Monday, August 26, 2019

The Heart of the Gospel and the Message of Romans

What is the gospel?  Remember that “gospel” means “good news.”  The gospel, therefore, is primarily news.  Now news can be instructions to carry out.  But generally news is information about what is going on in the world around you.  If you watch the nightly news, you probably do so not so much to get instruction as to get information.  Of course, you can react to news, and sometimes there are right ways and wrong ways to react to certain varieties of news.  

For example, if you are over 20 years old, you can probably remember where you were at and what you were doing when you received the news that the Twin Towers in New York City had been attacked.  And most of us can remember how we responded to that news.  At the time I was taking some classes in a junior college.  One of my professors had a daughter who lived in NYC, and he was clearly pretty shaken up by the whole thing (his daughter was safe, thankfully).  That was his response to the news.  

In the same way, the gospel is news.  There is a right way and a wrong way to respond to this news.  The right way is to respond to the good news of the gospel is faith and repentance.  Theologians call this conversion.  There are also wrong ways to respond to the gospel, as in ignoring it, despising it, and rejecting it. 

The point I want to make here is that it is important to distinguish between the gospel and its appropriate response.  The call to faith and repentance is a call to respond appropriately to the news that is the gospel.  But that call for response is not itself the news.  Conversion is not the gospel.  This is important because sometimes people confuse the response to the gospel with the gospel itself.  As important as faith and repentance are, they are not the gospel; they are predicated upon the gospel.

Now why is this important?  It is important because unless we get the gospel right, we are never going to respond appropriately to it.  Going back to September 11, 2001, when I was first told by a classmate that a plane had flown into a building in NYC, I imagined a small Cessna plane.  Of course that would have been bad enough, but that was nothing like what really happened, and so at first my response to the news did not correspond to that terrible event because I had a wrong idea of what had in fact taken place.  In the same way, if we do not understand what the gospel is, our response of faith and repentance is likely to be far less than what God actually requires of us.

What then is the gospel?  This is an important question in terms of our exposition of Romans, because, as we have seen, this is what this book is all about.  The fact that the apostle would spend an entire epistle expounding the gospel must mean that it is central to what it means to be a Christian.  It is in fact God’s message to the world.  It is the good news that God has come in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, and that he has by his death and resurrection made a way for us to be saved from our sins.  That is the good news.

And as we pointed out in our exposition of Romans 3:21-26, the gospel is primarily the gospel of the righteousness of God, which among other things means that the gospel is something that God has accomplished for us; it is his saving activity to rescue his people by giving them a righteous status, justifying them and accepting them into his favor and fellowship.  It is “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” (22).  It is about how justification can come to us “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (24).  It is something God has done through Jesus Christ who was “put forward as a propitiation by his blood” (25).  What we see in this central paragraph is that whatever the gospel is, it is something that centers on the work of Jesus Christ, which is described for us as a redemption and propitiation.  Therefore, if we would truly understand the gospel, we must really come to grips with what Jesus Christ has done for us in the categories by which it is represented to us in the Scriptures.

Now at this point in our exposition of Romans, I think it is important that we stop and do this.  I have tried to give a good exposition of the first four chapters without getting too bogged down in theological minutiae or going down all the doctrinal rabbit trails that presented them to us along the way.  That is why I have tried to preach by paragraphs, instead of just focusing in on a single verse each time.  I don’t want you to lose the forest for the trees.  However, before we proceed any further, I think it is important that we stop and really focus on what is the central issue in this epistle.  And that is, what exactly did Jesus Christ accomplish on the cross?  For that is at the heart of the gospel.

This is also important because the work of Christ has been misinterpreted many times throughout the history of the church, even by people who are sometimes thought to be otherwise generally orthodox.  There have been many theologians who have wanted to interpret the work of Christ along the lines of a martyr, or as one who by his death merely wanted to influence others to do what is right.  Or sometimes his death has been interpreted as an act by which God showed the world just how much he hates sin, and hopefully by this demonstration you too will be led to hate sin and turn from it.  These are all, in one form or another, moral influence theories of the atonement.  They are very popular in certain circles of the Christian world, but they are not Biblical at all, and end up turning the gospel into something that it is not.  They are in fact dangerous and damning deviations from God’s sacred and saving truth.

What then did Christ do to save us?  I will argue that the saving work of Christ centers on the cross, and that he went there as a servant of his Father and a substitute for his people.  And as our substitute, his work can be described in four different ways: sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption.[1]

The work of Christ is primarily connected to his death on the cross.

The first thing I want to point out is the Biblical fact that when we talk about the saving work of Christ, we must center our ideas about it on his death on the cross.  Why?  Because this is what the NT does.  Some of the early church fathers focused as much or more on the incarnation as on the atonement as the means by which we are saved.  However, the NT spends relatively little time on the birth of Christ and almost all the time on the death of Christ.  You can see this in the gospel narratives themselves.  Of the four, only Matthew and Luke talk about the birth of Christ.  All of the gospels spend an inordinate amount of space, however, talking about the weeks just before and leading up to and including the death of Christ.  That was clearly the most important aspect of the gospel news.  

And it was the focus of our Savior himself.  His “hour” as he refers to it over and over again as recorded in the gospel of John, is the hour of his death.  As he put it in John 12:27, “Now is my soul troubled.  And what shall I say?  ‘Father, save me from this hour’?  But for this purpose I have come to this hour.”  The whole reason Jesus came into this world was for the hour of his death.  On the Mount of Transfiguration, what was it that Elijah and Moses spoke of with Christ?  We are told that they “spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31).  Here was a dramatic picture: here was the embodiment of all the Law and the Prophets united in pointing to the death of Christ.  

When we turn to the epistles, it is no different.  In Romans, when Paul wants to talk about what Christ has done for us, he speaks in terms of “propitiation by his blood” (3:25), as we have already seen.  The reference to his blood is of course a reference to his death.  He saves us by his death.  In 1 Cor. 15:3, where the apostle gives us a brief synopsis of the gospel, he does it like this: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.”  

Paul is not alone in this.  Peter reminds us that “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet. 1:18-19).  And, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Pet. 3:18).  The apostle John writes that, “By this we know love, that he [Jesus Christ] laid down his life for us” (1 Jn. 3:16).  And the author of the epistle to the Hebrews writes, “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12).  And we could go on and on like this.

The point, again, is that we cannot conceive of the saving work of Christ on our behalf without focusing on his death as the primary act by which he saved us.  The question then is, why this focus?  And why did he have to die?  And that leads us to our next point.

Christ came as a Servant.

This is the preeminent description of our Lord in the prophesy of Isaiah.  The one who is prophesied to take the sins of his people in Isaiah 53 is described in the previous chapter as the Servant of the LORD (Isa. 52:12).  This fits in exactly with how our Lord describes his mission: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (Jn. 6:38).  

It is for this reason that our Lord’s work is sometimes framed in terms of obedience.  For example, Paul writes that “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).  And note that his obedience is specifically tied to his death on the cross.  Also, the book of Hebrews says that “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.  And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb. 5:8-9).  

It is important to point this out because sometimes Jesus is pictured as coming to earth in order to get the Father who is angry with us to love us.  Seen in this light, Jesus and the Father are at cross-purposes with each other until somehow on the cross Jesus wins the Father over to the side of love.  But this is a gross distortion of the Biblical portrayal of our Lord’s mission.  Our Lord didn’t sneak down to earth in order to win the Father over to the side of love; rather he was sent by the Father himself out of love.  Both the Father and the Son are seen as acting together out of love in order to save sinful people.  “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn. 3:16).  This of course doesn’t mean that the wrath of God is not real; but it does mean that God out of love has averted his own wrath by willingly sending his Son who also willing gave his life for this purpose.

Christ died as a Substitute.

Most people who take the Bible seriously have to say that on the cross Christ did something for others.  But the question is, how did he act for others?  In what capacity did he act?  And the answer of the Scriptures is that he acted as a substitute. 

When we say that, we are saying something very profound.  We are saying that on the cross Jesus didn’t die as a martyr for a cause and he didn’t die as a cheerleader for change.  Rather he died in order to pay the sin debt that we all owe to God.  He took our place and our punishment so that we might be forgiven and accepted with God in the bonds of fellowship and family.

Now some people say this is a legal fiction; that there is no way a person can take someone’s sins and pay their debt.  They argue that though this might be possible with monetary debt (we all recognize that), yet it is not possible with moral debt.

But it is not a legal fiction if God so constituted the human family so that we could be represented in just this way by one man.  We will have to await the details, but that is precisely the way the apostle argues in Romans 5.  Again, this is precisely how the NT authors describe the death of Christ.

It is the way our Lord himself understood his own death: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:28).  It was no mistake that our Lord used the word “ransom” to describe what he was about to accomplish on the cross.  His words do in fact assume that what is true about monetary debt is also true of moral debt in terms of his ability to stand in for us and pay it.  We owe a moral debt to God because of our sins and this debt can only be paid by the punishment for those sins.  What our Lord is saying is that he will take that debt, the guilt and the punishment owed to God, and pay it himself.  He will ransom us.  And he will do this “for many” – the word “for” here means “instead of, on behalf of.”  He did this in our stead and in our place, as our substitute.

It is what the apostle is getting at when he wrote, “For our sake he [God the Father] made him [God the Son] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).  How can Christ be made sin?  Not by becoming sinful, for he knew no sin.  The only way this is possible is by taking upon himself the guilt of our sins and the penalty arising from that guilt.  He stood in our place as our substitute.

This is the meaning of the apostle Peter in 1 Pet. 3:18, where we are told that “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.”  It would be to do these passages immense injustice to interpret them to say that Christ died for us in some general way so that some good might come to sinful men as a result of his death.  No, he died for us in the sense of taking our place before the tribunal of God.  That is the plain meaning of each of these texts.

If that is not enough, then we need to be reminded of the OT background of the apostles’ thinking.  All the apostles recognized that Christ died in a way analogous to the sacrifices of the OT ritual.  But that ritual was clearly meant to convey the idea of substitution.  The one who brought an animal sacrifice to the altar would place his hand on the animal which was then killed.  Atonement was made by substituting the animal for the worshipper (e.g. Lev. 1:4; 3:2, 8, 12; 4:4, 15, 22, 29, 33; 16:15-22).  On the Day of Atonement this was accomplished by two goats, one which was killed and whose blood was sprinkled on the altar and one which was chosen to bear the sins of Israel to the wilderness.  It is in this light that the apostles understood the work of Christ, for he was the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world (Jn. 1:29).

This is just as clear in a prophesy about the Messiah 700 years before he came.  Isaiah writes, “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:5-6).  That’s substitution as clearly and succinctly stated as anywhere in the Bible.  

Now how does this tie in with message of Romans?  Well, we see substitution behind verses like 4:25, “who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”  But more to the point, it is the foundation of our justification, which is the main thing Paul has been laboring to explain.  Remember that justification is God’s just yet gracious declaration that we are righteous.  But how can a person who is in fact unrighteous be declared righteous without violating God’s own justice?  How can this be?

It can be because God has imputed the righteousness of his Son to the unrighteous so that they become in fact legally righteous before God.  Our sins have been paid for by Christ; they have no more demands upon us if we belong to Christ.  But more than that, we receive the righteousness of God so that we can be declared righteous.  This could not happen without receiving a righteousness that was not our own, for our righteousness is as filthy rags.  It can only happen when we receive the righteousness of God which is imputed and reckoned and counted to us freely and graciously by God himself.  God can do this because as our substitute Christ fulfilled all the requirements of God’s law in our place – he fulfilled the law’s precepts completely in his perfect life of obedience and he satisfied the law’s penalty fully in his perfect death upon the cross.  United to Christ, God sees his Son’s perfection, not our sins and imperfections.  

Another way to put this is that the imputation of my sins to Christ is inextricably linked to the imputation of his righteousness to me.  And that is the foundation of all our comfort.  I am reminded of the last telegram that J. Gresham Machen sent shortly before he died.  It was sent to his friend and colleague John Murray, and it said simply this: “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ.  No hope without it.”[2]  What he meant by “the active obedience of Christ” was the perfect life of obedience that Christ lived for us – not simply as a pattern for us but as our perfect substitute who fulfilled all its requirements in our place.  Indeed, no hope without it.

However, to understand more fully what he did as our substitute, we should consider four ways in which he stood vicariously for us on the cross.

1. Jesus died as a sacrifice for sins.  

This is implied when Paul describes the saving work of Christ in terms of his blood (3:25; 5:9).  We are saved because Jesus Christ sacrificed himself for us.  But again, we have to remember that OT background or this language (cf. 3:21).  Sacrifices were made because of sin; more particularly, because of the guilt arising from that sin.  A sacrifice enabled the worshiper in Israel to be rid of the guilt.  Of course, this was only figurative and a type.  But Jesus Christ is the one who fulfills all the types and shadows.  As our substitutionary sacrifice, he has rescued us from the guilt of sin.

2. Jesus died as a propitiation.

We have already come across this word in Romans 3:25 as it describes the saving work of Christ.  It also appears in 1 Jn. 2:2, 4:10 (it is a different though related Greek word, hilasmos).  As John Murray explains, “to propitiate means to ‘placate,’ ‘pacify,’ ‘appease,’ ‘conciliate.’  . . .  Propitiation presupposes the wrath and displeasure of God, and the purpose of propitiation is the removal of this displeasure.  Very simply stated the doctrine of propitiation means that Christ propitiated the wrath of God and rendered God propitious to his people.”[3]

A lot of people over the years have found fault with seeing the word this way, because they think this makes God look like a vengeful ogre, not a loving Father.  However, we must remember that the primary attribute of God in Scripture is his holiness and that one aspect of his holiness is his absolute purity and hatred of sin.  This does not make God arbitrary or wicked.  Rather, it is part and parcel of his holy nature and he wouldn’t be perfect without it.  It is essential to the infinite glory of his nature and being.  Yes, God is loving, but God’s love is a holy love – any other type of love would not be worth having, much less worshiping.  

That being the case, the wrath of God against sin is not something that God would need to be ashamed of.  God’s wrath is his holy and just and right response to our sins.  So if we would be saved, God’s wrath must be satisfied.  And what Paul is saying is that on the cross Jesus Christ satisfied God’s wrath by taking the penalty due to our sins.  Because of this, we can, through Christ, find God as our friend instead of our enemy, as our Father instead of our Judge.

3. Jesus died to reconcile us to God.

In the next chapter, Paul will say this: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:10).  Here Paul describes what our Lord accomplished on the cross in terms of reconciliation.

We must not, however, miss the implications of this term.  Being reconciled to God here doesn’t refer to our laying down our hostility towards God, though that is a result of the death of Christ.  Rather, it refers to the alienation that exists between God and ourselves because of our sins, and the removal of the cause of that alienation.  Note that the verse wouldn’t make sense if we read it like this: “If while we were hostile to God we laid down our hostility . . .”  Clearly you can’t lay down your hostility toward someone while you are still hostile! 

In other words, we shouldn’t interpret “reconcile” here in subjective terms.  Rather, it simply refers to the removal of the cause of the alienation that exists between man and God.  And that cause is of course our sin.  “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isa. 59:1-2).

As our substitute, Jesus died for our sins so that they no longer remain a barrier between us and God.  The gospel message is that Jesus has done this for us, and our response is to take advantage of that reconciliation. Isn’t this what Paul is getting at in 2 Cor. 5?  “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.  Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.  We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (ver. 18-20).

4.  Jesus died as our redeemer.

In Romans 3:24, the apostle tells us that we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  We all know what redemption is: it means being freed from bondage.  That is what Christ did for us on the cross as our substitute.  He died to redeem us from bondage to sins.  In particular, he died to redeem us from bondage to its power and bondage to it penalty and finally to its very presence.

With respect to its penalty, Paul writes to the Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Gal. 3:13).  The law here is God’s law, a law which we have all broken.  And the curse is the just penalty for our breach of that law.  Christ took it for us.  Note again the clear reference to Christ being “a curse for us.”  This is a curse that by all rights should fall on us, and yet our Lord intercepts it by standing in our place and takes it away.  

With respect to its power, the apostle writes to Titus that our Lord “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Tit. 2:14; cf. 1 Pet. 1:18).  Christ didn’t just die to save us from the guilt of our sins but also to save us from its grip.  The power of the cross does not just show up in terms of forgiveness but also in terms of repentance.  That is why it is always faith and repentance that are called for as the appropriate response to the gospel message.

But redemption in Scripture is far more inclusive than just “getting saved.”  It involves ultimately the entire renovation of the universe.  It involves our redeemed bodies as well as our souls and implies the resurrection.  All this was purchased for us on the cross.

May the Lord bless all of us to see what a perfect Savior Jesus Christ is, and to place our fullest trust in him as Lord and Savior.

[1] I am heavily indebted here to John Murray’s wonderful book, Redemption Accomplished and Applied.  See esp. chapter 2, “The Nature of the Atonement.”
[2] Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 3 (Banner of Truth, 1982), p. 64.
[3] Redemption Accomplished and Applied, chap. 2.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Faith that Justifies: Romans 4:17-25

The apostle has been exploring the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone.  He has explained that everyone needs to be justified since we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God: our unrighteousness has exposed us to God’s just wrath.  He then unfolded for us the gospel of the grace of God, how that because of what Christ did on the cross in our place and in our stead, we are able to be freely justified and forgiven when we trust in Jesus alone as our Lord and Savior.  And he has argued that this gospel is not something he and the other apostles have invented, but that it is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise.  Christianity does not add anything to the Jewish religion; it completes it.  

But this leads naturally to the question: if faith is so important, what is it?  What does justifying faith look like?

Paul answers this question by looking again to Abraham.  This makes sense, because Abraham is the father of all who believe, who “walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (4:12).  This makes it clear that the faith that justifies is a faith that looks like Abraham’s faith.

We see this point made again at the end of the chapter.  After the apostle spends several verses describing Abraham’s faith, he says this: “That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness’” (4:22).  In other words, because Abraham had this kind of faith, he was justified.  But then Paul goes on to apply this to his readers (and, by extension, to us): “But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also.  It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (23-25).  If you would be justified, you must have Abraham’s faith.

Now of course this doesn’t mean that there aren’t some differences due to salvation history.  It is true that, as our Savior put it to his interlocutors, “your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day.  He saw it and was glad” (Jn. 8:56).  Yet it is also true that he didn’t see everything that we have seen in the fulness of the coming of Christ on earth.  Yes, it is true that “the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed’” (Gal. 3:8).  So in some sense Abraham had the gospel.  And he believed the gospel, and believing he was saved.  That is the continuity between his faith and ours.  But there is also discontinuity because Abraham clearly didn’t see all the contours of the gospel as it was revealed in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We see more clearly.  And because of that, it is not enough for us simply to believe that God will show mercy to us in some generic fashion, but that he will show mercy to us in Christ.  Faith in the promise of God today means faith in Christ.  That is the point of verses 23-25.

In other words, this passage tells us that it matters how and what you believe.  It matters because without this faith, you are yet in your sins and exposed to the holy and just wrath of Almighty God.  Now I know to say that is offensive in our day, because we are constantly told (1) you can’t know what is ultimate truth, and (2) you shouldn’t force your belief on anyone else.  But neither of these claims will hold up to scrutiny.  For if you hold (1), then aren’t you claiming to know something about ultimate truth – namely, that there is no ultimate truth?  But if that’s not true, then what’s the point?  And if you hold (2), why would you argue with me that I shouldn’t force my belief on you?  Isn’t that what you are doing?  For isn’t it your belief that you shouldn’t force your beliefs on others – which is what you are trying to convince me to embrace?

Now it is true that we shouldn’t force our beliefs on others, if that means using physical force to buttress a certain worldview.  God forbid that we should ever return to the days when Christians imprisoned others (including Christians!) that didn’t agree with them on a particular theological point.  But it is not wrong to use persuasion to convince someone else to embrace what you believe to be true – in fact, it is loving, if that truth is connected to issues of eternal life.  And the gospel is tied to issues of eternal life.  

The point is that it is infinitely important that we embrace Jesus Christ as he is revealed to us in the gospel – as the God-man who died for our sins, who was raised again and ascended to heaven, and who did this for the sake of our sins so that we might be forgiven and justified and accepted into the family of God and given eternal life.  And the way we embrace Christ is by faith.  So the question once again is, what is this faith that embraces Christ and with him justification from our sins and eternal life?  The answer comes to us in verses 17-25.

But before we take a more detailed look at the passage, I want to point out that the overall object of faith in every generation is God’s promise.  Abraham believed in the promise of God to him and was justified.  As we believe in God’s promise to us in the gospel we too will be saved.  And I think it is important for us to see that the object of justifying faith is a promise by God to keep not a project for man to do.  What we are called to believe in order to be saved is not a list of things to fulfill, but rather we are called to look to the saving acts of God for us.  The promise is God-oriented, not man-oriented.  It is based on grace, not works (cf. ver. 16).  We have to beware of the perennial temptation of turning the gospel into a self-help manual with God thrown in.  

Another aspect of the promise that is important to note is the fact that the promise is generally future-oriented.  When God gave the promise to Abraham, it was completely in the future.  And even after he had been given Isaac, there were elements of the promise that awaited fulfillment (Heb. 11:13).  Now, even though the key element of the gospel promise must cause us to cast our eyes back to the cross and the empty tomb, yet even the atonement points us toward the future.  In particular, it points us toward resurrection and the new heavens and new earth.  This is important because we will become easily disoriented if we think that by believing everything gets better.  We must yet await the fulness of the promise.  In the meantime, we might be called to see some hard things and to endure some hard things.  That was certainly the case with Abraham, and it should not surprise us when it is the case with us as well.

But what about the promise does saving faith perceive?  The text points us to three realities about this kind of justifying faith.

Saving faith is a persevering confidence in the power of God behind the promise.

This is one of my favorite passages in the Bible, precisely because of the way God is described in verse 17.  There, he is portrayed as the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”  That is, the God who is the object of faith is the God of creation and resurrection.  This was especially relevant to Abraham because in order to believe in God’s promise he had to believe that God could create what didn’t exist, and that he could give life to the dead.  

Abraham certainly had to believe that God could create what didn’t exist because when the promise came that he would have a son and through him a family that would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, none of this existed.  This promise came to a relatively old man and to a woman who was barren.  Yet Abraham believed that God would fulfill his promise, even though humanly speaking there was no hope that it could happen.  Note the apostle’s description of Abraham’s faith in verse 18: “In hope he believed against hope, that he should be the father of many nations, as he had been told, ‘So shall your offspring be.’”  I love that: “against hope he believed in hope.”  When everything around him told him that there was no chance it could happen, Abraham persevered and trusted that God would fulfill his promise.

Also, Abraham certainly had to believe that God could give life to the dead.  Now you might be thinking of the story of Abraham being told to sacrifice Isaac.  And you would not be wrong to think that because the author of Hebrews explicitly draws this connection in his portrayal of the patriarch’s faith: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’  He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Heb. 11:17-19).  Abraham had such faith in the promise of God that he knew that nothing, not even death, could prevent it from taking place.

But there is another reason Abraham needed to believe that God could give life to the dead.  This is given in verse 19: “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.”  Here Abraham’s body is described as being “dead.”  In order for the promise to be fulfilled, this dead body had to be made alive again.  One-hundred-year-old men and ninety-year-old women don’t have children.  But Abraham was confident that God could do this since he had promised it.  For he is the God who can take what does not now exist and bring it into existence, and can take dead bodies and make them new again.

We need to reiterate the fact that this is not faith in ourselves.  This is faith in the God who is outside of us and who acts for us.  One of the tragedies of 19th century religious thought is that it gave birth to this attempt to make God immanent by replacing faith in the God who is revealed in Scripture with religious sentiment and faith in human progress.  We are living with the sad consequences of this kind of thinking in the present day.  What we need is not faith in ourselves, but faith in the God who is outside of us; not a God who is dependent upon us but a God upon whom we are dependent.  This was the faith of Abraham.  It may not be popular today, but it is the only kind of faith that God recognizes.  And it is the only kind of faith that will hold up against despair – which will remain hopeful in the face of hopelessness.  

My friends, we need to remind ourselves often of the power of God.  Think about the stars: our sun is a medium sized star, yet one of its solar flares can carry up to the same amount of power of many trillions of nuclear weapons exploding all at once.  That is inconceivable power – and yet God spoke stars like our sun into existence by his powerfully creative word.  There is no one who is powerful like God.  In our day with all our technological innovations we sometimes forget that we are mere creatures of the dust.  If we allow our arrogance to minimize the importance of faith and trust in the God of the Bible, we are the losers, not God.

But what’s really amazing about all this is that this is power for us.  God didn’t just reveal himself to Abraham as omnipotent in the abstract.  He revealed himself powerful in the behalf of Abraham (cf. 2 Chron. 16:9).  I love how the prophet Isaiah describes God in his mighty fortieth chapter: “Do you not know?  Do you not hear?  Has it not been told you from the beginning?  Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?  It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness” (21-23).  And he goes on like this.  But here’s the amazing thing: at the very end of this chapter, we read this: “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.  He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.  Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (28-31).  The God who created the stars is the same God who works for those who trust in him, for to wait on the Lord is to trust in him and to believe in his word of promise.

God’s power is still operative for his people today.  The supreme act of God’s power of course is found in the resurrection of Christ from the dead: it was by this, remember, that he was “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4).  But what is so tremendously hopeful about that exercise of God’s power is that it is the precursor to our own resurrection.  As Paul puts it later in this epistle: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11).

Moreover, it is the power of God that raises us up from a death in sin.  In fact, it is the same power that raised Christ from the dead, so that it touches not only our bodies but our souls as well.  As the apostle puts it to the Ephesians, he wants them to know “what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:19-20).  Again, it is a mistake to think of regeneration and new birth purely in terms of its human response in conversion.  It takes the mighty power of God to rescue us from our sins.  But the implication from this fact is very comforting: the God who began this good work in us will not stop to complete it until the day when Christ returns and presents us before his Father with unceasing joy (cf. Phil. 1:6; Jude 24).

Again we are reminded that God’s power is operative all throughout our lives.  We are kept by God’s power through faith (1 Pet. 1:5), and it is God’s power which is perfected even in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9-10).  It is God’s power which makes the preaching of his word effective (Eph. 3:7; Rom. 1:16). 

I think the Christian life in many respects is like the condition of the Israelites with the Red Sea before them and the Egyptian army behind them.  People don’t walk on water, and untrained civilians don’t defeat the world’s best army.  There seemed no way out.  But then God did the unexpected and unimaginable: he parted the waves of the Red Sea and allowed his people to pass through.  They didn’t do anything; as Moses put it, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today” (Exod. 14:19).  The Christian life is like that; it is about being still and knowing that God is God and watching him work salvation for you.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that we have nothing to do.  God works in us to will and to do of his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13).  But we need to understand that trust in God is not trust in ourselves, that we can do a better job, or be better people.  Rather, it is trust in the God who acts for those who trust in him, who wait for his power to work for them.

In my description of Abraham’s faith, I noted that it is persevering faith.  I say this because that is the only way to make sense of this passage.  If you know the OT narrative well, it seems strange at first that Paul would say that Abraham didn’t weaken or waver in his faith (Rom. 4:19-20).  He most certainly did on occasion!  The whole fiasco with Hagar and Ishmael was the result of a wanton lack of faith on both Abraham and Sarah’s part.  Or witness the multiple times Abraham lied about his relationship to his own wife in order to save his skin!  How then can the apostle say that Abraham never wavered? 

He can say this because he is describing the overall direction of Abraham’s life of faith.  Though there were times he stumbled through momentary unbelief, yet there was never a time where he wavered in the sense of losing all faith in the God of promise.  He always recovered.  In other words, Abraham persevered in his faith.  

In the same way, we can expect God’s people to have times of doubt and times when momentary unbelief seems to win the day.  But the power of God that gives us faith will keep us in faith.  With the recent well-publicized cases of apostacy of several sometime popular Christian leaders, we need to remember this.  If they were truly saved, they will return to the fold of faith.  But if they do not, it is not evidence that God’s power is insufficient to keep his people but rather that they were never saved to begin with (1 Jn. 2:19).

Saving faith is a full persuasion in the word of God that defines the promise.

Note the emphasis on God’s word to Abraham: “No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised” (20-21).  This points to the second observation I want to make about Abraham’s faith: it was faith in the truth of God’s word which was spoken to him.

Now to Abraham, this meant dreams and visions – and sometimes a visit from angels (and perhaps even the preincarnate Christ).  For us, it means the Bible.  What was said to Abraham, is written to us.  Justifying faith is faith in the promise of God – but the promise is inextricably connected to the word of God and for us the word of God is inextricably connected to the written Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

We can sometimes forget just how much of a blessing is the word of God in the Bible.  I was reminded of this not long ago when reading 1 Sam. 3:21, which reads, “And the LORD appeared again at Shiloh, for the LORD revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the LORD.”  How does God appear and reveal himself to us?  He does so by his word, by the word of the prophets, words which are recorded for us in the pages of the Bible.  Do we value it like that?

My friends, without the word of God firmly recorded in the Bible, we are left with our own words.  If the Scriptures are just the words of men and no more, there is nothing to hope in and nothing to hope for.  Faith is not just faith in some generic God or faith in some generic hope that things will turn out well for us in the end.  Rather, the faith that justifies is faith in the sure word of promise which for us is recorded in the Scriptures.  

This is faith in all of God’s word.  Abraham didn’t just believe in some of God’s promise; he believed all of it.  Like the apostle Paul himself, who was able to say, “But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God . . . that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:14-15).  Do we also believe everything laid down in the Bible?

Note also that this is how Abraham glorified God: he gave glory to God by believing in his word, by “being fully persuaded that what he had promised he was able also to perform.”  We can talk all day long about being “God-centered,” but you simply can’t be God-centered unless you are also Scripture-centered.  God is glorified when we take him at his word, even when that word seems hopelessly remote or impossible of fulfillment.  This is hard because we all want to be in control.  We want to know what is going to happen next.  We want to be able to see the end before then end comes.  But that is not how we glorify God.  We glorify God when we give up control over our own lives and leave them completely in the hands of God, trusting in his good and gracious providence.

It seems to me that this is why we are so prone to unbelief.  We are not prone to unbelief most often because of a lack of evidence, though that is the excuse that many give.  We are prone to unbelief because the alternative is letting go of self-sovereignty and we don’t want to do that.  However, when we do, God is glorified because now he is truly at the center of our lives.  What might be surprising, however, is that the walk of faith is also far more fulfilling and joyful than thinking that we are the captain of our fate (which is a mirage anyway).

Saving faith is humble trust in the gospel of God in the promise.

The word of God in the promise directs us to the mercy of God – to God the Father who delivered up his Son, and to the Son who was delivered up for us.  This faith involves three elements: (1) that I need to be saved, (2) that I cannot save myself, and (3) that God saves sinners.

The last two verses in our text (24-25) highlight the fact that our salvation is wholly outside of ourselves and entirely a work of God in Christ, just as Abraham could not of himself fulfill the promise of God to him.  “It [righteousness] will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”  For the forgiveness of our sins and justification are fruits, not of our doing, but of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  

Of course we must believe, and this is something that we do, but we must also remember that faith is not the righteousness that justifies but the means by which we receive the righteousness that justifies, the hand that receives the free gift.  The call to have a faith like Abraham’s is not a call to make ourselves better, but a call to trust in the God who through Christ makes us perfect and brings us into fellowship with him entirely upon the basis of grace.  It is a call to look away from ourselves and to the God who saves.

What kind of effect should this have on us?  What kind of people will we be when we with Abraham trust in the God of promise?  I think it will create in us the following attitudes.

First, as people who have confidence in the power of God, we will be increasingly freed from despair and more and more defined by hope.  And this hope does not shame us in the end (Rom. 5:5).  It will increasingly bring freedom from slavery to circumstances.  I think it is interesting that in verse 19, the text says that Abraham “did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.”[1]  True faith does not stop us from considering our circumstances.  But it also does not enslave us to them.  Faith sees that God is over all and that the wind and the waves do not have the final word, but the one who can calm them with a single word does.  Faith brings boldness and courage in the face of fear.  One thinks of the three Hebrew children who refused to bow to Babylon’s idol.  That is what faith in the power of our sovereign God can do.

Second, it will bring our lives more and more in conformity to the will of God for us in his word.  It will produce the peaceable fruit of holiness in our lives.  For it is impossible to bind ourselves in faith to the promise of God in his word and not also bind ourselves to the precepts of God in his word.  Faith and obedience go together.  There is no such thing, Biblically speaking, as a life of faith that consistently produces the poisonous fruit of unholiness.  It is not without reason that the word for “faith” in Scripture can also be translated “faithfulness.”

Finally, it will beget joy in the mercy of God that we enjoy through faith.  Faith apprehends the gift of God and brings it home to us so that we really enjoy it.  Now it is true that we don’t enjoy it as we ought.  We are too often filled with doubts and fears.  Thank God that we are not saved by the amount of our faith but by the object of our faith.  But those who believe cannot but be hopeful and hope is always pregnant with joyful confidence.  One thinks of that description in Hebrews of “our boasting in our hope” (Heb. 3:6).

May God make it true of all of us, more and more.

[1] There is a textual question here, as some manuscripts include the word “not” – so that Abraham “considered not his own body now dead, neither yet the deadness of Sarah’s womb” (KJV).  This doesn’t change the overall meaning of the paragraph or the point that the apostle is making.  If this is the correct reading (though it seems that external evidence favors the omission of the word “not”), it would just be saying that Abraham did not allow his external circumstances overwhelm his faith.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Not by Law but by Faith – Romans 4:13-16

We begin this section of chapter 4 with a new word that the apostle introduces to us, the word promise.  Thankfully, we are not left to wonder what this promise is; we are told that it is the promise that “Abraham should be the heir of the world” (13).  The only problem is that nowhere in the OT is it explicitly stated that Abraham was promised to inherit the world.  So what is Paul getting at here?  What does he mean by this?

Well, there are a couple of clues in the text itself.  When Paul does quote the OT in this regard, he quotes Gen. 15:6 (in verses 3 and 22) and 17:5 (in verse 17).  In Genesis 15, remember that God promises Abraham that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and that his descendants would inherit the land of Canaan.  The Lord is so insistent that Abraham believe this that he backs up his promise with an oath.  He is serious about this.  In fact, he is so serious that he kept reminding Abraham of this fact again and again throughout his life.  In chapter 17, at least 13 years after the events of chapter 15, God comes back to him and establishes the covenant of circumcision with him, changes his name from Abram [“exalted father”] to Abraham [“father of a multitude”], and says, “I have made you a father of many nations.”  It is probably with reference to this latter promise that Paul is saying that Abraham was the heir of the world.  If Abraham is the father of many nations, then it is a small interpretive jump to arrive at “heir of the world.”  

This is in fact how the rest of the OT interprets this promise.  For the Messiah, who would ultimately bring the Abrahamic blessing to the world, is addressed by God in Psalm 2 in the words, “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession” (ver. 8).  Or consider again the Messianic prophesy of Isa. 2:2-4.  “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills, and all the nations shall flow to it, and many people shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’  For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.  He shall judge between nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”  The Abrahamic blessing was never intended to be confined merely to the nation of Israel; it was eventually to envelope all the world.

It comes back to that basic promise in Gen. 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  Remember that Paul himself quotes this in Gal. 3:16 and refers it to Christ.  Christ will bring the blessing of Abraham to all the world.  That is what the apostle is referring to here in Rom. 4:13.

And this is what Paul is getting at when he comes back again and again to the fact that Abraham is the father of Jew and Gentile, of the circumcised and the uncircumcised.  Paul is saying that the promises made to Abraham come to permeate the world by the means of faith.

Saved by faith, not by Law-Keeping

The apostle is of course continuing the argument begun at the beginning of chapter 4.  He is arguing that we are justified and forgiven and made right with God on the basis of what Christ has done for us, and that this new status of forgiveness and acceptance with God is received, not on the basis of works, but on the basis of faith and grace.  In verses 1-8, he argues, on the basis of the example of Abraham, that we are not justified by works but by faith.  Salvation is not a matter of merit but of grace.  Then, in verses 9-12, he argues that we are not justified by circumcision.  Now, in the text we are looking at this morning (13-16), he is arguing that we are not justified on the basis of law keeping.  

In some sense, this is very closely connected to what he has already said in verses 1-8.  In both places the apostle is telling us that we cannot be justified by our works, by our doing.  But there is a difference, and the difference is that the standard being referenced in verses 13 and following is specifically the Law of Moses.  The apostle’s argument is along the lines of that in verses 9-12: just as Abraham was not justified by circumcision, since circumcision was given many years after Abraham was justified by faith, even so Abraham was not justified by the Law of Moses, since it was given (as Paul reminds us in Gal. 3:17) 430 years after the promise to Abraham was made.   And that promise was ratified on the basis of faith, not works.

However, Paul’s argument goes further in the following verses.  He explains why we cannot be justified on the basis of works.  Now you might be thinking – “Wait a minute, I thought Paul already did that in chapters 1-3!”  And you would be right.  He has already made the case that sin is universal and that we cannot by our works undo the damage done.  We must be saved through the atonement accomplished by Christ and receive this atonement on the basis of faith.  However, the reality is that we need to be convinced of this fact over and over again.

But more than that, history teaches us that despite this fact of universal sin and total depravity, people tend to think that we can do something about it.  And the Law of Moses was the perfect place that many of Paul contemporaries gravitated toward as God’s answer to our sin.  They thought that here was something given to us by God that we could use to straighten ourselves out.  If you kept the Law faithfully, you would be saved.  That is what Paul is responding to here.

Now this is very relevant in our day as well.  Because there are a lot of people who think of the NT in the same way that Paul’s contemporaries thought of the OT.  They think that if we just obey God’s word in the Bible, then we will be saved.  The focus is not one of trusting in what Christ has done for them, but of what they are doing for Christ, and that is the basis of their hope of salvation.  You can turn the NT into law if you are not careful.  The passage before us speaks to this mindset just as much as it does the mindset focused solely on the Law of Moses.

What then does the apostle say?  He explains in verse 14 why it is that the promise cannot come by the Law of Moses: “For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.”  Hear what is being said: if inheriting the promise comes through law-keeping, then faith is useless and the promise is unattainable.  In other words, Paul is saying that there is no salvation by works of the law.  But that is not all he says: in the next verse he tells us why there is no salvation by law-keeping.  

“For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression” (15).  This verse is very important in understanding what the apostle is getting at here.  There are two questions we should ask of the text at this point.  The first is: Why can the law not save?  Answer: because the law does not bring salvation, it brings wrath.  The second question is: Why does the law bring wrath?  Paul’s answer: because the law does not produce obedience, it produces sin.  “Where there is no law there is no transgression.”

Now someone might disagree with me here and say that what the apostle is really saying in this last phrase is not that the law does produces sin, but rather that it defines it.  Therefore, what the text says is that without the law there would be no sin (since it would not be defined and therefore would not exist), and without sin there would be no wrath, and that is why the law cannot save.

Well, there is truth in that, but I don’t think that’s the point here.  Law does define sin.  But remember that Paul is referring to the Law of Moses here.  That’s important because in the next chapter he tells us that sin was already in the world before the law of Moses was given (5:13), so it can’t be that the function of the Mosaic Law here is that it defines sin.  Sin did not necessarily become sin because of the Mosaic Law.  It was already there.

Moreover, saying that the law defines sin doesn’t explain why the law brings wrath.  The defining nature of the law by itself is not a reason that the law cannot save.  In fact, some might argue that this is the reason the law can save: it tells us what not to do so that we can do the right thing and earn God’s favor.  But that of course would be to turn Paul’s argument on its head.

What does it do then?  Well, later in chapter 5, the apostle tells us: “Now the law came in to increase the trespass” (5:20).  To say that the law increases the trespass is another way of saying that the law produces sin.  This is the reason the law cannot save: when it meets rebel hearts – and apart from grace all our hearts are rebel hearts (that’s the point of chapters 1-3) – the law does not inspire obedience, it produces sin.  Paul will elucidate this very point further in chapter 7.  We’ve already touched on that, so I won’t linger on that point.

To summarize the apostle’s argument then, he is saying that we cannot inherit the Abrahamic blessing (be saved) by keeping the Law of Moses but only by the righteousness that comes through faith.  This is another way of saying that we cannot be justified by our works or by our obedience, but only by faith alone.  And the reason we cannot be justified by obedience to the Law is because the Law cannot save.  And the reason the Law cannot save is because it produces sin, not obedience, and sin is always punished by God’s righteous and holy wrath.

Now at this point a couple of questions come to my mind.  One is: what does this say about our hearts apart from grace?  I ask this question because the way Paul connects God’s law and our sin implies that our hearts are hostile to God’s law apart from grace.  And thinking through this is important because it shows us just how dependent upon God’s grace we really are.  And we need to see that, because unless we do we will never depend upon God’s grace as we are meant to do.  

The second question is: what does this say about the role of God’s law in the life of a believer?  Because if the law produces sin, should it have any role in the life of someone who is saved?  My answer is yes, but let’s look at each question in turn, starting with the first.

What this text says about our hearts apart from grace

What it says is that we cannot obey God’s law by nature apart from grace.  This is because God’s law does  not inspire obedience but sin.  Now that doesn’t mean that unsaved people can’t be nice or do good things or tell the truth or abstain from sexual sin and so on.  What I mean by this is that people who are unsaved will not and cannot submit themselves to the authority of God over their life.  You can do a lot of the things God’s word tells you to do and abstain from a lot of the things God’s word tells you to abstain from, but if you retain the right to decide the direction of your life and your choices, then you are not submitted to God and you are not saved.  And that is the problem with all of us apart from God’s grace.

Now some people get nervous here because they think that if we cannot obey God’s law then we are not obligated to obey God’s law.  But this principle of “ought always implies can” is nowhere taught in the Bible.  Let me give you an illustration of the opposite of that principle.  

Do you remember the story of the slave who owed 10,000 talents?  It is related for us in Matthew 18:21-35.  Let me ask you this: was that slave able to pay his debt?  The answer is obvious: he was not able to pay his debt.  Saying that a slave could pay that kind of debt is like saying a person making minimum wage could pay off a multi-billion-dollar debt.  It’s not going to happen.  In fact, the text says that “he could not pay” (25).  Did you hear that?  Could not.  He was not able to pay his debt.  But here’s the point I want to make: did his inability to pay the debt release him from the obligation to pay the debt?  It did not.  Ought does not always imply can.

We are responsible to obey God’s law regardless of whether we are saved or not.  But the Bible says that if we are not saved we can’t obey it.  This is what the apostle is getting at when he says, “where there is no law there is no transgression.”  Law produces transgression in sinful people, which we all are.  The can’t doesn’t relieve us of the ought.  But neither does the ought imply that we can.

Listen to what the apostle will say in chapter 8: “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.  For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do” (2-3).  Notice that Paul says that the law could not do something.  What is that, and why is that?  Well, the why is given to us at the beginning of verse 3: “weakened by the flesh.”  There is something wrong with us, and Paul describes it by “flesh.”  “Flesh” is what we are apart from the life-giving influence of the Spirit of God.  

But what is it that the law could not do?  Paul goes on to write: “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (3-4).  That is to say, the law could not create the fulfillment of its requirements in us; it could not create obedience in us.  It was unable to do that because of sin and sinful flesh, what we are apart from grace and the life-giving influence of the Holy Spirit of God.  What Paul is getting at is that the law can order you around all day long, but its commands will never create the obedience they call for, and the reason is because we are in the flesh, we are dead in sin.

Paul goes on, “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (5).  If you are in the flesh, you are not going to set your mind on the things of the Spirit, but on the things of the flesh.  How then could such a person be saved?  Only be becoming a person “in the Spirit.”  But this does not come by law.  It comes totally in a gift of grace.

“For to set the mind of the flesh is death, but to set the mind of the Spirit is life and peace.  For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.  Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (6-8).  I want you to hear that word cannot in verses 7 and 8.  This is not something that St. Augustine or John Calvin invented.  This is the apostle Paul saying that an unsaved person is not able to submit to God’s law or please God.  Why does the law not save?  Because an unsaved person is not able to obey God’s law or please God through obedience.

Now again, does this release them from the obligation to obey God’s law?  The answer is of course, no.  And the reason is that this inability to obey God’s law comes from within the person.  God does not hold us down and force us to disobey.  We willingly disobey.  We intentionally disobey.  We knowingly disobey.  But this does not take away from the fact that in the exercise of our will and mind and heart, we are hopelessly enslaved to our sin, and unless God rescues us by a sovereign act of grace, we will be forever lost.

And this means that we need to depend, not on our works, not on our obedience, but on the grace of God.  There is no hope for any of us apart from the grace of God in the giving of his Son to die for us and in the giving of his Spirit to make us men and women of the Spirit.  And we not only are to depend upon him for the initial giving of life and righteousness, but also for every step that we take toward heaven.  You are not kept by your own efforts.  Rather, you are “kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed” (1 Pet. 1:5, KJV).

And praise God for that, because this means that our salvation is secure.  This is what the apostle goes on to say in verse 16: “That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring – not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the faith of us all.”  The promise of salvation is guaranteed to all who believe, precisely because it is depends on faith and grace rather than law-keeping.  If my obedience to God’s law were the standard by which I marked my path to heaven, I could have no confidence that I was going to make it there.  But since I am saved only on the basis of grace because of what Christ has done for me, now I can rejoice in the hope of eternal life.

What this text says about the role of the Law in the life of a believer

The last issue we want to deal with is this: if it is true that the law provokes sin, not obedience, what role does it play in the lives of the saved?  Now here is a crucial distinction.  The law of God, whether that is found in the Law of Moses, or the commands of the New Testament gospels and epistles, is the rule by which we are to live.  But we don’t obey the law to earn God’s favor to be saved (which is impossible, as we’ve been arguing); we obey the law to please God because we are already saved.  We don’t obey the law to make God love us, we obey it because God already loves us. 

Obedience is very important, and nothing we have said undermines that.  Because the NT says that even though you are not saved by obedience to the law, yet when God saves us, he begins to make us holy people.  Sanctification begins when we are born again and justified.  Holiness is not the basis of our salvation, but it is the evidence of it.  So if you have no desire to be holy, then you have no evidence that you are truly saved.  

Moreover, when we are saved, we are given new desires and affections.  We are new creations (2 Cor. 5:17).  To have no longing for heaven and Christ and holiness is just to show that you were never saved.  If you are content with living in and loving the darkness, then you have never come to the light.  Those who are born of God see the kingdom of God, they do not remain in darkness (Jn. 3:3-5).  If your ears are not delighted to hear the gospel, and if your feet do not long to run in obedience to God’s commands, then you are yet dead in your sins.

All of us ought to want to be more and more holy.  Because if we are saved, we will love Christ, and how can we love Christ and yet love what he hates?  Listen, there is nothing freeing about staying in our sins.  There is nothing really desirable about letting that vice remain in our lives.  Let us be rid of our sins, let us crucify them and mortify them and turn from them with all the might of grace that God gives to us.  

To conclude: don’t let the Law (whether NT or OT) turn you away from depending upon God’s grace to you in Christ.  Trust in Christ and depend upon him for your life and salvation.  And trusting in him, live for him – not to gain his favor, but because by grace we already have his favor.  

The Seals of the Scroll (Rev. 6)

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