Unashamed! (Part 1)

Romans 1:16-17

Tom Pennington  •  November 15, 2009
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I've chosen over the next couple of weeks to step away from our study of the book of Ephesians both because today is communion and I wanted us to come to focus on our Lord and the good news that's in Him and because next week is the Sunday before Thanksgiving and I really wanted to bring us to bear on the issue of Thanksgiving. We're, of course, prompted to give thanks for everything and we're going to look at that in Ephesians in just a few weeks but the main thing for which we are to be thankful as Christians is for Jesus Christ and the gospel that we have in Him. And so I thought really there was no better preparation, both for this week and the Lord's table, or for next week and our beginning the celebration of Thanksgiving than to focus on Christ and the good news that is found in Him. That is the thing for which we should be most grateful.

So I invite you to turn with me this morning as we prepare our hearts to the book of Romans. Paul's letter to the Romans, chapter 1. Christianity has often borne the brunt of the world's sarcasm and ridicule. This has been true from the very beginning. It was true in the first century. It was true in the time of the Apostles. It was true as church history moved on.

In fact, in the second century there was a Greek philosopher named Celsus who wrote a book called, "The True Word" in which he attacked Christianity and Christ in the most graphic and violent terms. This is what Celsus wrote, less than really 150 years after Christ, "Let no uncultured person draw near, none wise, none sensible, for all that kind of thing we count evil. But if any man is ignorant, if any is wanting in sense and culture, if any is a fool, let him come boldly to Christ and to Christianity." Celsus went on to call Christians quote, "the most uneducated and vulgar persons." He compared them to a swarm of bats, to ants, to frogs holding a symposium in a swamp, to worms covering a dung hill, croaking and squeaking these words for our sakes the world was created. Celsus didn't end the parade of attacks on Christian faith; Church history is filled with them and we still see them today.

The question is why is our faith so often the object of the world's scorn? It is primarily because of the core content of our faith, that which we call the gospel. The gospel is confrontive. In fact, it was the gospel that almost got Jesus thrown off a cliff when He preached in His own hometown synagogue in Nazareth. Because the gospel confronts. The gospel accuses all men of having deceitful hearts, polluted consciences, evil and selfish motives and being filled with pervasive human pride. The gospel argues that the best man can do is defiled and unacceptable to God. The gospel identifies the source of all man's problems as sin. The gospel says that every man and woman is a fallen sinner living under the looming wrath of God and that unless the grace of God intervenes he will spend eternity separated from God paying the penalty for his sins against God. That is an unpopular message. And we proclaim – the gospel goes on to proclaim – that a peasant carpenter who was crucified as a criminal under the Romans is, in fact, the son of God and the Savior of the world and that He not only died, but that He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven and will return. And that any sinner who is willing to turn from his sins and put all of his faith and confidence in Christ alone, that sinner can be radically changed, can be forgiven of his sins by God and made entirely right with God solely by an act of faith in the work of that peasant carpenter. That's the message of the gospel.

How does the world respond to that? It responds the same way the Athenians responded when they heard Paul back in the first century. In Acts 17, when they heard the gospel from Paul they said he's an idle babbler. They said he proclaims strange deities and when they heard him talk about the resurrection of Jesus Christ they began to laugh and to sneer. Let's be honest. None of us likes to be ridiculed. None of likes to be laughed at and scorned and sneered at. Since the gospel is often the source of man's ridicule, it is a temptation for every Christian to be ashamed of that gospel. Paul addresses that very issue in Romans, chapter 1.

Romans is the most magnificent and profound explanation of the gospel ever written. It was written from Corinth near the end of Paul's third missionary journey, probably somewhere around 56 AD. The theme of this book is the righteousness from God. That is really the gospel at its heart as we'll see next week; the righteousness which comes from God to the believing sinner.

Now, let me just give you the layout of this first chapter. In Romans chapter 1, verses 1 to 7, Paul opens with a greeting and a general statement about his calling as an apostle to preach the gospel.

Beginning in verse 8 and running down through verse 15, Paul describes his own relationship to the church there in Rome, to the Christians in Rome. I had the opportunity just a few weeks ago to worship in the center of Rome with a group of Christians with a church that's been there for many years. This is the direction to which Paul wrote as he described his relationship with the church there in Rome. And he details in that section his longtime desire to come to Rome.

Verse 16 introduces the theme of this letter. The theme of the book, which is the gospel; and verse 17 gives us a summary or a sort of brief exposition of what the gospel is. The gospel is simply the message about the righteousness that comes from God, that is, the righteousness that comes from God that God gives to sinners by grace based solely on the life and death of Christ and the sinner receives that gift of righteousness credited to his account by faith alone in Christ alone. Now these two verses, verses 16 and 17, establish then the theme or the thesis of this entire letter. The rest of the letter is in a very real sense merely an exposition of these two verses. These two brief sentences are responsible for the entire Protestant Reformation. Because it was in studying these verses that Martin Luther came to understand the truth of the gospel. It is not an exaggeration to say that these two verses are the essence of biblical Christianity. They are the heart of all true religion.

Let me read them for you and this week and next we'll unpack the riches that are in these two verses for which we should be so utterly grateful. Verse 16, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes. To the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it[that is, in the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. As it is written, but the righteous man shall live by faith." There is the thesis of the book of Romans. There is the theme statement of this wonderful letter that Paul wrote to the church in Rome.

But notice Paul begins this brief powerful statement of his thesis of the book of Romans with a very surprising statement. He begins in really a shocking way. Notice how he begins, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel." You know it's so hard for us living so distant in time and space from where these events occurred sometimes to fully grasp them and understand them. So this morning, for just a moment, I want to take you back. I want to take you back in time to the first century so that you can think like someone who lived in the first century and understand what Paul is saying when he says, "I am not ashamed."

You see the worlds of the first century, really the Jewish and semantic worlds, are very different from our own. When we think of shame, the word Paul brings up here in verse 16, we think of a feeling. We feel shame, it's a subjective feeling of inadequacy or inferiority or guilt. I feel ashamed. But shame and honor in the biblical setting, particularly in the Greco Roman world of the New Testament, involved much more than that. Their culture, their world was a highly shame sensitive, honor hungry society. One writer describing the times of the poet, Homer, wrote this, "The chief good was to be well spoken of. The chief evil to be badly spoken of by one's society." The worst thing that could happen is for you to lose your objective dignity and honor and reputation in this society. In that context, shame was not a feeling; shame was the public humiliation of someone who had previously enjoyed a respected position and importance in the society. It was an objective loss of status and reputation.

Let me see if I can illustrate this for you. Already in Old Testament times, this was true. There were specific acts in the Old Testament that were designed to undermine the status and respect for certain people, or to publicly shame them. I won't take the time to take you back there but let me just remind you of a couple of them. The first is the Levirate marriage in Deuteronomy 25. The Levirate marriage was, the law of Levirate marriage was this, basically if a man died with no children it was his unmarried brother's responsibility to marry his widow and for them to raise up children for a couple of reasons. One, so that the family name wouldn't die with the man who died. Secondly, so that the family property wouldn't leave that family but would continue in perpetuity in that family and in that family's possession. So it was very important in that culture, an agricultural society, for that to be true. Those were the rules laid down. However, the law did not absolutely require the brother to do this. The brother could refuse. The surviving brother could, for whatever reason, decide that he was not going to marry his brother's widow, not going to raise up children in his brother's name, but if he refused there would be a public ceremony and they would gather at the gates of the city. This was where the leaders of the city gathered, this is the public – where the public marketplace would have been, where the stores would have been. This is the most public place in an ancient town. They would have gathered in that place for everyone to see and the brother would renounce his right to marry the widow and say I'm not planning to do that. The widow then would come up and publicly she would remove one of the man's shoes and then in front of everyone she would spit in his face. And then she would say something like this, "This man has refused to carry on his brother's name." All of this was intended for one purpose: to publicly humiliate and shame the brother who refused to fulfill his duty.

There's another example, it's in 2 Samuel, chapter 10. It's when David was king of Israel and David heard about the death of a king of a neighboring country, the king of Ammon. And David decided, as an act of goodwill, to send ambassadors over to the country to express his own condolences, his own sympathy. And so he sends these men over to Ammon and when they arrive, the leaders of Ammon misunderstand the whole thing and they think that David is now sending spies to take advantage of them at a time when they're without a leader and so they immediately arrest these men and they want to humiliate them. They want to lower their dignity, to shame them. And so they do two things, they cut off half of their beard and they cut off their clothes at the waist – their robes at the waist – so they're essentially naked from the waist down and they send them home like that. And the scripture says, "they were greatly humiliated." In fact, David said don't even bother coming back to town until your beards grow back because that was so much a part of the culture. It was a shame to them to have this done. It brought an objective loss of status, loss of dignity, loss of reputation.

You know, our culture refuses to be ashamed for anything. You know, so often you see somebody that commits a crime, somebody that does some horrific thing for which he ought to be ashamed and he's interviewed on the news media and what does he say? Well, I'm not making any excuses, I'm proud of what I've done. I'm proud of how I've lived. So it's kind of hard, it's difficult to even illustrate this concept in modern terms. I think the closest I can come to giving you a modern illustration is still in our collective consciousness. It's a terrible practice that I wouldn't at all endorse, but there was a time when a student who didn't do his lessons, who refused to study, would have himself seated in front of the classroom and a dunce hat was put on the child's head. This was to publicly humiliate and shame that student. To bring a sense of collective shame upon him.

When you come to the New Testament era, when you come to the Roman world, there was one public act that was designed to bring the deepest and most profound stigma of shame. It was the act of public crucifixion. Understand this, crucifixion was not primarily just about execution. It was not even primarily about torturous execution. Crucifixion was intended to place an indelible stigma on the victim. Just to show you how true this was, there were times when the Romans would actually crucify a dead body, because it was to bring shame upon the person. In fact, every step in the process of crucifixion was designed to produce greater humiliation for the victim and loss of honor, loss of dignity, to heap shame upon them.

Martin Hengel in his book, "Crucifixion In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross," documents that process of designed humiliation. Crucifixion began intentionally with a public trial and the public trial was intended to degrade the status of the accused. To let everyone in on his sin, on his evil, on his deserving death. To label him as a shameful person. That public sentence was then followed by flogging and torture and the shedding of blood, all intended to communicate the same thing. The victims were stripped completely naked. And as they hung there on the cross, in the lengthy course of dying – often it took a victim several days to die – in the lengthy course of dying, they would hang there on the cross naked and would often foul themselves with their own urine and excrement. They were forced to carry their own crossbeam. Their personal property was confiscated including even their clothing as we saw with Christ. The soldiers gambled over it. Executions were a kind of crude form of public entertainment. Crowds would gather and ridicule and mock the victims, even again as we see in the crucifixion of Christ. Victims, to add to this whole idea of mockery, they were sometimes crucified in a sort of whimsical, distorted, cartoonish way. And in many cases, the victims were denied honorable burial. Their corpses were allowed to be left on display and devoured by the carrion birds and wild animals. Everything about crucifixion was designed not merely to kill a person but to kill them by heaping shame upon them. In fact, everything about crucifixion was designed to bring that public shame and because of that the Romans themselves often referred to the cross as the tree of shame.

It was considered so despicable and so degrading that Cicero, one of their own, argued that an honorable Roman should never even mention the word "cross." And most of the Romans followed his advice. Because in spite of the hundreds of thousands of public crucifixions that we know happened, the fullest account of crucifixion that we have occurs in the gospels. It was in that climate that Paul lived and preached. It was in a climate where the absolute most shameful person in the world was the person who was crucified. They were the most deserving of shame. They were the most shameful. It was in that cultural context that Paul wrote, "I am not ashamed." It was Paul's recognition that the gospel by its very nature is something that Christians are constantly tempted to be ashamed of. Folks, this is a temptation for everyone. Many scholars believe it was a temptation for Paul; they put together a number of pieces of clues from the New Testament to believe that Paul struggled from time to time with shame over the gospel. It certainly was for Timothy. You remember Paul wrote to his young son in the faith, Timothy? 2 Timothy 1:8, he says, "Do not be ashamed of the testimony of the Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God." It was, apparently, a temptation for everyone in Rome except for Onesiphorus, because in 2 Timothy 1:16, Paul writes, "The Lord grant mercy to the house of Onesiphorus for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains." The clear implication that many others in Rome were ashamed. It's a temptation for all of us.

You know, we live in a society that's happy to accept an emasculated form of Christianity, as long as we're content to have it be one of many viable choices. But the people around us are every bit as intolerant of the true gospel and those who embrace it as they were in the first century. And sometimes that hostility erupts in outright persecution. But most of the time in our culture it stays much more subtle. It shows itself in ridicules and insults, comments behind our backs, false accusations. It shows itself in negative depiction in the news media. Evangelical Christians are misrepresented and distorted in television and film. When's the last time you saw an evangelical Christian treated well in those environments? It appears in pop culture as bumper stickers in which a fish that sprouts legs or a shark devours the fish, the Christian symbol. And when we see those things, when we experience those things, we are tempted to be ashamed of the foundation of our faith, the gospel. Everyone of us, in fact, Martin Lloyd Jones writes, that if you have never been ashamed of the gospel, quote "the real reason is not that you were such an exceptionally good Christian, but rather your understanding of the Christian message has never been that clear." If you really understand the Christian message, you will be, you have been tempted to be ashamed. It's a temptation because the gospel is nothing but the story about a publicly shamed man. To the Greeks and the Romans, it was foolishness. Do you remember 1 Corinthians 1? It's foolishness. Martin Hengel writes, "To assert that God Himself accepted death in the form of a crucified Jewish manual worker from Galilee in order to break the power of death and bring salvation to all men could only seem folly and madness to men of ancient times." Even the Jews found it to be a block over which they stumbled. They couldn't conceive of the Messiah being shamed like this.

In fact, in the second century there were a series of debates between Christian apologist, Justin Martyr, and a Jewish teacher of the law named Trepho. And in one of those debates, Trepho responds to Justin Martyr's argument with these words. He writes, "It is clear that the scriptures announce that the Messiah had to suffer, but prove to us whether he must be crucified and die so disgracefully and so dishonorably that death accursed in the law for we cannot bring ourselves even to consider this." Because of Paul's message the outside world, both Jews and Gentiles, had labeled him as a fool and as a shameful man. He was without a sense of honor and thus he was deserving of ill treatment.

And in spite of all this, Paul says he is unashamed. How could Paul ignore the public shame that came with his message? Well in Romans 1, verses 16 and 17, Paul lays out his thesis and he explains to us as he lays out his thesis for the book of Romans why he felt no shame. And as he explains his own lack of shame, Paul provides us with several reasons here why we, as Christians, should never be ashamed of the gospel.

I want us to look at several of those this morning and we'll finish up next week. The first reason that you and I should never be ashamed of the gospel is because it is good news. Look at verse 16, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel." The word gospel means good news. It means glad tidings. It's taken from Isaiah. Isaiah 52:7 talking about the Messiah, "How lovely on the mountains are the feet of Him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness." Isaiah 66:1, you remember these are the words our Lord took upon His own lips at the synagogue in Nazareth, "the spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted and to proclaim liberty to captives." Good news. You know, it's sad that our language has been so abused by advertisers that the – that the expression "good news" doesn't move us. I mean after all, when cars are amazing and breathtaking and incredible. When toothpaste is dazzling, what's left? So when we hear the expression "good news," it just kind of falls flat. Perhaps it would be better in our culture to translate it: the greatest news you have ever or will ever hear.

I sleep like a rock when I sleep. My wife tells me that when I lay down to go to sleep within a few seconds, I'm asleep and I don't change positions the entire night until the alarm clock goes off the next morning. And I rarely remember my dreams or nightmares. But on a rare occasion, and perhaps you've had this experience, I will have a nightmare. And one of those situations where you find yourself in the absolute worst circumstances you can imagine in life or eternity. And you find yourself there and the end is drawing near and your own life may soon end and all of a sudden you wake up. And in just a moment as your thoughts collect and as you realize where you are, this peace comes sweeping across your soul because you realize it's just a dream. That's good news. You know that feeling? That's good news! That's how the gospel is because we found ourselves in the worst possible circumstances. In the most terrible condition imaginable, under the wrath of God, his enemy, and it wasn't a dream, it was reality and the Holy Spirit opened our eyes to see what awaited us. We found ourselves in a terrible situation and into that the Spirit spoke the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It's understandable why Paul was not ashamed. He had the privilege to tell everyone in the world the best news.

Romans is, in fact, the thorough presentation of that good news, the gospel. You ever ask yourself, why? Why did Paul write a book explaining the gospel to Christians at Rome? And why, if you'll notice in verse 15, was he eager to get to Rome to preach the gospel to Christians in Rome? It's because the gospel isn't just for unbelievers. He explains his reason in verse 11. He says, "For I long to see you so that I may in part some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established." Spiritual gift here does not refer to the spiritual gifts given to us at the moment of salvation, that happens, but Paul had no power to grant those, those were already given to the believers there in Rome. In this context, Paul is simply talking about a gift that has spiritual value, something that would establish them. What is it? It's the gospel. Paul wanted to go to Rome to teach them all the riches of the gospel truth so that they would be established in their faith; literally they would be strengthened in their faith and since he couldn't get there, he wrote them this letter, and now not the church in Rome only benefits but all of us through the history of the church have benefited as well. Even though they were already Christians, a deeper understanding of the good news would establish them, strengthen them in their Christian lives. So we should never be ashamed of the gospel because it's good news. It's good news for unbelievers because it tells them of God's forgiveness and of the righteousness that comes from God that can be theirs as a gift of His grace. And it's good news that believers need to hear because it establishes us in our faith. It makes us strong. It makes us grow up as we understand what God has done. So the first reason we should never be ashamed of the gospel is because it's good news.

The second reason Paul gives is that it's God's power. Look at verse 16 again, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God." You know when you consider the shame attached to Paul and to his message, his message of a crucified God, it's amazing that anyone ever believed. But Paul explains here why people believed. Why, on a single day, 3,000 people were added to the church in Jerusalem. Why, under his ministry, people all across the globe were led to faith in Christ. There is no human explanation. There is only one explanation. This message, this good news is God's power, inherent in the message itself is the power of an omnipotent God. The Greek word translated power here is used frequently in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Septuagint, to describe God's power and how He manifests that power in rescuing His people. Notice, here, Paul does not say the gospel is about God's power. He says the gospel is God's power. It is the means God uses to rescue sinners. God saves through the message of the gospel. This is what James said in James 1:18, "He brought us forth. He birthed us by the word of truth." 1 Peter 1:23, "You were born again through the living and enduring word of God." God's word, specifically the gospel, is the instrument God uses to bring life to a spiritually dead heart. Look at 1 Corinthians, chapter 1. Paul makes this point as he unfolds his preaching of the gospel, 1 Corinthians 1:18, "For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but that message to us who are being saved is the power of God." Verse 21, "God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to rescue those who believe." A foolish message, that is, it appears foolish to men, is God's power to rescue those who will believe it. Verse 24, "To those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." The gospel is God's power.

You know, in one sense, the gospel is not an exhortation telling us what we must do. The gospel is really an announcement proclaiming what God has already done and will do for those who will believe. I love that because since it's God's power, it doesn't depend on me. My salvation doesn't depend on me or my faithfulness. It's God's power that saves. God's power that keeps. God's power that justifies. God's power that sanctifies and that glorifies. That is why we never need to be ashamed of it. It is God's power. Understand the power is not in the words on the page, or the letters written on the document. The power is in the work of the Spirit of God to make that word alive in our hearts. 1 Thessalonians 1:5, "My gospel came to you not in word only, but in power and in the Holy Spirit." The power in the gospel is when the Holy Spirit takes that and in a human heart He brings the weight of it to bear. When the gospel is preached just as I'm doing today, it's not so many words, but the power of God is at work.

Here's how it works. If you're in Christ, this is how it worked for you. There was a day when you really heard the gospel. Maybe you'd heard it many times before. Maybe you grew up hearing it. But there was one day and one time, maybe it was through the invitation of a friend, maybe it was through hearing the Word preached in a service like this, but God opened your heart to understand and believe the gospel. Listen, don't be ashamed to communicate the gospel. It is God's power and when we hear it, He uses it in us. Don't be ashamed to communicate the gospel to a family member, a neighbor, a co-worker, because as you share it, the power of God will work, either in bringing death for those who reject it or producing life in those who will believe. So Paul argues we should never be ashamed of the gospel because it's good news, because it's God's power.

The third reason he gives us is that it produces salvation. It produces salvation. Look again at verse 16, "I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God for salvation." This is the main idea Paul's been driving to. Paul is not commenting on God's general creative power, His sustaining power. He's saying God's saving power is at work in the gospel, to produce spiritual rescue. This refers to everything God does to bring a sinner into proper relationship with Him. It includes concepts like justification and redemption, sanctification, glorification. The good news, the gospel, is how that salvation becomes ours. As I said there's a day when you're sitting in a place like this or a friend's talking with you or you're reading through the Bible or you're reading through a book and even though you've heard the gospel many times before, on that day the Spirit brings conviction and understanding and repentance and by His grace, you really believe it. At that moment, the gospel was the power of God for salvation. Paul says I can't be ashamed of the very instrument that God used to bring life to my dead soul and will use in the lives of others. Listen, don't allow the world to humiliate you into silence. Don't be intimidated or embarrassed to communicate the gospel. Because it is the good news. Because it is the power of God and because it produces salvation.

Next week we'll examine several other reasons we should never be ashamed of the gospel, but as we conclude our study today, let me encourage you to apply the truth of this message to yourself. Let me just ask you an honest question. Have you ever really heard the good news? I mean really heard it? Have you ever really responded to that good news by repenting of your sins and putting all of your confidence in Christ and Him alone? I'm not asking you if you've attended church. I'm not asking you if you prayed a prayer, walked an aisle, signed a card. I'm asking have you ever really heard the good news to the extent that you acted on it. You turned to God in faith and repentance. Maybe you're here this morning as a believer. Let me encourage you to determine to think and to meditate on the gospel. Because as Paul says to the Roman Christians, it will establish you, it will strengthen you in your growth in Christ.

But as we prepare our hearts for communion, let me make one additional point. The reason you and I don't need to be ashamed is because everything that we should be ashamed for, Christ paid the penalty for. He bore the shame for everything that we ought to be ashamed of. Look back at Isaiah. Isaiah 53, I love this passage. Notice what Isaiah says about the Messiah, about our Lord. In verse 3, he says, "He was despised and forsaken of men." He was treated as a shameful man. "A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief and like one from whom men hide their face. He was despised and we did not esteem Him." He was treated as one worthy of the utmost shame. Why? For us. Look at verse 4, "Truly our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted." The point is even though He was dying for our sins, we didn't respect Him because we assumed He was dying for His own. "But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him."

Folks, here's the bottom line. You and I, today, have no reason to have shame before God because Jesus Christ took that shame for us. As the writer of Hebrews says in Hebrews 12:2, "He endured the cross" – what? – "despising the shame." He bore your shame and my shame.

Let's pray together. Our Father, we thank You for the blood of Christ. We thank You that He was willing to lay down His life in the place of guilty sinners. And Father I just pray that You would seal this time together to our hearts. This reminder that we have celebrated together of His death. We thank You that He died the death we should have died, that He took upon Himself the shame that we deserve to have someday when we stand before You in Your presence. But, oh, God we thank You that in that day we will stand before You faultless in Your presence with exceeding joy because our lives will be covered by His perfect life and forgiven by His death. He took the shame of our sins so that there's none left for us. Oh, God, we thank You and praise You. Make us vessels who carry the good news to others. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.