Sunday, March 31, 2019

What’s wrong with the world? Romans 1:18-23

If you don’t believe the message of the Bible, I would ask you to ask yourself why the world is the way it is.  Why are there so many bad people doing bad things?  Why do good people suffer and bad people triumph?  Why are there tsunamis and earthquakes and famines?  Why is there war?  Why is there disease?  Now I know that a lot of people take these very issues and throw them back at the Christian and say that their God could not exist in a world such as this.  But consider the possibility that either God exists but doesn’t care about this world or that there is no God at all.  Either option is about the same, practically speaking.  If that is the case, then there is no reason behind all the terrible things that happen.  They just happen.  The world isn’t broken, the world just is.  There is no such thing as objective evil because there is no objective Judge to say anything is evil in and of itself.  Things just are.

The problem is that no one thinks like that.  I don’t even think atheists think like that, even though many of them will profess to embrace such an understanding of reality.  Steal his wallet and he is not going to think you have only broken the law but that you have done something objectively bad.  The thing is that we all, no matter what our philosophical background is, think that the world in which we live is messed up.  And what we mean by this is not only that we don’t like it the way it is, but that the world is not the way it ought to be.

Tied to this is man’s desire for the afterlife, for heaven.  This is because heaven is a place where we imagine that things are the way they are supposed to be.  C. S. Lewis argued in his sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” that this innate desire for heaven is a good argument that it exists.  He asked his listeners to imagine they were on a boat in the middle of the ocean with no memory of anything outside of their present experience in the boat.  They begin to get hungry, and although they have no memory of food or knowledge of its existence, their hunger is a pretty good reason to believe that eatable substances exist.  Even so, Lewis explained, this inner desire for heaven that is in the heart of people in every part of the world and in every generation is a good reason to believe that heaven exists, even if we haven’t seen it ourselves (and even though it is no proof that we will enjoy it ourselves).  We long for a place where everything is right, and part of this is because we are living in a place where things are not right.  We have a hunger for heaven.  This is because we are not in Eden anymore.  We are in Babylon.

That brings us back to the question: why are things the way they are?  Why is the world so messed up?

The answer to this question is found in the verses in Romans 1 that we will be considering this morning.  The problem with the world is not that there is no God.  It is not that God doesn’t care about the world and is content to watch his creatures destroy each other.  The reason why the world is so messed up is because men have rejected God, ignored him, and exchanged the worship of God for the idolatry of created things.  In this passage we see a dreadful chain of events that begins with revelation that leads to rejection and ends with wrath.  

Now why is Paul writing about these things to the Roman Christians?  We must remember that the apostle is explaining to them the gospel which he is preaching.  Part of that gospel is explaining why it is necessary in the first place.  The gospel is only good news when it is understood against the backdrop of bad news.  The gospel which is the message of the revelation of righteousness of God is going to be meaningless if we don’t see our need of God’s righteousness (cf. Rom. 10:1-3).  If we don’t think we are sinners or we don’t think our sins merit the wrath of God, then the gospel is going to be so much false advertising. 

But this is important not only because we need to understand our need of God’s righteousness and God’s salvation, but also because we need to understand what sin is in the first place.  The apostle is going to explain to us that sin in the first place is not doing bad things to yourself or to someone else.  The fundamental sin and the fundamental problem with the world is that we have forgotten God and replaced God with something else.  Every other evil emerges from this fundamental betrayal of God.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a famous Russian novelist and historian who openly criticized the evils of the Soviet Union, especially the gulag system.  He won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his bold writing in the cause of freedom and justice which was hopelessly lacking in the communist nation.  He was eventually expelled from his country and was not allowed to return until after the fall of communism.  I bring him up because he wrote a famous essay explaining why Russia embraced communism and all its attendant evils.  His explanation is given in the title of the essay: “Men Have Forgotten God.”  He explained that after all the books he had read and all the research he had done on the problems facing his country, the best explanation for what had happened was summarized in those words: “Men have forgotten God.”

That is what Paul is saying here in Romans 1.  You want to know why the world is the way it is?  Because men have forgotten God.  However, we have not just forgotten him, but ignored him, trampled upon his authority, despised him, and rejected his goodness and glory for lesser things.  That is the reason the world is the way it is: it is not because God has forgotten us, but because we have forgotten God.

We need to be reminded of this, because we sometimes tend to weigh things wrongly.  We tend to think that our big problems are problems of greed, pornography, lust, anger, addictions of various kinds, and so on.  But Paul is saying here that as bad as those problems are, they are only symptoms of a deeper problem: the problem of godlessness.  Every sin ultimately springs from this unholy fountain.  When the heart is godless, every stream of thought and desire springing from the heart is poisoned.

Which means that if we really want to battle sin in our lives and get at the root of things, we have to first of all go at sin at the level of the godlessness that still exists in our hearts.   If we do not see God as glorious and good and holy and worthy of all our affection and allegiance we are not going to be holy people ourselves, no matter how much external religiosity we dress ourselves up with. 

Now I want to show you that this is the argument of the apostle in this text.  Here we see the sequence of events: revelation, rejection, and wrath.  God has revealed himself to us, but we have rejected him, and because of this God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against our ungodliness and unrighteousness.  Paul starts here, with our ungodliness, before he addresses our more noticeable sins, like disordered affections and sexual sin and so on.  So this is where we need to start, not just in terms of this exposition but in terms of how we deal with the sin in own lives.

The Revelation of God’s Wrath (18)

The apostle begins by saying something that really summarizes his entire argument from this point to the middle of chapter 3 where he transitions back to his exposition of the gospel proper.  It is this: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”  The ultimate verdict against mankind is that God’s holy and just wrath is aimed at them, revealed from heaven.  The reason given for God’s wrath is that we are ungodly and unrighteous.  I am convinced that the order here is significant.  We are ungodly first and then unrighteous.  We are wrong with God before we are wrong with our fellow man.  Then the evidence for our ungodliness and unrighteousness is that we have suppressed (lit. “held down”) the truth about God.  So we see that all the elements of Paul’s explanation for the condition of the world are right here, although in reverse order: wrath, rejection (we have suppressed the truth), and revelation (the truth that has been rejected).

Now God’s wrath is revealed.  What does the apostle mean by this?  Does he mean that God has revealed his wrath in terms of giving information about it in the gospel, or does it refer to temporal judgments, or does it refer to the final, climatic revelation of God’s wrath at the end of the age?  Well, if we look at the progression of the apostle’s argument here, he is saying that God’s wrath is revealed now in terms of sin itself and finally in terms of his judgment upon sin.  Sin is itself a judgment from God.  It makes men stupid (21-22).  It makes them do unnatural things (26-28).  Sin is not just a matter of disobedience but carries with it its own punishment.  It warps our hearts and minds.  It deforms the soul and eventually brings the body to the grave (6:23).  Sin shrivels the soul, makes us small, and kills the conscience.  It blinds us to the beauty of God and draws us toward moral decay.

But the judgment sin brings with itself is also a pointer to God’s final, climatic judgment upon sin at the end of the age.  Paul will expound upon this further in chapter 2, when he talks about the “wrath and fury” the “tribulation and distress” that will come upon “every human being who does evil” (2:8-9).  There is a “day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (2:5).

Men in their sin are already wearing the noose around their necks.  Their whole lives are lived on a journey to the gallows.  The horrible thing about it is not only their end but also the fact that they have somehow convinced themselves that the rope around their neck is something to boast about.  We are so twisted by sin that even though God has revealed his wrath in the very sin we commit that we turn that revelation which ought to be a warning to us into a reason to be glad.  But that does not change the fact that God’s has revealed his wrath to us and that it ought to convince us of the need to repent of our sin and embrace his mercy.

However, the apostle is not content to merely summarize his message.  So he goes on to expound on the revelation of his truth and how we reject it.

The Revelation of God’s Truth (19-21)

Paul says that all men are without excuse when it comes to sin.  No one will be able to stand before God and say that there was not enough evidence.  I know that Bertrand Russell remarked that if he woke up after death and discovered there was a God after all, he would simply explain his atheism to God by saying, “You didn’t give me enough evidence.”  But Paul is saying that this has never been the case.  God has amply discovered his existence to us in multiple ways.

Notice what Paul says.  He says that “what can be known about God is plain to them because God has shown it to them” (19).  It is not hidden, it is plain.  This is not about really smart people who are able to logically deduce God’s existence from various strands of evidence.  This is something plain to every human being, no matter how smart they are or are not.

He explains why it is plain in the next verse: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, even since the creation of the world, in the things that are made” (20).  Notice this phrase, “clearly perceived.”  Plainly put, Paul is saying that the physical creation is all the evidence we need for the existence of God and the power of God.  You don’t have to be able to formally express the cosmological or the teleological arguments for God’s existence.  It is in fact not something you have to argue for.  It is basic knowledge, it is something that everyone knows.  The fact that people reject God’s existence is not because there is not enough evidence; it is because they suppress what is obvious.  The result is that “they are without excuse” (20).

You don’t have argue for God’s existence: you have to argue yourself out of belief in God, even if this happens at an early point in life.  For the apostle says that everyone knows God exists: “for although they knew God…” (21).

Now I’m not saying that apologetics is useless.  There is a place for that.  There is a place for helping people to see that they have no excuse.  But at the end of the day, we also need to understand that people don’t reject God ultimately because of logic.  They reject God because of sin, and unless they are willing to deal with the sin in their hearts, all the arguments in the world are not going to move them one inch towards a relationship with their Creator.

Also, we need to understand that the kind of knowledge Paul is talking about here is not saving knowledge.  Knowing God exists is not saving faith.  We need to be reminded of the apostle James statement in his epistle: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder!” (Jam. 2:19).  James is saying that belief in God only comes up to the level of the faith of demons; not something to be particularly proud about!  In fact, in many cases, it does not even come up to the level of demon-faith because the demons tremble at the thought of God, and there are many theists who treat God as if he were just another neighbor down the block.  However, though such knowledge is not enough to save, it is enough to condemn.

Finally, we need to understand that this is not a condemnation of atheists per se.  Atheists did exist in Paul’s day, but the problem was that people rejected the knowledge of the true God for idols.  The problem was not atheism but polytheism.  This is relevant in our day, because even though secularism is growing and Christianity is on the wane, polls have shown that people are not growing less religious or spiritual.  You can be very spiritual and very religious and be in the category of someone who suppresses the truth about God: you don’t have to be an atheist.  You can be a very spiritual person and have simply recreated God in your own image.  That is exactly what the polytheists did.  If you look at the gods of the Greeks and Romans, the remarkable thing about them is that they are very much like the people who worshipped them.  They didn’t become atheists, they just downgraded God to their own level and made him manageable.  And that is the perennial temptation facing man.  How do you think of God?  Is he like you or is he transcendently un-like you?  Is he holy or is he earthy?  That is the question.  The thing we must consider is that though we may be religious, it is still possible to have rejected God.  

The Revelation of God’s Rebuff (21-23)

But what does it look like to reject God?  What does it look like to fall under God’s wrath?  Paul’s answer may surprise us.  For he does not paint a picture of Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot.  Instead, he talks about people who do not honor God or give him thanks: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”  Their knowledge of God did not lead them to honor God, or thank God, or glorify God.  Instead, they became futile in their thinking, self-deceived, and made a fatal exchange.

The root problem is in the very last verse: they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (23).  Again, remember that this does not mean they became atheists.  It means that they did not see God for who he truly is.  They redefined God in terms that put him on their level.  Once you do that, it is impossible to worship the true God.

We need to see how serious this is.  This is the root of all evil.  All sin ultimately springs from a failure to see God for who he is.  It is a refusal to acknowledge the reality that we are utterly and entirely dependent upon God for our entire existence, that we owe everything to him – everything! – and that God is our Creator and as such has rights to every part of our lives.  It is the refusal to see that we owe God honor and reverence because he is holy and we are not, because he is God and we are not, because he is the Creator and we are the creature.  It is the refusal to see that we owe God thanks because he owes us nothing and yet gives us life and breathe and every good thing that we have.  We are dependent upon him; he is not dependent upon us.  We can only give God what he has already given us.  We owe him glory, because God is the only Being in the universe who is truly glorious.  Everything else flickers with a reflected light; God alone is the self-existent source of glory and beauty and truth.

When once we unloose ourselves from this vision of God, when once we begin to assert our own self-sovereignty and put God on the level of the creature – then we begin down a path that is twisted with evil and selfishness and lovelessness.  Every sin in some sense is committed because we have elevated ourselves to the level of God, which can only happen when we have first in our hearts lowered God to the level of the ourselves.  

The sad thing is that when we do this, we not only diminish our view of God, but also of ourselves.  Note what Paul says: we exchange the vision of the true God for an image like man – and then for birds and animals and snakes.  Is it any wonder when men begin to act like animals?  The truth of the matter is that men and women can only retain their own dignity as long as they retain a Biblical vision of the glory of God.  When we reject that, we have let off the brakes to descend down a path leading further and further to futility and vanity and folly.

What is the problem with the world?  The problem with the world is that we have forgotten and rejected the true God.  We do not honor him or thank him or glorify him.  Instead, we have replaced a vision of God with corruptible things.  We are muckrakers by nature.

Men and women desperately need to recover a knowledge of the glory of God.  It is the first step to saving faith.  You simply cannot come to Christ as long as you retain lordship over your life; as long as God is on your level.

And the Christian needs desperately to retain a knowledge of the glory of God.  As long as we live in a world that ignores him, despises his word, and is blind to his glory, we are going to be tempted to start thinking again in unbiblical categories.  And that leads to bad choices and wrong priorities.  It breaks our fellowship with God.  It destroys our joy.  It’s why when our Lord taught his disciples to pray, he taught them to begin by saying, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed by thy name” (Mt. 6:9).  It’s what the apostle Peter was getting at when he wrote that we need to “in your hearts honor Christ as holy” (1 Pet. 3:15).  Let us resist the orientation of the world away from God, and seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.  Let us honor him, thank him, and glorify him.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

The Gospel of God – Romans 1:16-17

Romans 1:16-17 is seen to be central in this epistle by almost everyone who studies these verses.  In fact, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that they form the thesis statement for the letter.  To see this, you need only see how the letter unfolds from this point.  It’s clear that up to now the apostle has been writing an introduction to the epistle – introducing himself and his intensions.  Having stated that his desire is to bring the gospel to Rome, he how makes his grand statement about the gospel he wants to preach.  From this point, he unpacks the need for the gospel (1:18-3:20), the revelation of the gospel in terms of the righteousness of God (3:21-5:21), deals with objections to the gospel (6:1-7:25), gives a case for the superiority of the gospel in terms of hope (8:1-39), talks about the place of Israel and the promises of God with respect to the gospel (9:1-11:36), and spells out the application of the gospel to everyday life (12:1-15:33).  In these two verses, therefore, we have a fountain of truth that bursts out from them into the rest of this wonderful letter.  So I take them to be the theme of Romans.  The book of Romans is about the gospel, which is about the righteousness of God for us through Christ.

It is almost surprising, therefore, that the apostle would begin what amounts to the thesis statement of the epistle with the words, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.”  But the fact of the matter is that the gospel will be forever attached to shame in any culture that is yet hostile to the claims of Christ.  And therefore anyone who embraces the truth of the gospel is going to be exposed to the shame of the gospel.  The gospel is shameful to the world because it is offensive and foolish and weak to them (cf. 1 Cor. 1:17-31).  It is offensive because it assumes some things that people refuse to believe.  For example, it assumes that men and women are by nature sinful and exposed to the just wrath of God.  That’s hard for people to swallow.  It also assumes that men and women by nature can do nothing to save themselves.  That’s hard.  It calls us to embrace Christ not only as Savior for the forgiveness of sins, but also as Lord to reign over our lives, and most people just don’t want to give up their self-sovereignty.  They will not have Christ rule over them.  As the singer put it, they want to have it their way.  And so many people hear the gospel and are scandalized by it.  They are ashamed of it.

And if we are not careful, we who have embraced Christ and his gospel can become ashamed of it as well.  It is so easy for us to be overly influenced by the opinion of others, and to allow the fear of man to guide our actions, to cause us to hide our lights in this world, to be silent when we should speak, to do nothing when we should act. 

I am so thankful, by the way, of the honesty of the apostle here.  He knows that the gospel is not going to be welcomed by everyone, and that a lot of people are going to oppose it.  So he is not going to sugarcoat things.  He knows that the preaching of the gospel brings opposition and often intense persecution.  There is no Pollyannaish perspective here.  He himself had experienced persecution over and over again.  I don’t think there is any doubt that the source of the shame is the real possibility of suffering for the sake of the gospel.  It’s why Paul told Timothy, “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (2 Tim. 1:8).  It is why our Lord himself told his disciples that “whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mk. 8:38).

If you live the gospel and speak the gospel, the fact of the matter is that not everyone is going to like you.  Some are going to hate you.  And in that moment, you are going to be tempted to be ashamed of the gospel.  And if the shame wins out, your witness will wither with it.

So the question is, how do we hold the gospel so that we do not become ashamed of it?  How do we, like Paul, instead live a life eager to share it with others (v. 15)?  And how do we make the theme of this epistle the theme of our lives?  The answer is that we need to understand what the gospel is and what the gospel does.  And then we need to really value them, like the apostle, so that we are eager to live and share the gospel when others want to shame us for it.

Paul addresses both things here in verses 16 and 17, although he focuses on what the gospel does.  It’s important to grasp the fact that the gospel is not just information about God but it is in fact the power of God.  God does amazing things through the gospel.  The question is, what things?

The gospel is the power of God for salvation

Note the apostle’s logic here: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel” – why? – “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (16).  Why should we not be ashamed of the gospel?  Because it is the power of God for salvation.  Paul put it like this to the Corinthians, “For the word of the cross [the gospel] is folly to those who are perishing [and thus an opportunity for shame], but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).  In verse 21, he continues, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”  In 1 Cor. 2:4-5, “And my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”  In all these verses, the apostle underlines the fact that God’s power is at work through the gospel.  As we noted a couple of sermons ago, this is because it is through the gospel that God effectually calls people to faith in Christ.  

This is important to remember when faced with a world increasingly hostile to the gospel and its truths.  It is very easy to forget that the gospel is not something we need to defend so much as something to declare.  Because ultimately what brings people to saving faith are not our arguments (though I am certainly not discounting them!) but the power of God which convinces the mind and the heart of the relevance and reality of gospel truth.  The thing is, men are spiritually blind (2 Cor. 4:3).  It is just as easy to give sight to the blind as it is to give spiritual sight to the spiritually blind.  But Christ can do it (2 Cor. 4:4-6).  Or, to use Paul’s metaphor in Eph. 2, men are spiritually dead.  Can you give life to the dead?  Of course not.  But God can!  What is impossible with men is possible with God (cf. Mt. 19:26).  The gospel, in other words, is not something which depends upon your power and your ability and talents and personality and so on, but something which carries with it the power of God.  C. H. Spurgeon put it this way:

A great many learned men are defending the gospel; no doubt it is a very proper and right thing to do, yet I always notice that, when there are most books of that kind, it is because the gospel is not being preached.  Suppose a number of persons were to take it into their heads that they had to defend a lion.  There he is in the cage, and here come all the soldiers of the army to fight for him.  Well, I should suggest to them, if they would not object, and feel that it was humbling to them, that they should kindly stand back, and open the door, and let the lion out!  I believe that would be the best way of defending him, for he would take care of himself; and the best “apology” for the gospel is to let the gospel out.  Never mind about defending Deuteronomy or the whole of the Pentateuch; preach Jesus Christ and him crucified.  Let the Lion out, and see who will dare to approach him.  The Lion of the tribe of Judah will soon drive away all his adversaries.[1]

If you would not be ashamed of the gospel, you need to remember that it is the power of God.

And it is important to see that the power of God is connected to the gospel.  There are some who will so focus on the power of God to the point that the gospel plays no role in the salvation of the sinner.  But this is not how the apostle puts it.  God does not play with us as if we were robots.  No, he reasons with us (cf. Isa. 1:18).  He treats us as the rational beings he created us to be.  The power of God operates in opening the mind so that we see the reality and relevance of the gospel to our lives. The power of God does not operate independently of the gospel, but with and through the gospel.  It is the gospel which is the power of God unto salvation.

Now the salvation the apostle is speaking of here is spiritual salvation unto eternal life.  This is clear from the next verse (18) where the apostle begins to unpack man’s need in terms of the wrath of God.  The salvation which the gospel brings us is salvation from the wrath of God.  How could Paul be ashamed of that?  What else is there in the world which can bring about something as significant as the deliverance of the soul from the wrath of God?  What else can we do with our lives that has that sort of impact?  Let me tell you, it is better to live your entire life in obscurity while having led just one person to faith in Christ than to be the richest person in the world with all the fame and notoriety and worldly pleasure and comfort that riches bring.  It is insanity to be ashamed of something which brings such infinite and lasting and meaningful blessing or to trade it for something that will one day disappear and crumble into dust.

How does it come?  It comes to “to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”  How do people get saved?  They are saved by simply trusting in Christ, by believing the gospel.  This is true of all people.  There are no distinctions.  It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’ve come from, what your past or present experiences are.  It doesn’t matter what you’ve done.  What matters is what Jesus Christ did and it is by faith that we become connected to his saving work.

The apostle says more about this in the next verse as well, when he says that “in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for [to] faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (17).  There has been a lot of discussion over what is meant by this phrase “from faith to faith.”  I won’t go into all the possibilities, because I think the apostle is probably being rhetorical here by the repetition, and simply means something along the lines of “by faith from first to last.”[2]  We don’t merit salvation by doing.  We receive salvation by believing.  And this is the way it is at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end.  There is never a time when we will have to earn our way into the favor of God.  Our salvation is dependent solely upon what Christ has done for us, and being in him we are secure, but the Bible says that our union with Christ occurs as we trust in him alone for our salvation.

Paul then quotes Habakkuk 2:4, “The righteous shall live by faith.”  He is showing that the priority he gives to faith is not something new.  It is taught in the OT as well.  It supports the contention of the apostle that eternal life (salvation) comes to us by faith and constitutes us as righteous before God.  We are not righteous by law-keeping; we are righteous by faith in Christ and in the promise of God’s grace to us through him (cf. Gal. 3:11).  

The gospel is the revelation of God’s righteousness

The apostle’s argument doesn’t end in verse 16.  Paul is not ashamed because the gospel is the power of God to salvation.  But then he goes on to explain why it is the power of God for salvation: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (17).  

To understand what the apostle is getting at here, I think we need to compare this with the following verse: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (18).  In other words, what makes the revelation of God’s righteousness by faith necessary is the revelation of God’s wrath against unrighteousness.  Our sin has brought upon us the just wrath of God.  God could have left us there, but instead he has done something altogether surprising: he has brought to bear his righteousness to meet the need created by our unrighteousness. 

Now, our unrighteousness poses two problems.  First of all, it creates a problem of guilt.  Sin is cosmic treason, as R. C. Sproul has put it, and as traitors, we all deserve to die.  No one is guilt-free.  We have all sinned and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).  That’s our first problem.

The second problem unrighteousness creates is that it makes us love what we ought to hate, so that we love sin and hate God.  We exchange the glory of the God for created things (1:23).  Our bodies, which were meant to be instruments of righteousness unto God are not instruments of unrighteousness unto sin (6:13).  We have becomes the slaves of sin.  This is the problem of bondage.

The righteousness of God contemplated in verse 17, therefore, must be something that meets the need created by the guilt of sin and the grip of sin.  But why does Paul call it the “righteousness of God”?

There are three ways this phrase may be used.  Following John Stott[3], we may understand it as referring to one of three things: a divine attribute (cf. Rom. 3:5, 25, 26), a divine activity (cf. Isa. 46:13; 51:5-8), or a divine achievement.  Stott ends up opting for a combination of the three, which I think is correct: it is “God’s just justification of the unjust.”  Or, as Douglas Moo puts it in his commentary, it is “the act by which God brings people into right relationship with himself.”[4]  Seen in this way, we can see how it meets the problems posed by our unrighteousness.  It is God’s saving act by which he brings unrighteous people into a state of grace and acceptance.  In doing so, he also renovates us inwardly so that we begin to change from a life characterized by bondage to sin to freedom in serving Christ.  We cannot save ourselves.  Our unrighteousness condemns us but our righteousness cannot save us.  In order to be saved, God must intervene, he must interpose his righteousness on our behalf.

However, as I look at the way Paul develops the theme of God’s righteousness in the following chapters, it seems to me that the primary focus is on the righteousness of God as the bestowal of a righteous status. We are guilty before God and in order to be restored to fellowship with God we need to become righteous again.  The only way that can happen is if God himself creates the righteousness by which we are accepted into his presence.  So I take it primarily to refer to the conferral by God of a righteous status which is given to us entirely by grace through faith on the basis of what Christ has done for us.

I believe this for the following reasons.  First, I believe this because of the connection between faith and righteousness.  Righteousness is seen not simply as something that God does but as something God gives, and which he gives to faith.  For example, consider the following passages.  Rom. 3:22 – “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”  Rom. 10:4, 6 – where Paul talks about those who do “not submit to God’s righteousness” and then says that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”  And in verse 6, he speaks of “the righteousness based on faith.”  It is called the “free gift” in 5:15, and in 2 Cor. 5:21 the apostle says that in Christ we become the righteousness of God in him.  Every one of these verses implies that righteousness is not something we do but something we receive from God by faith.

Second, I believe this because elsewhere the apostle says that righteousness is imputed to us by faith.  For example, in Rom. 4, he says that God imputes righteousness to us apart from works (ver. 5, 6, 11, 24).  Here righteousness is a status that is credited to us, not on the basis of our good deeds but on the basis of the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Third, looking outside Romans, we see Paul explicitly say in Phil. 3:9 that he wanted to be found in Christ, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”  The righteousness of God comes to us through faith in Christ; it is not a righteousness of our own, but something which is freely given to us.

So, the message of the gospel then is that though we all stand before God as guilty and condemned sinners, God has provided a righteousness through Christ that we receive by faith alone.  This righteousness justifies us before God and gives a right to everlasting life.  The fact that men are justified not by acquiring merit through their works but by looking out of themselves to Christ and his finished work means that no sinner who comes to Christ, however black his past, will be cast out.  Salvation by grace is anchored in righteousness by faith.  We are declared righteous before God, not by trying but by trusting.

It was this understanding of the text that opened Martin Luther’s eyes to the glory of the gospel and rescued him from despair.  He described this experience which brought about a new understanding of the gospel and which became the theme of the Protestant Reformation itself:

I greatly longed to understand Paul’s epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in my way but that one expression, “the righteousness of God,” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust.  My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him.  Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him.  Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.

Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.”  Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith.  Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.  The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “righteousness of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love.

Paul was not ashamed of the gospel because it was the power of God for salvation.  It is the power of God for salvation because in it God reveals his righteousness.  In other words, we are saved by believing the gospel because the gospel is the message by which we become connected to God’s saving righteousness.  With Luther, it meets us at our deepest need with the strongest encouragement.  

It is this gospel which the apostle is about to unpack for us, slowly, carefully, powerfully, in the following chapters.  It is the gospel of the power God which brings us the righteousness of God to all who believe.  Let us not be ashamed of it, but rather make it the theme of our hearts and lives.

[1] Charles H. Spurgeon, “Christ and His Co-Workers,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit (London: Passmore, 1896), 42: 256. Quoted in, MacArthur, John. The Inerrant Word (Kindle Locations 2135-2137). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
[2] This the way the NIV renders the text, for example.
[3] John R. W. Stott, Romans: God’s Good News for the World (IVP: 1994), p. 62-63.
[4] Douglas Moo, Romans (NICNT).

Monday, March 18, 2019

Paul’s Commitment to the Saints at Rome – Romans 1:8-15

We are often reminded that Christians have a commitment to the world.  And we do.  Paul himself tells us that he was utterly committed to bringing the gospel to all men: “I am under obligation [a debtor] both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” (1:14).  We should not interpret this sense of obligation in merely psychological terms, for Paul’s obligation had its source in our Lord’s commission.  The same is true of all Christians, and though we are not apostles like Paul, yet we are still committed by our Lord’s Great Commission to make disciples of all the nations (Mt. 28:18-20).  We are supposed to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth (Mt. 5:12-14).

However, the church cannot adequately do this unless it is the church.  That is to say, Christians need Christians to fulfill our great calling.  We are not supposed to do this on our own.  So our commitment to the world is grounded in our commitment to each other.  It is as Christians love each other that they are built up and enabled to love the world.  We live in an age in which because of the prevalence of sin the love of many has grown cold (Mt. 24:12).  Like the penguins of the South Pole, we live in a morally icy and frozen environment and if we wander off we are likely to become spiritual ice-cycles.  We need the warmth of the spiritual gifts of other believers in order to thrive and live productive lives.

We see this dynamic here in Paul’s opening words to the Roman Christians.  Apparently, there has been a lot of ink spilled over the seeming tension between the apostle’s words here in the first chapter, where he expresses his desire to minister to an established church, and his words in chapter 15, where he claims that he makes “it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation” (15:20).  However, we need to keep in mind that Paul’s intention in coming to Rome is not to camp out there and put his face on everything.  Rather, his intention was to bring the Christians there alongside as partners in his missionary efforts to go to places where the gospel was not yet named, specifically, Spain.  He needed them to help him reach the lost.  

Paul is seeking to recruit them for the sake of the gospel among all the nations for God’s name and glory because Paul is sure that they share the same desire for the spread of the gospel as he did.  We see this in verse 8, when Paul reminds them that their faith is spoken of throughout the Roman empire.  He senses in them a kindred spirit.  And this draws out Paul’s heart to them.

Therefore in these verses we see an expression of Paul’s commitment to the believers at Rome.  And we see how this commitment was fleshed out in terms of the apostle’s intentions.  It is a beautiful picture of what our commitment to other believers in the world-wide church and to each other in our own local church is supposed to look like.  And that is what I want to focus on as we look at this text together.  We see it in four ways.  Like the apostle Paul, our commitment to each other is expressed through mutual praise, faithful prayer, personal presence, and gospel proclamation.

Now I could not think about the apostle Paul’s longing to visit Rome and not think of Martin Luther’s experience at Rome almost 1500 years later.  When Luther went to Rome, the church has grown worldly and corrupt.  Though it was ostensibly the center of the Christian world, it had also become a sinkhole of iniquity.  Luther wrote:

“Where God build a church, the Devil puts up a chapel next door. … It is almost incredible. What infamous actions are committed at Rome; one would require to see it and hear it in order to believe it. It is an ordinary saying that if there is a hell, Rome is built upon it. It is an abyss from whence all sins proceed. … Rome, once the holiest city, was now the worst. Let me get out of this terrible dungeon. I took onions to Rome and brought back garlic.”[1]

It is a reminder that to be that kind of church that can further the kingdom of God in the world, we need to continually resist becoming like the world.  The same church that Paul visited in the second half of the first century had lost all semblance of its past by the sixteenth century.  I’m saying this to remind us of the fact that our commitment to fellow believers in terms of fellowship and community cannot be divorced from a mutual commitment to God’s unchanging truth.  The commitment that we have to other Christians must not supersede the priority of our commitment to Christ and his gospel.  But as we hold to the common faith, as Jude puts it, we then must reach out to each other in terms of these four things: praise, prayer, presence, and proclamation.

Mutual Praise

The apostle begins, “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world” (8).  Here we have an expression of praise.  It is cast, of course, in terms of Paul’s thanksgiving to God for them.  But in letting them know about his heart of gratitude to God, the apostle is essentially praising them for the proclamation of their faith.  He is letting them know how much he appreciates their work for the Lord.  Like Paul, we too ought to let others know how much we appreciate who they are and what they have done for the Lord and for us.

Now it is true that we should not put too much stock in what people think of us.  This is true also of other Christians.  The fact of the matter is that other believers can praise you when you don’t deserve it; they can also blame you when you don’t deserve it. The fact is, ultimately our allegiance is to Christ, and his opinion of us (which is always 100 percent accurate!) is what we should aim at more than anything else.  A word of affirmation from our Lord ought to be worth more than all the praises that all the world could heap on us.

However, that doesn’t mean that we should go around withholding praise from others, especially when praise is due.  We don’t want to become slaves to human opinion, true; but the fact of the matter is that we all need a word of affirmation from time to time, a hand on the shoulder, a slap on the back.  If all you hear from someone is blame when you go wrong but never praise when you do right, you are probably going to develop a sense of distrust and suspicion towards that person.  This is true of the relationship of parent and child; it is also true of the relationship of believer to believer.  Notice what Paul will say much later in this epistle: “Love one another with brotherly affection.  Outdo one another in showing honor” (12:10).  This is especially true if a brother or sister is “fainthearted.”  Such people really need to be encouraged (cf. 1 Thess. 5:14), and often the best way to do this is to show them honor through praise.

The failure to be this way is probably a signal that we think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think (cf. 12:3).  People who give too little praise with their mouths almost certainly harbor too much pride in their hearts.  We shouldn’t want to be first; we shouldn’t be waiting until we feel like we have been shown the appropriate honor before we show honor to others.  It is important that other believers know that we value them; it draws us closer to each other and makes the kind of fellowship that builds up more likely and possible. 

It’s important for us to be able to praise others because if we don’t we will inevitably focus on the wrong things.  We will tend to blow out of proportion their bad qualities while we ignore their good qualities.  We might even forget they have any!

It is also important to learn to praise others because in doing so we are not only showing love to them, but we are also imitating our heavenly Father.  If our Lord is willing to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” we should not hesitate to praise them as well.  Remember that Christ receives us freely and completely by grace.  He receives us, not because of our moral worth, but despite all our moral warts.   And yet, despite all our past titanic failures and shortcomings, he is willing to forget it all and give us praise when we are faithful in our little ways.  Let us do the same with each other.  In the final analysis, this is the outworking of the relationship as members of God’s family.  As such, we are committed to each other, and we partly show that commitment by mutual praise and encouragement.

Faithful Prayer

Next, Paul writes, “For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you” (9-10).  Paul had expressed his praise as thanksgiving to God.  This implies that he prayed for them.  Thus he writes, “For . . . without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers.”  Paul’s commitment to the Roman Christians meant that he prayed for them.  But not only did he pray for them, but did so “without ceasing” and “always.” Such was his commitment to them that when he prayed, the Roman Christians were never far from his thoughts.

Paul’s witness to this is God himself: “for God is my witness.”  When Paul prayed, he was confident that God listened.  This is the key to persevering prayer.  And I think the reason why the apostle was so confident God listened was because he served him “with my spirit in the gospel of his Son.”  Paul’s life, and his prayer life, was lived in the service of God and the gospel.  His prayers therefore weren’t selfish laundry lists of wants and wishes.  They were messengers sent to the heavenly Capitol City for the advance of the God’s kingdom and will upon the earth.  And that meant that his prayers included praise and supplication for the saints.

Now we don’t pray for the saints because God needs the information we give him in our prayers.  Nor is God somehow dependent upon our prayers as if they were some kind of magic potion that gives God the power to fulfill his will upon the earth.  No, rather, God allows us in prayer the privilege of cooperating with him in advancing his kingdom.  When God does this, it is not because he needs us, but because he loves us – there is nothing more exciting and invigorating than getting in on the one thing that will last into eternity.  And so the Lord allows us to help each other through prayer: “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Cor. 1:11).

I can think of few expressions of love more powerful than faithful and persevering prayer for one another.  When you care for someone and want to help them with some problem, you will want to recommend them to someone who can help them, if you can’t yourself.  Perhaps they have some medical problem and you know a doctor that will help them.  Maybe you even ask the doctor yourself on behalf of your friend.  In some ways that is what prayer is like.  There are so many ways in which we cannot help others.  But God is able when we cannot.  He is strong when we are weak, wise when we are foolish, and all-seeing when we are blind.  And so we bring our friends in prayer to the throne of grace.  Let us therefore pray for each other.  It is an enduring expression of our love and commitment to each other.

Personal Presence

One of the things the apostle had been praying is that he could be with them in person: “that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you.  For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you – that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.  I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles” (10-13).  

I suppose that Paul could have accomplished his purpose in soliciting the help of the Roman believers for the work of missions in the West by correspondence only.  But he is not content with that.  He desperately wants to come to them and be with them in person.  The apostle recognized what we all know intuitively: that personal presence is really important if we want to establish and maintain community and friendship.  There are ways that we can only build each other up by being present.  The apostle John also recognized this: “I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink.  I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face” (2 Jn. 13-14).  Face to face is always better than pen and ink.  It is also better than Twitter, Facebook, or a text message.

In particular, Paul wants to be “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (12).  This can only happen, according to the apostle, by being personally present.  I think it is important to notice that the apostle saw his own personal need of this.  He began verse 11 by saying, “For I long to see you that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you” – and then he says that they are not the only ones who will be strengthened; he too will be encouraged and strengthened as well.  Now if the apostle, with all his giftedness, saw the need to be encouraged by other saints, and believed that this could only happen by being with them, then we should see the folly of thinking that we can do just fine without the church.  We need each other.  We need community.  We simply cannot be committed to each other in real, meaningful ways unless we are willing to be with each other.

There is a greater temptation in our day, I think, to get along without being with other believers and just “do church” by watching a service on the internet.  Now I do not want to discount the blessing of being able to do just that.  But beware of replacing the church with the internet.  God did not ordain the internet to do the work of the church; he ordained the church to do the work of the church.  Beware of acting as if you are wiser than God.  You cannot replace the church with technology, as good as the technology might be.  

However, I am afraid that a lot of people go to church without ever doing church.  In other words, they go to a place to watch an event without ever becoming part of a community.  Here’s the deal: if you are not ministering to others and being ministered to, then you are not really personally present in the way the apostle is thinking of here.  And think about it: if the apostle thought he needed this, how much more do we?

 Gospel Proclamation

Paul saw it as his obligation to come to Rome, not to advance his cause but his blessed Lord’s.  Thus he wanted to come to preach the gospel: “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.  So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (14-15).  I love the way the KJV expresses verse 15: “as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel.”  The apostle strained every nerve in his body and soul to faithfully preach the gospel to all men.

Now, the interesting thing in this context is that Paul is saying this because he wants to preach the gospel in Rome to other believers.  I assume he wanted to reach the lost in Rome as well, but his main mission in Rome is to bless those who had already embraced the gospel with the gospel.  He wants to have a “harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles” (13).  That is very important.

It is important to notice this because we sometimes think the gospel is only for the lost.  However, it is for believers of all stripes, at every level of spiritual maturity.  We never outgrow the gospel; we never reach a place where we do not need to hear it anymore.  It is crucial for our spiritual growth and sanctification to keep constantly in our mind who we are in Christ and what resources we have in him.  The gospel is not just for the initial embrace of Christ by faith; it is for every step along the way.  We must never forget that Romans was not written for unbelievers, but for believers.  The “Roman Road” may be a good evangelistic tool, but the initial intention behind it was to bless the saints.  The apostle Peter implies that it is a loss of this vision that is responsible for spiritual declension: “For whoever lacks these qualities [faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brother affection, and love] is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins” (2 Pet. 1:9).  I take this to mean that when we forget what we have been saved from, we inevitably forget what we are saved to.  A failure to keep embracing the gospel is a recipe for spiritual disaster.

I don’t think the apostle only thought of himself as communicating the gospel to the Romans.  It is implied, I think, in being mutually encouraged by each other’s faith – a faith that is in the gospel – that this preaching of the gospel is in some sense mutual.  Thought it is true that not all are called to preach the gospel in an official capacity, yet we should all strive to remind each other of gospel realities.  In doing so we are encouraged (12) and strengthened (11).

Let me give you an example of how Paul does this in this epistle.  In Romans 6, after reminding us that in Christ we have died to sin and risen to righteousness (which is at the heart of what the gospel is all about), then he says, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions” (6:11-12).  In other words, Paul is telling them to let the logic of the gospel move them to mortify sin.  If you believe the gospel, you are going to kill the sin in your life.  If you do not believe the gospel, if you forget its truths, you are going to be more vulnerable to sin.  We need to be reminding each other of these truths.

I am so thankful that the Lord has put us in each other’s lives.  We all need each other.  I do not have all the spiritual gifts; I need yours and you need mine.  However, the way we help each other and express our mutual commitment is by doing what that apostle indicates in this text: by encouraging each other through praise, by holding each other up through prayer, by building each other up by personal presence, and by reminding each other of gospel realities by proclaiming its truths. 


Sunday, March 10, 2019

God's Commitment to the Saints at Rome – Romans 1:6-7

What is a Christian?  What does it mean to be a Christian?  And what benefit is there to being a Christian?  These are all questions that are addressed, in one way or another, in our text.  I am so thankful for this because more than ever, it is really important that we understand exactly what being a Christian entails.  It is important in this present cultural moment because Christianity no longer holds the cultural weight it once had.  In fact, it is becoming more and more disadvantageous to identify yourself as a Christian.  There is a lot of political inertia behind secularism and atheism in our society today.  It is scary to me to see how holding basic Christian convictions about sex and marriage that just a few years ago were totally innocuous is now a reason to call such a person a hater, a bigot, and to feel morally justified to attack that person and to shame and disenfranchise them in any way possible.  As a result, there is going to be more and more pressure on professing Christians to sell out their faith for a mess of postmodern pottage.  So many have done so already.  So unless you really believe that following Christ is worth it, you are not going to make it through the next few years.  But you are not going to know that it is worth it, unless you understand what a Christian really is.

So let me renew the question: What is a Christian?  

Let me begin with what a Christian is not.   You cannot Biblically identify Christianity with niceness, with certain political factions, or with social activism.  Now that doesn’t mean a Christian is not nice, or does not get involved with politics, or does not do social activism (though I would argue that certain kinds of social activism are incompatible with a Christian identity).  It just means that those things are not what fundamentally distinguish a Christian from a non-Christian.  After all, none of these things adequately describe what our Lord himself did during his own earthly ministry.

And there is the key.  Following Christ is what it means to be a Christian.  That is essentially what the name “Christian” means.  But even before that, Christianity was known as “the Way,” denoting a way of life that was demarcated by our Lord himself.  If you want to be a Christian, you must understand that does not mean you belong to a certain denomination.  It doesn’t mean that you have gone through some religious initiation ceremony.  It means that you are following Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.

But why would anyone want to follow Christ?  After all, his life led to an ignominious death.  His followers were harried out of the land.  For several hundred years they were persecuted, killed, shamed, and disenfranchised.  To be a Christian was to be despised.  So why would they follow Jesus as Lord?  

The answer is that when one becomes a Christian, when one comes to be “in Christ” as Paul will put it in Rom. 16:7, we no longer relate to God as enemies but as members of his family, since we are united to the Son of God by faith.  Our sins are forgiven, we are given the righteousness of God, and an inheritance that is eternal and unfading.  These are marvelous realities.  But the point is, we no longer find our identity in what we have done or who we are or what other people think of us.  Rather, we find our identity in Christ, in the Son of God.  And this identity is worth more than all the world could give us or take from us.  And that is what puts iron in the blood of a Christian when faced with a hostile world.

This identity comes with great and wonderful privileges and blessings.  Paul mentions two of them in our text, the love of God and the call of God, and I want to consider them with you this morning.  Each of these things describe all Christians.  Remember, Paul had never been to Rome.  This was not his church.  His only connection to many of these people is that, like him, they followed Christ.  This is all he knew about them.  So when he describes them, the descriptions he gives are things that belong to all believers in Christ, not just to some.  Note how he writes: “To all those in Rome.”  Of course, the “all” here is limited by the context to those who belonged to the church, to those whose faith was proclaimed in all the world (8).  Nevertheless, this was an “all-without-exception” to those who belonged to Christ in Rome.  And if you are a Christian, then these things describe you too.

“To those … who are loved by God” (7).

This is perhaps the most wonderful thing Paul mentions here.  And we must not miss the implications of this grand statement.  Every believer is loved by God.

Now, I want to push back here at a notion of the love of God that waters down the force of these words.  It comes from a failure to distinguish between the love that God has for all people as their creator and the special, saving love that God has for his people, his elect, as Paul will call them in chapters 8 and 9.  God does not love all men the same way.  He does not love those who reject his Son and refuse to repent with the kind of love Paul is talking about here.  If that were not the case, then there would be nothing special about what Paul says here.  There would be nothing to be amazed at.  There would be nothing to comfort and encourage the saints.  But the reality is that if you belong to Christ, then God loves you in the same way he loves his Son.  There is no higher love than that.

So when we think about this love of God, we have to note first of all that it is a special love.  It is what the apostle John was amazed at when he exclaimed, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God, and so we are” (1 Jn. 3:1).  As John points out, this is the love that the most perfect Father has for his children.  The Psalm puts it this way: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him” (Ps. 103:12).  It is a love that causes God to rejoice over us when we repent.  It is a love that embraces us in grace and peace.  It is a love that embraces us in the fellowship of the Holy Trinity: “I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (Jn. 17:23).  There is surely no love in the universe more special than that.  

Think about the implications of this.  If my child is in mortal peril, I would move heaven and earth if necessary to come to their aid.  They are a part of me; it would tear my heart out to see them hurting or in danger.  But if God loves you with the love Paul is talking about here, he loves you like that, but even better.  I think about what our Lord says at the end of the parable of the unjust judge: “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long over them?  I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily” (Lk. 18:7-8).  In other words, God is not a disinterested party when it comes to his elect.  He is not aloof.  He comes to their aid as a father comes to the aid of his son or daughter when they cry to him.  Or think about what our Lord said in the Sermon on the Mount: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him?” (Mt. 7:11).  There is an infinite “how much more” in the love that God has for his children and the love that a mom or a dad has for their children.

The fact that God loves some people with a special love is a corollary of the fact that God is not the Father of all men.  We do not believe in the universal fatherhood of God.  The Bible teaches that to be a part of God’s family, we have to be adopted into it, and this only happens when we belong to Christ.  For those people, and for none other, does God love them as a father loves his children.  

Not only is God’s love special, it is also saving.  By this I mean that this love begets our salvation, effects our salvation, and completes our salvation.  It is the love of God that is the spring of all his saving action.  It is God’s love also that keeps us and brings us to glory.  This is Paul’s point later in chapter 8: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).

Salvation does not mean deliverance from all the thorns and thistles of this life.  But it does mean that suffering will eventually be replaced with incomparable glory that lasts forever.  And this glory is the effect of being adopted into God’s family, of being forgiven and justified, sanctified by the Spirit and word, and finally glorified.  All this is the fruit of God’s love for us.  You can always judge a person’s love by what they are willing to give.  God has given his elect something better than all the world.  It is so good that it is worth it to give up the world for it, to lose one’s life in this world in order to gain the life that God’s love gives in the next.

God’s love is also particular.  That is to say, the love Paul is thinking about here is not some general good-will and compassion that God has for the world.  It is a special, saving, particular love.  God’s love is intimately personal.  You are on his mind and heart.  Do you remember what Paul said in Gal. 2:20?  “And the life that I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”  No one else in the world may care who you are.  No one else may know who you are.  But God knows who you are, and he loves you in particular.

Knowing God loves us ought to transform the way we look at this world.  It ought especially to transform the way we look at trials.  If God loves us, and God is sovereign over the world (which he is), then that means that there is no trial that comes to me that God has not sent from good and wise and loving purposes.  I may not be able to see what those purposes are.  But if God loves me I can be sure that the trial is good for me.  Nothing comes to me that has not first come through the hands of a loving Father.  I can endure the trial not knowing the reasons for it as long as I am sure that I am loved by God.  I can leave it in his hands knowing that I am in his hands.

It ought also to transform the way we look at his laws.  God loves us: this same God has given us commandments.  They are therefore not there to punish us, but to free us from things that are ultimately enslaving.  As the apostle John put it, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.  And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 Jn. 5:3).  They may feel that way to us at times, but that is the result of the indwelling sin that remains in our hearts.  God’s law is not restrictive but freeing.  His laws allow us to live in harmony with him, and that is the way we really live out what it means to be fully human, as created in the image of God.  Or as our Lord put it, “If you know these things [his commandments], blessed [happy] are you if you do them” (Jn. 13:17).

It should also free us from craving the approval of man.  If God loves us, let that suffice.  It does not matter ultimately what another worm of the dust thinks of you.  Paul knew that people looked at him and thought he was off his rocker.  And if Paul cared one whit about the opinion of others, he would have prematurely ended his ministry.  But he kept laboring.  Why?  He tells us: “For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.  For the love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor. 5:13-14).  It was God’s love for him that kept him faithful to the very end, not looking to the right or left for the approval of men.

We should therefore not be content with merely knowing about this love, but experiencing it.  There is no replacement for the assurance of God’s love for us.  There is nothing more bracing or more strengthening than to know that the God of the universe knows us and loves us with a special, saving, particular love.  This is essentially what it means to have the assurance of salvation; to know with utter certainly that God loves you.  Of course, if you are a believer, it is true whether you feel it or not.  But oh how we ought to want to know God’s love that passes knowledge, that we might be filled with all the fullness of God!

“Called to be saints.”

The next thing Paul says in verse 7 in addressing his audience is to describe them in terms of the word “calling.”  In verse 6, he had already pointed to this reality in the words, “you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.”  

Now it is very important that we understand exactly what the apostle is talking about here.  In the NT, there are two different types of calling.  There is the general call of the gospel, which is the call that goes out to all men to repent and believe the gospel.  This is what is being referred to, for example, in Matthew 22:14, when our Lord says that “many are called, but few are chosen.”

However, there is also what theologians have called the effectual call, because, unlike the general call, this call leads inevitably to repentance and faith.  This is the way Paul is using the term here in this text.  Note the comparison to Paul’s description of himself in verse 1: a “called apostle.”  Though this is not the same thing, in that this calling is a divine summons to a particular vocation, yet we all understand that the summons of Christ to Paul to be his apostle to the Gentiles was effectual.  In fact, in some sense, Paul’s call to faith in Christ and his call to be an apostle was one and the same event, so that there is a connection between the two.  

We see that this is the way Paul uses this term elsewhere in this epistle.  Consider, for example, Romans 8:29-30: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”  It is important not to miss the fact that the apostle does not say, “some of those . . . he also.”  This is an unbreakable chain from the first link down to the last.  Let’s start with the last one: “those whom he justified he also glorified.”  It is misreading the text to say that only some of those who are justified are also glorified.  Note the word “also.”  It means that you can’t have one thing without the other.  This means that those who are justified – all of them – are exactly those who are glorified.  If it were true that a person could be justified but not glorified, Paul’s words would be wrong.  He does not say that if you are justified you might be glorified, but that you will also be glorified.  Justification leads inevitably to glorification.

But back up.  The apostle had previously said that those who are called are also justified.  This just means that everyone who is called is justified.  But how are we justified?  The answer of the book of Romans, indeed of the entire Bible, is that it is by faith.  In other words, in between the calling and the justification faith must come in.  The calling Paul is speaking of here is effectual in the sense that it always leads to faith and justification.

You see this in other places as well.  Consider 1 Corinthians 1:21-24.  Here Paul is explaining why “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (18).  He goes on to say, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God though the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.  For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”  Paul’s argument is this: the gospel is foolishness to unbelievers.  It is folly to Jews who can’t understand the concept of a crucified Messiah and it is folly to Gentiles who can’t understand the concept of resurrection from the dead.  What then makes the difference?  If the gospel is seen as foolish by those who need it most, how is anyone going to believe?  Paul’s answer is, “but to those who are called . . . Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”  In other words, what makes the difference is this powerful and effectual call of God.  Clearly this is not a reference to the general call of the gospel since that is rejected by some.  But for those who receive this call, they no longer see Christ as impotent (as the Jews did) or foolish (as the Gentiles did), but as the very power and wisdom of God.

You see this also in our Lord’s words in John 6.  This chapter is very interesting, because in his interaction with the multitude that will eventually walk away from him, our Lord explains why they refuse to follow him.  He says in verse 36, “But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.”  Why?  “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (37).  The implication here is that they do not believe and will not come to Christ in faith (cf. ver. 35) because they are not among those given by the Father to the Son, since all such people will come to Christ.  

But how do we know someone is given by the Father to the Son?  Our Lord explains: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (44).  If the Father has given someone to the Son, he will draw him to his Son.  This drawing is what I understand Paul to mean by calling.  It is the divine and effectual summons to faith in Christ and salvation.  It is what makes the difference between staying lost and becoming saved.  This drawing, this calling, is necessary, because without it no one can come to Christ (not because there is any lack of faculties required to exercised faith and repentance but because there is no moral will and desire to come to Christ – it is a settled will not that leads to a cannot).  However, this drawing is also effectual because our Lord goes on to say, “And I will raise him up at the last day” (44).  In other words, our Lord says that those who are drawn are resurrected, very much like what Paul says in Romans 8.  

Just to make things as clear as possible, our Lord goes on to explain, “It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’  Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (45). Our Lord is equating being drawn by the Father with hearing from and learning from the Father – in other words, being called by the Father.  Our Lord says that everyone who is thus drawn comes to the Son in faith and repentance.  It is effectual.

Now we must distinguish between the general call and the effectual call of God.  But we most not separate them.  No, God’s normal way of operating is to call his people through the gospel call: “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brother beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.  To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2:13-14).  In other words, we shouldn’t take away from this is that evangelism is not necessary.  It is, because it is through evangelism that this call takes place.  If we want to see people called by God, we must see people called by the gospel.

Now how is it that God calls us to him?  It is by opening our eyes to the beauty of the gospel, to see our need for Christ, and his sufficiency to save.  It is a giving of spiritual eyes to see and spiritual taste buds to taste.  Jonathan Edwards put it this way: he said that this is “a true sense of the divine and superlative excellency of the things of religion; a real sense of the excellency of God and Jesus Christ, and of the work of redemption, and the ways and works of God revealed in the gospel.  There is a divine and superlative glory in these things, an excellency that is of a vastly higher kind, and more sublime nature, than in other things . . . He that is spiritually enlightened truly apprehends and sees it. Or has a sense of it.  He does not merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart.”

God loves you and he has called you.  Let the magnitude of what Paul is describing to sink in.  Paul is not saying that God loves us from afar, but that God has invaded our hearts to take away the blindness and the hardness so that we will come to Christ in faith and receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in his name.  He is not only at work for you but at work in you.  The work of salvation in your heart began with a work of God and is sustained by the power of God.  You are not on your own.  God is with you and in you empowering you so that despite all your weakness and failures you will persevere to the end and be saved.

Also, consider what an honor it is if God has summoned you to himself.  The King of the universe has called you!  What greater honor or privilege is there in this age or the age to come?  If the President called you to the White House, you would probably consider this one of the greatest honors of your life.  But our President is nothing compared to God.  

You can see this in what God has called us to.  He has called us to belong to his Son, Jesus Christ (6).  He has called us to be saints, to be set apart for himself, for his glory.  We are like the blind man who received his sight and then followed Jesus in the way.

Finally, consider what grace it is that God has bestowed on those whom he loves and calls.  When we look back on our past and consider how we came to Christ, we must ascribe all our salvation, from first to last, to the sovereign grace of our Lord.  He loved us and he called us (cf. 1 Cor. 1:26-31).  He is the one who made us to differ.  We should love him for it and give him all the praise.  We should give our lives to him.  He has called you to belong to him, to be set apart for him.  Don’t let the word cause you to be conformed to its ways.  Don’t allow the hostile environment of this world to turn your hearts away from God’s Son.  Be like that spider who builds nests of air-bubbles in the water; even so, learn how to live in a hostile world with the resources of God’s grace that come to us from his love and through his call.

Now if you have not come to Christ, then you are confronted this morning with the gospel call – that Christ is your Lord and he calls us to come freely to himself, to embrace him as your Lord and Savior and thus to receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  Your responsibility is not to wait for some mystical experience but to obey the summons of the gospel.  If you refuse to come, the fault is not in God but in yourself.  God will not stop anyone from coming to his Son.  All who come to him will be saved.  If you are not saved, it will only be for the hardness of your heart for which you will be justly held responsible.  However, knowing the fact that it is God who makes the difference ought to affect the way you approach him.  You don’t approach God as if he owes you salvation.  He doesn’t.  The only thing he owes us is damnation.  So we shouldn’t approach his throne with pride but with great humility.  We should come like the tax-collection of Luke 16, beating on our chest, bowing our heads, and beseeching God to have mercy on us sinners.  This is the only way to receive mercy.  But the wonderful news of the Bible is that when we approach God this way, through Jesus, that he gives salvation freely to all who come.  Today, this moment, come to him!

No Compromise (Rev. 2:12-29)

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