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!