ends with one of the most beautiful conclusions, “In him, you have given me so much that heaven can give no more.”
In Him are all things, all of God’s gifts. Think of chapters 1-11, think of the gift of justification as the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us; we’re forgiven of all of our sins past, present, and future by faith alone. Think of the gift of redemption in Romans 3:21-26, as Christ is our propitiatory sacrifice. God incarnate dying on the cross as a propitiatory sacrifice. Think of the gift of adoption as we are, by the power of the Spirit, made fellow heirs with Christ. Think of the gift of sanctification as we die definitively with Christ and we are raised with Him, progressively dying unto sin and living unto righteousness. Think of the gift of reconciliation as we were once enemies and sinners, fully deserving of God’s wrath, but now have been reconciled to Him. Think of the gift of glorification that is rendered certain. Why, cause you’re great? No, because God is great and because God is the One who justifies.
Every one of those good and perfect gifts from heaven are found exclusively in union with Jesus Christ, and they are only found in the person of Christ. But many will hear or study those great truths and not doxologically declare, “Amazing love how can it be that thou my God shouldst die for me?” Instead, that theology will sadly not promote their humility but will feed their pride as they consider themselves entirely deserving of this undeserved gift. And that’s precisely the response that Paul warns Gentiles against in Romans 11:17- 20, if you look up there. There Paul portrays a Gentile believer who has come to share in the privilege and grace of the root, the ancient covenantal people of God, and became sharers in all the covenantal blessings promised and fulfilled in Christ alone. But this Gentile believer that he portrays there, his response proved that he was self-deluded or deluded by his self-importance. Look at verse 19, “branches,” the non-elect of national Israel, “branches,” plural, “Were broken off so that I,” singular, “[may] be grafted in.” “True,” Paul says, “They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith,” or you might be broken off too.
The mention of faith should have been humbling enough because faith excludes works. Faith doesn’t allow anyone to boast in anything because faith is a gift, Philippians 1:29, Ephesians 2:8. That should have been humbling enough, but Paul more directly corrects his pride in Romans 11:20. He corrects his prideful posture explicitly by saying, “Do not become proud but fear.” Fear. The sacred had become common, the divine had become mundane, and this believer’s greatest privilege has become his greatest danger. His theology didn’t lead to a proper regard of God and it certainly didn’t lead to a proper regard of self. It led to becoming proud, literally, to think more highly of himself rather than to fear and revere the God who has, in verse 22, shown him kindness, as well as the plan God has for those that this Gentile believer was looking down upon, verses 23-32.
So, how does Paul respond to this self-promoting, God-demeaning posture? How does he respond to this lofty pride that, if you and I were to be honest, is found even within our own hearts? Well, this brings us from the indicative of theology back the doxology as we move into the imperative of humility. And in particular, I want us to go back to Romans 11:33-36 and see how this text, this rich text, produces humility toward God and within oneself. So, look down at this beautiful text with me that undercuts our pride, Romans 11:33.
After digging deep from the wells of Romans 9-11, he rises to the heights of doxological praise in verse 33, and he says, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” With those words, “unsearchable,” “inscrutable,” Paul drives a theological wedge between the Creator above and the creature below, putting us in our place, and he double downs of this Creator-creature distinction by asking three questions that are really meant to humble us in verses 34-35.
The first, “For who has known the mind of the Lord?” Answer, no one, because God’s mind is unsearchable, inscrutable, inaccessible apart from special revelation and the enablement of the Spirit. Just look over at 1 Corinthians 2:16 where we have the mind of Christ. The second question in verse 34, “Or who has been his counselor?” Answer, no one. We are not God’s peer to provide counsel or advice to inform His decisions. But it’s the third question that puts the nail in the coffin. Paul asks, “Or who has given a gift to him,” that is God, “that he,” the human, “might be repaid?”
The Greek word that the ESV translation translates, “given a gift,” is a compound verb. Unfortunately, the ESV and so many other translations miss this and simply translate it, “given a gift.” A better translation is, “Who has given a first gift,” an initial gift to God that the human might be repaid. Now, why would that be important? Well, there is a huge difference between an initial gift and a return gift. When you receive an initial gift from a friend, a college, or a relative, how do you feel? What do you sense? More than likely, you’ll sense a feeling of indebtedness. A feeling of obligation, not only to say, “Thank you so much for this gift,” but also to show your gratitude by giving a counter-gift, a return gift. So, when Paul asked this question, we need to understand that he’s thinking through an ancient framework. And in the ancient world, much like today still, gifts carried the power of obligating people. So, when he asks this question in verse 35, he is essentially asking whether or not we have given an initial gift to God that He might be in our debt. And the correct answer is, of course not. Given all that he has said, he has driven the theological wedge between God above, the immortal, transcendent, omniscient, omnipresent, all-powerful God, and a creature who is feeble, fragile, dependent, and in need of God for all that he possesses. Of course not! We do not give Him an initial gift. He is not a fellow creature that we place in our debt. But the opposite is true. God places us under obligation to Him by His initial gift of grace. Oh, to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be. Let thy grace, now like a feather, bind my heart to thee. Grace obligates, we don’t obligate the God of grace.
With the mention of obligation, we move from the indicative of theology to the imperative of not only doxology but humility. It’s often overlooked, isn’t it? This movement that, I think, if we have this doxological praise for God that we’ve done our duty. There is more to our duty that God empowers by the power of His Spirit, and it’s to be a humble people, humble before God, humble within ourselves, and that’s what I’d like to look at now. Two ways, and there are more than two ways, but two ways that we can have a proper regard of God in humility and a proper regard of self as we are conformed to our humble Lord.
And the first is this, we ought to have a proper regard of God as the ultimate source of not some things, not most things, but all things. Augustine’s favorite metaphor for pride was the prodigal son who thought that he didn’t need the father, who thought that he can be truly human apart from the father. Sure, he used the things that the father gave him, but he lived a life he wanted to live, he did not acknowledge the father. That is not the path to live in a life where you feel truly human. The proper path is to be found in Christ and to recognize all things in Christ have been given to you as a gift, and that God is the ultimate source of all of it. Everything that we have comes as a gift from His hand. And this is why I love 1 Corinthians 4:7, so did Augustine, one of his favorite texts, “What do you have that you did not receive?” The answer, nothing whatsoever. Everything that we have comes from Him, and through Him, and to Him, the God of all things. Every breath we draw, every sight we see, every conversation we have, every experience of love that we receive, our GPA, our intellect, our degrees, whether things in life or things pertinent to RBC life, all things are a gift from His hand. But most importantly, and what should put everything into perspective, is the gift of salvation. For me, there is nothing more humbling or more liberating than to put everything in perspective in light of the gospel, especially as we are given a divine gift, the gift of Christ, so undeservedly.
Secondly, we ought not to just have a proper regard of God, which we will return to, but a proper regard of self. As we consider ourselves unworthy recipients of this God of all grace, when you receive the Gift of gifts, you were an unworthy recipient, do you remember? Do you know that? Sometimes it’s so easy to forget that. Perhaps you became a Christian later on in life and you stopped wearing skateboarding clothes and you began to wear a suit and a tie, and it made you feel more worthy or more intellectual. Perhaps you got that degree, or you made it through the hardest degree at RBC, and you feel more worthy. Remember you were an unworthy recipient of the gospel. There was nothing that led God to give you this incalculable gift of His Son, Jesus Christ, God incarnate, crucified, and risen, and victorious Lord. Nothing within us that led Him to do that. We were the ungodly of Romans 1:18 to 3:20, “But God justifies the ungodly,” Romans 4:5. We were the enemies and sinners of Romans 5, but God demonstrates His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, Christ died for the ungodly, Christ died for the unworthy.
Now contrast that form of gift-giving with the ancient forms of gift-giving by philosophers and other thinkers like Seneca, Aristotle, Philo, and almost every other ancient thinker in the ancient world. How did they think of this gift given to the unworthy? They thought a lot about gifts. They asked questions like “How should you give a gift?”, “When should you give a gift?”, “Why should you give a gift?” But the number one question that they all asked was “To whom should you give a gift?” And you know what they all said in their distinct ways? If a person wants to give righteously or virtuously, they need to give gifts to those who deserve it, they need to give gifts to those who exhibit a life of virtue, they need to give gifts to the worthy. But our God is not a respecter of culture, and He is certainly not conformed to the pattern of this world.
The foolishness of the cross in the gospel confounds the wisdom of this world. But the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man. One will scarcely die for a righteous person, perhaps for a good person, but God in His love for sinners, in Christ, died for the ungodly, for the unworthy, for you and me, if you’re trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ. What a humbling thought. Contrary to ancient thinkers, God did not access your net-worth before He gave you a gift. You didn’t have to have the 95.9 billion-dollar net-worth of a Bill Gates to receive the invaluable gift of His own dear Son. It’s a gift that Bill Gates cannot afford because it’s undeserved. You can’t earn it because only Christ could.
He alone perfectly fulfilled the Law of God in life, and impeccably satisfied the wrath of God in death and arose victoriously from the grave justified. Christ merited our salvation through His perfect righteousness, a righteousness imputed to us, and received with an empty hand of faith. Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling. Naked come to thee for dress, helpless look to thee for grace. We are indeed naked, unrighteous, and unworthy apart from Christ, apart from clinging to the cross. But at the cross, we see the One who knew no sin but became sin on behalf of us so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. The One who suffered once for sins, the unrighteous, the righteous for the unrighteous, you and me, that He might bring us to God. Where once in Adam there was only sin, condemnation, and death, now in Christ there is grace, justification, and life, both now and forever. Where once there was no worth, now there is worth in Christ. Not because of what we do, not because of who we are, not because of anything in us, but only because we are now in Him. In Christ, the Gift of gifts, God has given us so much that He couldn’t possibly give us any more.
You can’t have theology without doxology, and you can’t have doxology without theology. But you can’t rightly have either of them without being humbled by the love that God has for sinners, for you and for me. And thereby, striving to live a life of humility before God within yourself and toward others. The next time you come under the infinite majesty of God in His Word ask yourselves this question, “Are my studies promoting humility or are they feeding my pride?” And then recognize the problem doesn’t lie with theology, the problem lies with us. For your greatest privilege is also your greatest danger but we have a God who enables us, by the power of His Spirit, to study theology as it was always meant to be studied, in humble adoration of our Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Let’s pray.
Transcripts are lightly edited.