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Sunday, August 5, 2012

Moral Excellence (Hebrews 12.4-13)

Sermon by:Robert Austell
August 5, 2012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "We Gather Together" (Held)
Hymn of Praise: "We Gather Together" (KREMSER)
The Word in Music: "Guide My Wayfaring Feet" (Schram)
Song of Sending: "Light the Fire Again (Doerksen)
Postlude: "Exultation" (Cassler)

"Moral Excellence: a fruit of the Spirit"
(Left-click to play; or right-click to save)
Text: Hebrews 12:4-13; 2 Peter 1:5-8

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today we continue our series on the fruit of the Spirit, those characteristics God grows in all who trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior for the purpose of bearing witness in the world.  So far this summer we have been working through the list of spiritual fruit in Galatians 5:22-23, but we have finished going through that list and move on to a second list in 2 Peter 1:5-7.  You heard that read earlier in the call to worship, but let me read it once more:
Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love.
The reason I view these traits as spiritual fruit is that they all relate and are summed up in verse 8 in a rather understated claim that “if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Hoping that none of us want to be useless or unfruitful, I’ll flip that around to say that these traits show us to be useful and fruitful as followers of Christ.  Just to make the distinction between faith and works, these traits don’t make us Christians, but are indicators that Christ is at work in us.

So today we will look at the first trait in the list, translated here as “moral excellence.”  As we have done each week, I have looked for a passage of scripture that unpacks and expands on each fruit to help us better understand it.  Today I have chosen Hebrews 12:4-13, which expands on a synonym for “moral excellence” and that is “righteousness.”  The two words are very similar in Greek.  “Righteousness” can refer to one’s spiritual standing before God, but in this Hebrews passage is closer to “doing the right thing” which lines up very closely with “moral excellence.”  So, let’s dig into Hebrews 12 and see if we can better understand this important spiritual fruit. 

Discipline vs. Punishment

Probably the most noticeable thing about the Hebrews 12 passage is the description of God’s discipline.  Now right away I think there are two mistakes we can make with this passage.  The first is to limit God to our own imperfect examples of human discipline.  The second is to read this as an instruction manual on how to discipline our children.

A comparison with the parental discipline of the day is used to help illustrate the purpose of God’s discipline.  As such, the passage risks the confusion that always comes from trying to describe God using human examples.  So, if we have had a bad experience of fatherly discipline, it puts us in a bad place for trying to understand this passage.  “You mean to tell me that God is like my father and the way he clobbered me as a kid?”  No; not at all.  In fact, that limitation is named in the text in verse 10.  Earthly fathers, we read, “…disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but God disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness.”  That recognizes the limitations of even the BEST earthly fathers, and even then notes that God’s motives and actions are infinitely higher and better, leading even to holiness.  Nonetheless, depending on your own experience, it may be very hard to see around a broken and sinful human experience.  If it’s particularly painful, I’d invite you to come talk to me.

It is also tempting to read this passage as a description of how parents should discipline children.  There may be some implications there and I will try to draw appropriate boundaries, but that is not the main point of this passage.  The main point is to help us understand how and why God grows the fruit of good and godly behavior or “moral excellence” in our lives.

So, with those disclaimers, let me begin with this distinction: discipline is not the same thing as punishment.  I think most of us hear “discipline” and we think of punishment – spankings or worse, resulting in shame and “you better not do that again.”  That is not the understanding of discipline here.  Rather, discipline means “to teach.”  Think of our other use of the word discipline, as a noun, and you get close to the meaning here.  A discipline is something which we have practiced and rehearsed with patience, repetition, and commitment, like the piano, or soccer skills, or a trait like patience.  It is cultivated and only comes with work.  That is the kind of thing in view here, not punishment for misbehavior. 

God does “reprove” in verse 5, which is correction for wrong-doing, but even that is done with instruction, good, and holiness in mind.  What you don’t see is where human beings so often go wrong.  God never reproves or disciplines out of impatience, anger, pride, or any other sinful human trait.  Rather, God’s discipline is trustworthy precisely because God is good, holy, gracious, and wise.  That can indeed be very hard to grasp, particularly where we have been subject to the imperfections or even sin of human motives.  What has helped me is to have my own children and be able to closely examine my own motives and behaviors… and then out of my imperfection to begin to imagine what God’s perfect motives might look like.

So, it’s a difficult parallel to draw; and yet, this scripture declares God as trustworthy and invites us not only to accept, but seek out this discipline.  Let me point us in a little bit different direction that might help this be more understandable. 

With What Goal?

The Olympics are going on right now and offer a moving example of the benefits and rigors of discipline.  One could substitute the Olympian’s coaches for the father-figure in this text and still be very close to the meaning.  And, for many of us who struggle to get past the father metaphor, the coach metaphor may open this up a little more.

I daresay there is no Olympic athlete who has not felt the pain, faintness, scourge, and challenges described in these verses.  Was it to punish their bodies?  Well, we might use such language to describe how hard they train, but the point of all the hard work was not punishment, but building up.  The point was not to diminish them as athletes, but to make them better athletes.  If they had rejected coaching or training, they would not have become great athletes.  But by accepting the discipline and the coaching, they grew in physical (and other) excellence.  That is a good picture of what is being described here.

It’s clear enough what an Olympian’s goal is, but what is the goal for godly discipline?  The goal is described several different ways in these verses.  One goal is LIFE (v. 9); this is the life God envisions for us.  To yield to sin and to not trust God is not living (though it may seem like it!).  God’s intent for us is to resist sin, accept His teaching, and follow Christ – that is life!

A second goal of discipline is in verse 10 – our own good and sharing in God’s holiness.  Another way to say this is that we were created in God’s image and God’s intent for us is to live in His image, in His holiness.  This is what it means to be part of God’s family.

And verse 11 sums up the goal with the trait we are focused on today.  The result of all this discipline and training is “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” – right behavior or moral excellence.  Again, to be clear, our good deeds are not what make us Christian, but are the result of trusting and following Jesus Christ. 

Knowing, Trusting, Following (2 Peter 1)

Finally, let me return to the verses in 2 Peter from our call to worship.  Because God has given those who know Christ everything needed for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3), we are then instructed to apply all diligence (think of the discipline and training in the Hebrews verses) and in faith supply moral excellence.  That is, with trust in God to teach and train us diligently, we will grow in right behavior.

Each of the spiritual fruit that follow also come out of that combination of trusting God to train us diligently.  And so right behavior will join knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love to show us useful and fruitful in the knowledge of Christ.

What is needed? … personal, significant knowledge of Jesus Christ; trust in God’s goodness; willingness to let God grow you up in faith and discipline.  The result may not look like an Olympic gold medal, but will in fact point people to something more valuable than gold, the saving love of God in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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