Listeners to this podcast will know that John Piper preached through the entire book of Romans in 225 sermons. The series took him eight years and eight months to complete, spanning from the spring of 1998 to the end of 2006. All 225 of those rich messages are collected together and can be found online under the series title “The Greatest Letter Ever Written.” The series is also the most epic John Piper sermon series ever recorded. And I know many of you have listened to it all. And as you do, you’ll come across a bunch of little nuggets along the way, like this clip I want to play for you today, sent in by a listener to the podcast. In the following sermon, Pastor John gets into the topic of how we ensure that our daily Bible-reading discipline is authentic and not rote. The topic arose in the series in a sermon titled “Let Love Be Genuine,” on Romans 12:9, preached on November 21, 2004. Here’s Pastor John.
Let’s begin with some thoughts here now from Romans about how to read a text like this in a way that changes us deeply. There are thirteen exhortations in just verses 9–13.
Trouble in Quiet Time
Suppose you get up in the morning, and you set yourself like a good Christian to read your Bible before you head off to work. That’s a good idea. You should do that. So, you set yourself to read a few chapters. Let’s say Romans 12 is included. It may take you three minutes to read through Romans 12, which means that you give maybe fifteen seconds to these thirteen commandments or exhortations:
- Let love be genuine.
- Abhor what is evil.
- Hold fast to what is good.
- Love one another with brotherly affection.
- Outdo one another in showing honor.
- Do not be slothful in zeal.
- Be fervent in spirit.
- Serve the Lord.
- Rejoice in hope.
- Be patient in tribulation.
- Be constant in prayer.
- Contribute to the needs of the saints.
- Seek to show hospitality.
That’s thirteen exhortations in five verses. You’ve read them in fifteen seconds. You close your Bible, pray, and go off to work. How many of them can you even remember? I mean, are you now fired up and totally engaged and renewed in all thirteen new areas of your life? Is that the effect of reading the Bible in the morning? It doesn’t work like that, does it?
So, what are we supposed to do? Because Paul didn’t write that just to tickle our ears. He didn’t just write those things for nothing to happen. He really means for all thirteen of those exhortations to become reality; and as we read them, to become more and more reality; and as we preach on them, to become more and more reality. They aren’t just there. So, we need help for what to do with the Bible, so that the Bible becomes powerful, changes us. This isn’t written for nothing.
Word and Spirit in Action
To get help, turn with me to Romans 15. I asked the apostle Paul, “Paul, have you got any help for us here on how to read chapter 12?” And Paul said, “Yes, it’s here in 15:15–16.”
On some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder . . .
Stop there. Just realize that the Bible, for veteran Christians, is mainly repeat. I will never read a new thing in the Bible. I’ve read the Bible dozens and dozens of times — every word of it, over and over again. I’ll never see a new word in the Bible. I pray that I will see new reality, new truth, new power, new implications. But the words — I’ve seen them all, over and over again.
Reminder — don’t ever begrudge a small group, a family devotion, a Bible reading, a sermon that is sheer reminder of what you already know, because God has things in those old familiar truths that you never saw yet and things to change in you that haven’t been changed yet. So, just be aware: the Bible is mainly reminder for all Christians, and that’s crucial for living the Christian life. Paul says,
I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God . . .
So, know that the Bible is a gracious gift. Paul was graced to write it for us. Don’t neglect it. Verse 16:
. . . to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
“The Gentiles” are most of us, and we’re now treated like a worship offering. That should remind you of Romans 12:1: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, . . . which is your spiritual [service of] worship.” We are being offered up by the apostle Paul as worship to God, as we’re transformed into the image of God’s Son.
Paul has written Romans so that you and I would become more acceptable. Does that word acceptable ring any bells from 12:2? “Be transformed . . . that you may discern . . . what is . . . acceptable.” Embrace the will of God as acceptable. And when you do that, this is happening: the offering of the Gentiles, spiritual worship. This is happening by the writing of Romans, so when you read it, this should be happening.
“Reading the Bible has zero effect on our lives apart from the Holy Spirit.”
Then comes the all-decisive phrase: “sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” You know and I know that reading the Bible has zero effect on our lives apart from the Holy Spirit. If, in fact, we try to do the Bible without the Holy Spirit, we become colossal legalists, touting our own moral resolve: “I can do this. Watch me.” Instead, what we need is the Holy Spirit.
Three Principles for Daily Bible Intake
So now I have drawn out of these verses three things that help me read Romans 12 life-changingly. I want to be changed by these messages. I want to be changed by verse 9: “Let love be without hypocrisy” (NASB). I want to be less hypocritical after I read that phrase. How can I do that? What will make the difference for a word, a little phrase, to suddenly have life-changing power to make me less hypocritical, more free and authentic and genuine and real in my love? And here are my three guidelines for how to read that.
1. Pray as you read.
Pray as you read, because if the Holy Spirit is the one who takes the Bible and applies it to us so that it really produces an alteration in our whole demeanor and our way of seeing God and our way of treating each other, then we should ask him. So, when you read, you pause and you say, “O Holy Spirit, come make this real in my life. Do whatever you have to do to make me humble, to make me authentic, to make me loving.” That’s the way you pray. It’s real risky.
Last night, just before we walked into the service, several of us just gathered around in the choir room downstairs downtown, where I preached this last night, and there were “mmhmms” and “amens” all around as I said, “Lord, whatever it takes — death, loss of job, cancer, whatever it takes — take away my hypocrisy. Whatever it takes in this church, whatever it takes, do it, because we want to be real. We want to be Christian. We want these words in Romans 12 to become reality. We don’t just want to speak words and have love be in word only and not in deed and not in heart.” So, pray. That’s number one: pray as you read the Bible. “Do this in my life.”
2. Look to Jesus.
Look away to Jesus as you read the Bible. As you read Romans 12:9 and you hear, “Let love be without dissimulation” (KJV) or “Let love be without hypocrisy” (NASB) — that’s a good literal translation. “Let love be genuine” — when you read that, say to yourself, “There’s no way I’m going to pull that off. I’m a born hypocrite. I love the praise of other people. I know I’m not perfect. I’m always putting up fronts. I want to be a loving person, authentic. I don’t want to play at love. Therefore, I look away from myself. I look away to Jesus. He was born and died to forgive all my hypocrisy. He modeled for me the perfectly transparent life. He has now taught me and given me a goal to aim at. And he is my satisfaction, my forgiver, my model, my treasure.”
When you look away to Jesus, the satisfaction that comes from him is the ground and root by which you become free from hypocrisy. So, that’s number two: look away in faith to Jesus, not to yourself.
3. Meditate on small portions.
Slow down and meditate on these words. I know this is tough because, on the one hand, you hear a message coming from this pulpit, “Read the Bible; read the whole Bible. Get your Discipleship Journal reading plan and read the Bible all the way through in one year.” Well, you’re on a lickety-split pace to get through the Bible, and here I am telling you now to slow down and meditate on the first half of verse 9 of chapter 12.
Now, what in the world are you supposed to do — read through the Bible or meditate on verse 9? What do you want me to do? And the answer is both. And I don’t know how. I just know I’ve got to read the Bible fast and I’ve got to read the Bible slow, because if you don’t read the Bible fast to get through it in a year or two, you can’t get the big picture; you can’t get the whole terrain.
Here’s the analogy. This analogy has been with me ever since the first jumbo jet was made. You can remember that. Most of that is in your lifetime, right? The first jumbo jet with a big hump on the front. How can they do that? A two-decker plane is unbelievable. I remember that. So, I picture this thing: it flies at about 560 miles an hour, and it flies really high, at about 37,000 to 38,000 feet. And I picture it flying over Florida and all these orange groves, and you look down and you could just almost see the whole of Florida. And there’s an orange grove. And you say, “Wow, that’s an amazing orange grove. Very nourishing. Really tastes good. Really gives me energy.” Wrong — it doesn’t. You’re just flying tens of thousands of feet overhead.
“You’ve got to slow down. You’ve got to meditate. You’ve got to ask, ‘What does it mean? How does it relate to my life?’”
And that’s the way we read the Bible: just flying way overhead. It’s good to see Florida. It really is. It’s valuable to see Florida in the Bible. But you have to land that thing in Orlando sometime. Don’t go to Disney World. Go to the orange grove, and just start walking through the orange grove. Here’s verse 9, the first half of the verse, and you pause under the tree and you pick that one and you look at it. That’s a beautiful thing: “Let love be genuine.” I wonder what that means. Would I love to be like that. I want to be like that. Holy Spirit, please kill the disease of hypocrisy in my life.
You’ve got to slow down. You’ve got to meditate. You’ve got to ask, “What does it mean? How does it relate to my life? How does it relate to the other parts of Scripture?” — and all the while praying, “Oh, make a difference, make a difference in my life.”
So, those are my three guidelines, which I think are implied in Romans 15:15–16 — word in verse 15 (“I have written”), and Spirit in verse 16 (“sanctified by the Holy Spirit”). We read the Bible. We pray for the Spirit. We savor it. We linger over it. We look away to Jesus.
The reason looking away to Jesus is so crucial is because the Holy Spirit, according to John 16:14, is given to glorify Christ. So, if you read the Bible with a view to doing it in your own strength, the Holy Spirit will keep his distance from you. If you read the Bible looking away to Jesus and saying, “Jesus, I want you to be magnified; I want you to be displayed in the kind of loving person I become,” the Holy Spirit kicks in with power, because he’s there to magnify Jesus.