Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Suffering and Sonship – Rom. 8:17-18

“What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”  Such is the pronouncement of our Lord concerning the marriage bond.  But the principle is far more extensive.  There are some things that God in his wisdom has married together, put together.  Things like faith and works, holiness and heaven.  And, surprisingly, suffering and sonship. 

The crowing blessing bestowed by grace upon those who are saved by Jesus Christ is adoption into the family of God, so that we become sons and daughters of God.  We saw last time at least partly what this means and how the Holy Spirit testifies to this reality in our hearts and lives (14-16).  However, this is not all the apostle has to say about this.  In the two verses before us we have two further implications of adoption into God’s family, both of which are surprising, though in very different ways.  So I want to talk about these two things, what they are, and then to consider how they fit together. 

Heirs of God

The first thing the apostle says of the sons and daughters of God is that they are his heirs.  We might expect that, for it is normal for children to be their parents’ heirs.  However, we should not expect that this works exactly the way it works down here.  For in this world, it is usually not until the parents die that the children inherit their possessions, or possibly a title or position (as a prince or princess inherits the crown when the King or Queen dies).  But God does not die, and he is never going to vacate his throne.  There is a very real sense in which his glory he will not give unto another (Isa. 42:8).  What does it mean, then, for the children of God to be the heirs of God?  It means at least three things.

It means they are heirs of all the promises of God has made to those who belong to his Son. 

In Romans 4:13, Paul summarizes the promises which God made to Abraham, and through Abraham, to those who share his faith, “that he would be the heir of the world.”  In Hebrews 6, we are encouraged by the fact that, “when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had not one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, ‘Surely I will bless you and multiply you’” (13-14).  But again this was not just a promise to Abraham, but to all who belong to Abraham’s seed, the Lord Jesus Christ.  And so the author goes on to apply it to his readers: “So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.  We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (17-20).  We are, with Abraham, heirs of the promises of God.  These are the promises of blessing and salvation in Jesus Christ, for, as the apostle puts it to the Corinthians, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him [Christ].  That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Cor. 1:20).  It is the promise of eternal life (Tit. 1:2).  It is the promise of being kept by God until the end, that he will never leave us or forsake us (Heb. 13:5-6; Mt. 28:20). 

The wonderful thing about God’s promises are not only their content (eternal life, God’s protection and blessing and fellowship), but also the fact that they are sure.  This is emphasized in almost every passage where God’s promises are talked about.  Unlike us, God doesn’t say yes and then no.  He cannot lie and he doesn’t go back on his promises.  He isn’t weak, so he always fulfills them.  God’s promises are always something you can take to the bank.  We truly “have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”

To be heir of God is surely to be an heir to his promises.  There are no promises like the promises of God.  They support us in the present and point us to the future.  But that is not all it means to be an heir of God.

It means they are heirs of the glory to be revealed.

Paul writes, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (18).  This glory is a sharing in the glory of Christ, since the apostle says in the previous verse that we are to “be glorified with him [Christ]” (17).  This, in turn, explains what the apostle means when he describes our being “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.”  So being an heir of God means that we will one day share in the glory of our Lord.

Now there is, as we’ve already pointed out, a very real sense in which God does not share his glory.  We never shall, nor even can, become divine in the sense of sharing in the essential nature of God.  God is infinitely greater than us, and there is no way a finite being could ever be absorbed into the being of God.  That is pantheism, not biblical theism.  There is now and will always be an infinite distance between us and the Triune God.  He is transcendent, and will ever remain so. 

However, there is another sense in which we will share God’s glory.  It must be so because any glory that is true glory, and not a false, fake, and fading glory, must come from God in the first place.  There is coming a time when the saints will “shine like the brightness of the sky above” (Dan. 12:3).  When Moses saw the glory of God, his face shone.  When our Lord was transfigured, even his clothing shone so bright that they could not possibly be any whiter.  These are images that point us to glory to come, a glory we will share with Christ: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20-21).  It is the glory resulting in immediate access to the place where God’s glory is most fully revealed.  It is the result of being without sin, and being unstained by anything impure or corrupting.  It is the glory of the resurrected body, a body which will be raised imperishable, in glory, and in power (1 Cor. 15:42-43).  “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man in heaven” (1 Cor. 15:49). 

It is a glory which Paul says is not worthy to be compared to the glory which shall be revealed in us (18).  That’s an interesting statement, isn’t it?  Why doesn’t Paul compare the glory to come with the glory of this world, instead of its suffering?  One might argue that of course the glory to come is not to be compared with the coming glory!  That goes without saying.  Now one reason, obviously, is because of the connection of verse 17 to 18.  If we are to suffer, what about the glory to come makes it worth it?  Paul’s answer implies that there is no suffering here on earth that makes it worth it to ditch to coming glory in order to avoid present suffering.  There is always the temptation to do that when suffering comes, and Paul reminds us that the glory to come makes that choice look stupid. 

But I think there is another reason.  There is suffering that can take away the glory of any earthly advancement.  We all know this to be true.  There are certain things people go through that, no matter what power or privilege or pleasure they have access to, does not make it worth it to go on living.  There is suffering that can undo any earthly glory.  But no so the glory to come.  As the hymn puts it, “There is no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.”  It is a glory which will swallow up all the unsavoriness of the present age.  There is coming a day when death will be swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:54), and we would do well to be mindful of that.

It means they are heirs of God himself.

Paul writes, “If children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (17).  Our Lord said, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn. 17:3).  To know God is the greatest glory.  Everything good we have or experience comes from the hand of God in the first place.  Now there are instances in this world where we may prefer the gift over the giver.  But not so God.  He is infinitely exalted above every gift, infinitely greater than every blessing, so that to desire the creature above the creator is not only idolatry, it is insanity.  But this also means that to know God and to love him and to have fellowship with him is the sum of all blessings. 

I think this is what Paul means when he says that we are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.  We are allowed the holy privilege of one day entering into the very fellowship of the Trinity.  It is what our Lord spoke of when he prayed, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (Jn. 17:24).  Like the Levites, God will be our inheritance (Num. 18:20).

Now the reason why Paul adds the phrase, “and fellow heirs with Christ” is to remind us that our inheritance is not merited in any sense of the term, but rather is a gift of grace from first to last.  The only way we have access to God and nearness to the throne of grace, is because of what Christ did for us on the cross, absorbing our debt and meriting righteousness for us.  But it also reminds us that our inheritance is certain.  If it were to depend upon us, we would be in trouble.  But it doesn’t; we are safe in Christ, who as the Good Shepherd, keeps his sheep and no one can take them out of his hand – not even themselves.

Now the fact that this inheritance is future ought to warn us against a view of the Christian life that leaves no room for present suffering.  We ought to beware of what theologians call an over-realized eschatology; that is, saying that the future promises are already present.  That happened in NT times when Hymenaeus and Philetus swerved from the truth and argued that the resurrection had already happened (2 Tim. 2:17-18).  But this tendency is present in our time as well, through the preaching of the prosperity gospel peddlers.  Therefore, the other reality that Paul speaks of in these two verses is a healthy reminder in the face of these aberrations.  And that brings us to our second point.

Suffering with Christ.

We are heirs of God, yes.  But the apostle adds this condition – “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (17).  Many of us would rather that Paul had not written that!  No one wants to suffer.  However, this is a helpful reminder because it keeps us from holding on to that soul-destroying belief that because we are children of God, now life has to be good.  There are tons of false teachers out there who say that if you have enough faith and if you sow enough good deeds, God is going to prosper you materially, physically, relationally, and so on.  That is not true.  It is a false gospel.  For, as Matthew Henry put it, we are not got into heaven so soon as we are through the gate.  There is a narrow way that follows the strait gate.

There is however, another wrong turn we can take.  We go wrongly if we think that this verse means that our suffering merits eternal glory, or that by suffering we become worthy of eternal life.  That cannot be what that means, for that would undermine everything else the apostle has said and will say about salvation.  If salvation is by grace and not by works, it cannot be that our suffering makes us worthy of it.  We are joint heirs with Christ, because it is only by virtue of what Christ has done that we will make it to heaven.   Moreover, the fact that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory to come implies that there is nothing about present suffering that can make us worthy of the glories of the age to come.  But then what is the force of the “in order that”?

It is the result of our union with Christ.  Note the words “with him” in verse 17.  Because we are united to Christ by faith, we inherit with him.  But this also means that we suffer with him.  Now we do not suffer in the same way as he did.  He suffered as a propitiation, to atone for our sins.  We cannot do that.  But that is not what the apostle says in any case: we do not suffer like him; rather, we suffer with him.  Union with Christ means that we have fellowship with him in his sufferings as well as his glory.  And you cannot have one without the other.  Those who are not prepared to suffer with Christ should not expect to reign with him either (cf. 2 Tim. 2:11-12).  Our Lord himself said as much: “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.  If they kept my word, they will also keep yours” (Jn. 15:20).

In what sense do we suffer with Christ?  There are at least two ways.

There is suffering for righteousness’ sake.
Our Lord tells us, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when other revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt. 5:10-11).  There is no doubt this is partly what Paul is thinking, especially in light of Rom. 8:35-37.  Paul would tell the Philippian believers, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29).  Paul and Barnabas would encourage the churches in Asia Minor by bracing them for persecution: “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).  As he would tell Timothy, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).

There is ordinary suffering.

But I don’t think we should rule out ordinary suffering that comes from the result of living in a fallen world, scarred by sin and death.  Through the course of our life we will have to endure sickness, pain, trials, bereavement, loneliness, and so on.  Jesus himself did not just suffer the contradiction of sinners against himself; he also was a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”

Now it is true that everyone is going to have to endure some bit of suffering, whether they are saved or not.  However, there is a difference between a Christian and non-Christian.  There is a difference in the way we suffer.  We suffer differently because we don’t see the disappearance of our comforts in the same way.  We know that whatever we lose here, nothing can take away what is supremely valuable to us – namely, our relationship to God through Christ.  In the same way, we don’t look at death the same.  As Paul puts it to the Thessalonians, we grieve, but not as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13).  Thus, the believer who has his head on straight is going to suffer with patience and with faith. 

Now that brings me to my third point. How do these two realities: being an heir of God and suffering with Christ fit together?

How is suffering compatible with being an heir of God?

If God loves us, why does he make us suffer?  If he has adopted us into his family, how is this consistent with bringing us through painful trials?

I cannot answer that question by pointing you to the reason behind every affliction or tragedy you have had to endure.  As I’ve pointed out many times in the past, Job was never told, as far as we know, why he suffered the way he did.  God did answer Job, but the answer God have to Job was basically that he was not in the position to judge God!  Neither am I.  And neither are you.  There is a place for faith here.  But then the question becomes, “Why should I trust in God when I am in pain, especially if he is the one who has allowed it to happen to me?”

For me the answer to that question, and the answer to the question of how suffering is compatible with God’s love for me, is the cross.  As I put it in a blog post several years ago, the Cross of Christ is the answer to my cross.  How so?  It tells me that God – for that is who Christ is, he is God manifest in the flesh – willingly embraced suffering for the glory that would follow.  There is a glory that would not have emerged apart from the cross, and the Son of God was willing to embrace that suffering in order to bring about that glory.  Isn’t this what the Bible says?  “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2).  So the way I put it to myself and to you is this: if God was willing to embrace suffering – suffering that he was under no obligation to embrace and under no constraint whatsoever to endure – if he was willing to embrace suffering for the joy that would follow, then why not I?  If there was no incompatibility between Jesus being the Son of God and Jesus being the suffering Servant, then there is no incompatibility between me being a child of the Father and suffering according to his will (cf. 1 Pet. 4:19).

There is another pointer in Scripture.  It is found in places like Rom. 8:28 and 2 Cor. 4:16-18, the idea that through suffering God is preparing us for glory.  Paul put it like this in the Corinthians passage: “So we do not lose heart.  Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.  For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.  For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”  I don’t claim to fully understand all the implications of that passage.  But one thing seems indisputable, at least to me.  It is that our suffering now is in some sense necessary for our enjoyment of the glory of the age to come.  Not necessary for our worthiness of it.  But necessary for our capacity for the enjoyment of it. 

I think it was Jonathan Edwards who likened the capacity to enjoy the pleasures of heaven to the size of a cup.  He says that the cup of every believer in heaven will be full – there will be not cups half empty or half full.  But some cups will be bigger than others.  Everyone with a full cup, but some with more in their cup than others because their cups are bigger.  What might make one cup bigger than another?  2 Cor. 4:16-18 indicates that it is suffering that does that.

If that is the case, then we can see why Paul would say that God is working all things – even the bad things in our lives – for our good.  The suffering we are experiencing now is producing in us a capacity to enjoy more fully the pleasures of heaven.  And if that’s the case, we have good reason, as Paul put it, to not lose hope.

We can also see how that suffering is not incompatible with our sonship.  I am reminded of the man who helped a butterfly out of its chrysalis.  In doing so he basically condemned the butterfly to an early death because the butterfly needed the painful struggle to get out of the chrysalis in order to strengthen its wings in order to fly.  When the man short-circuited that process, he didn’t help the butterfly, he killed it.  In a similar manner, God is in a real sense helping us when he brings us through suffering. 

This is true not only in the age to come; it is also true right now.  Through his fatherly discipline, he is making us more holy (Heb. 12:5-11).  Paul himself tells us that it is through our weakness that God shows his strength and when we are weak then we are strong (2 Cor. 12:5-10).  All this tells us that our position as sons and daughters of God is not in jeopardy when we pass through suffering.  On the contrary, it is in some sense of sign of this great privilege.

When we suffer, we should learn from them, not let them rot out our hearts in bitterness.  So let me close with three lessons that the sons and daughters of God should take away from their suffering.

First, when you suffer trials (whatever they are), do not think God has abandoned you (Heb. 13:5-6).

Second, learn to trust God in your trials.  Know that he never works without reason.

Finally, let the hope of eternal life encourage you in your present condition.  Let the certain hope we have in Christ shine through the darkness of whatever situation you are facing.  This is not the end.  No one and nothing can rob us of our hope in Christ.

Monday, April 20, 2020

“An Instance of Surprising Grace” – Rom. 8:14-16

This passage in the book of Romans speaks of a blessing so amazing, so staggering, that we would not dare believe it if God had not revealed it to us in his word and by his Spirit: namely, our adoption into God’s family.  John Gill explains the staggering nature of this blessing, “This favour is an instance of surprising grace, exceeds other blessings, makes the saints honorable, is attended with many privileges and lasts forever: such who are in this relation to God, ought to ascribe it to his grace, to requite him with thankfulness, and a becoming conversation, to be followers of him, and to love, honour, and obey him.”  I would argue that many of the Christian’s difficulties arise from a failure to properly appreciate and grasp the implications of this great blessing.  We would be much more confident and joyful if we really believed what we profess to believe, that we are the sons and daughters of God.

But why does Paul introduce this idea now, and how does it tie into the overall flow of thought?  Paul introduces it here because this is something to which the Spirit of God testifies.  It is part of the ministry of the Spirit to make the believer conscious of his or her relationship to God and to create in them the attitude of a son or daughter.  Having worked out the role of the Spirit in our sanctification as he has in verses 2-13, he now connects his ministry in us to the blessing of our adoption in verses 14-17.

However, the connection is tighter than that.  It’s not just that the apostle is moving from one aspect of the Spirit’s work to another; rather, it’s that the ministry of the Spirit in our adoption supports and validates the work of the Spirit in our sanctification.  You can see that clearly in the way verses 13 and 14 are connected: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (14).  The “for” grounds the reality spoken of in verse 13 on the reality spoken of in verse 14.  In other words, the reason why the Spirit works in us to kill sin is because we are the children of God.  It is impossible, in the apostle’s thinking, to imagine that God’s children would be no different from those who are not.  There is a distinct change in those who bear the name of the children of God, and the Spirit who bears witness to this privilege also works in them to kill the sin that is so unsuitable to our position in God’s family.  This has important implications, which we will look at in a bit.

It is important that we consider this great blessing, and that’s what I want us to do together this morning.  What is it, and what role does this Spirit of God play in it, and how should this affect the way we live? 

Adoption into God’s family: what is it?

Now you will hear quite a bit, even in certain corners of the professing Christian community, that God is the Father of all men.  They will appeal to Scriptures like Mal. 2:10, which reads, “Have we not all one Father?  Has not one God created us?”  Or Acts 17:28-29, where the apostle, quoting a Greek poet, acknowledges that every human being is in some sense the “offspring” of God, and therefore, it would seem, his children.  This appeal to the universal Fatherhood of God then becomes the ground for the bold assertion that every human being will be saved in the end, because otherwise we would have a God who destroys his own children – and that is unthinkable.

However, the fact that the Scriptures speak of the need to be adopted into God’s family, tells another story.  It speaks to the fact that men and women are not automatically in the family of God, are not – at least in some important sense – automatically children of God.  Salvation is in part a putting us into the family of God, which means we are outside of it before.  We are by nature, not sons and daughters of God, but rather his enemies.  Our Lord himself indicates as much when he pointed out to the Pharisees, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here” (Jn. 8:42).  The implication is of course that God was not really their Father.  In fact, he goes on to say something even stronger: not only were they not the children of God, but, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (Jn. 8:44).  We are indeed God’s creatures, but we are creatures in revolt against God.  More than that, whether consciously or unconsciously, we have allied ourselves to the chief of God’s enemies, Satan.  As such, we are alienated from God, cut off from his family and blessing (cf. Eph. 2:11-21). 

I suppose that it is okay to say that God is the father of all men by virtue of creation, but we must be careful when we say that.  Creation is not salvation.  Creation is marred by the fall.  We are born of the flesh, and need to be redeemed and born again.  The universal fatherhood of God as creator does not guarantee the salvation of anyone.  If anything, it only accentuates and increases our guilt.  As God’s creatures, we owe him our allegiance.  We haven’t given him that; we are rebels, and as such are doomed to suffer the inevitable fate of our absurd revolt.  Absalom may have been King David’s son, but that did not spare him the death he deserved when he rebelled against his father.

However, when the Bible speaks of our being adopted into God’s family, it means something more than that we belong to God as creator.  It is always connected to salvation from sin and its consequences.  It always implies God’s saving and never-ending love to us.  It always implies our security and is the ground for a true and proper confidence in being able to draw near to God.  Adoption into God’s family means that God becomes our Father and we his children in this special sense.  It is based upon the atoning death of Jesus for us, for Gal. 4:4-5 says that, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”  And it is received by faith in Christ, as John puts it in his gospel, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:12-13).  So this is not something that is automatic.  It required the death of the Son of God to make it possible.  And it is received only through faith in the Son of God as our Lord and Savior.

To understand the implications of this amazing blessing, I think it is instructive to understand the process of adoption in the first century world.  Now there is a lot of debate as to whether Paul is referring here to the Jewish or the Roman process of adoption.  However, Paul was writing to Roman Christians, and even though there were Jews as well as Gentiles in the congregation, even the Jews were living in a Roman context.  It is therefore very likely that his audience would have read this in light of Roman adoption – if he had not wanted them to do this, surely he would have made some indication in the text.  So I think that if we’re going to read this like the original audience would have read it, then we need to understand something about Roman adoption.[1]

What then was it like?  What was involved?  Well, it involved two steps and resulted in at least four consequences.  The first step was called mancipatio, in which the biological father symbolically sold his son, giving up his rights to him.  Scales were apparently used to signify this transaction.  What then followed was the step called vindicatio, in which the adopting father would go to one of the Roman magistrates and present a legal case for the person to be adopted. 

However, I think it was not so much the process of adoption that apostle had in mind as the consequences.  There were at least four consequences that followed upon adoption. The first was that the adopted person lost all rights in his old family, and gained all the rights of a son in the adopted family.  The second was that in the eyes of the law, the son’s old life was completely wiped out.  For example, all debts were cancelled, the past was gone.  Third, by law, the son became absolutely the son of the new father.  And finally, he became heir to the father’s estate, and even if sons were born after him, his rights were not affected.

So what does this mean as respects our adoption into God’s family?  Well, it surely means that the past is gone and our sins forgiven, cast into the sea never to be brought up again, and we enter into an entirely new relationship with God, in which God loves and receives us (Ps. 103:13-14), takes care of us (Mt. 6:32; 7:11; Luke 11:13; Heb. 12), and gives us an eternal inheritance (Rom. 8:17).  It is an irrevocable status of love and fellowship with God in the nearness of the familial bond.  It is no wonder then that the apostle John would exclaim, when contemplating this reality, “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God” (1 Jn. 3:1).

Now the foregoing indicates that adoption is a legal reality; it is not a subjective thing or a process by which we become children of God.  You either are or you aren’t.  And it isn’t something you merit or gain, but something given to you in Christ entirely of grace.  It might surprise us then that the apostle ties it so closely to the ministry of the Spirit of God.  That leads to our second question and following point.

What role does the Spirit of God play in our adoption?

He witnesses to it.

The apostle tells us in verse 16, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”  The fundamental role the Spirit plays is to bear witness to it.  This is interesting, because a Roman adoption ceremony took place in the presence of seven witnesses, so that if there was ever any dispute about the adopted son’s right to inherit, one or more of the seven would step forward and bear witness to the adopted son’s rights.  How then does the Spirit bear witness to our adoption?  He does so in at least three ways.

By leading us in holiness (13-14).

Again, I want to note the connection between verses 13 and 14.  “Through the Spirit” in verse 13 is explained by “led by the Spirit” in verse 14, and “you will live” in verse 13 is explained by “sons of God” in verse 14.  This is so important because so many people will say that they are “being led by the Spirit,” but what they mean by that is a subjective state anchored in the emotions that justifies behavior contrary to God’s word.  To be led by the Spirit just means that we are enabled by the Holy Spirit to mortify the sin in our hearts and lives. 

And that of course is inextricably linked to a commitment to obey God’s word in Scripture.  We should never imagine for a moment that going in the opposite direction to the Spirit-breathed-out word of God in the pages of the Bible is the same thing as being led by the Spirit (see 2 Pet. 1:21; 2 Tim. 3:16).  The Spirit of God will not contradict the word of God.  There is no value in a religious experience, no matter how transcendent it seems, if it leads you away from God’s word.  You may be being led by something, but you can be sure that you are not being led by the Spirit of God if it is not in line with Scripture.

Thus, an evidence that we are the sons and daughters of God is that we are at war with the sin in our lives and that we are striving to put it to death through the power of the Spirit of God.  It must be so because as sons and daughters of God we bear his likeness, his tastes, and his designs.  Though it can’t mean that sin in our lives automatically disqualifies a right to call ourselves children of God, it does mean that if we are comfortable with a state of rebellion against God’s will in his word, our claim to this right could well be, and probably is, false.

By creating in us the disposition of children (15).

Paul goes on, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’”  The apostle can make this connection between being led by the Spirit and being children of God because the Spirit who leads us is the Spirit of adoption.  That’s what he is.  And the way he carries out this role is by creating in us the attitude and affection of the children of God.  Notice that the apostle says that it is by the Spirit that we make this cry.  Though the Spirit does not make us children – he doesn’t create the legal status of an adopted son or daughter of God – he enables us to experience and enjoy it, which the Spirit does by putting in us family affections, love to God.  He does it by changing our “slavish fears toward God into confident, happy, peaceful affection for God as our father” (John Piper).

Another way to put this is that there is an unbreakable link between regeneration and adoption.  I think it was J. I. Packer who said that in regeneration we receive the nature of a child of God, whereas in adoption we receive the name of a child of God.  Regeneration, or new birth, is a work of the Spirit, as our Lord makes clear to Nicodemus in John 3:1-8.  Part of what happens in regeneration is we receive a new nature, and that new nature is the nature of a child of God.  That means that we love what God loves.  Above all, it means that we love God, and instead of being repulsed by him we are attracted to him.  We cannot help but move towards him and desire his presence, and cry out to him in fervent, heartfelt prayer.

What he is not is the “the spirit of slavery” that brings fear.  What does the apostle mean by that?  I think to understand that, we need to go back to the book of Galatians.  There, Paul warns, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).  Slavery there means bondage to the law and the curse that it inevitably brings to all who seek to find salvation through it: “Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.  I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.  You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:2-4).  The reason why Paul was so upset with the Galatians and the reason he warns them about the yoke of slavery is because you can’t be justified by the law and Christ, and if you are trying to be justified by the law (by your good works) you are in bondage – bondage to your sins, and bondage to the curse that sin brings.  Christ sets us free from that, so that when trust in Christ and are adopted into his family, we no longer live under the specter of our sins, and the Spirit witnesses to that reality.  In other words, if you are born again and are by grace made a child of God, the Spirit does not come as a whipping stick to flail you with your sins and your failures, because that has been taken care of in Christ.

Now I just want to point out that this is not something reserved for a select few Christians.  Paul assumes that his readers, the believers at Rome, have all received the Spirit as a Spirit of adoption.  We may subjectively experience this differently, and I have no doubt that we should seek to experience more deeply this reality in our lives.  We should want a greater and surer confidence in God’s love toward us.  It’s what Paul prayed for the Ephesians in that great prayer in Eph. 3:14-21.  But the fact of the matter is that, although a genuine believer may struggle with the assurance of their salvation, yet the Spirit is there as the Spirit of adoption, leading the believer, a smoking flax or broken reed though they may be, to approach the throne of grace as his children and to obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

By bearing witness with our spirit (16).

“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.”  This is not a deduction, not a conclusion that you reach at the end of an argument.  Rather, it is an experience of the Spirit of God on the heart and mind.  I think this is partly what Paul had in mind when he wrote in Rom. 5:5, “and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”  This is the reality of the assurance of God’s love, which is inevitably connected to an assurance that we are his children. 

There are three mistakes that can be made here.  One is to deny that there is such a thing as assurance.  Roman Catholicism denies that this is possible.  This is because their system is a system by which you get in by grace but you stay in by works, and that system is inimical to assurance and hope.  But that is not Biblical Christianity.  Paul insists that the Spirit comes to bear witness directly to our spirits that we are children of God, and if that’s not assurance, I don’t know what is.

At the same time, another mistake is to read this and to think that unless you have an ironclad assurance that you are a child of God, then you must not be saved.  The Spirit indeed bears witness with our spirit, but we can dull our reception of the Spirit’s witness through ignorance of God’s word, or through sin, or through a failure to appropriate God’s promises to us.  Neither should we think that this witness comes in the form of a vision or in words audibly spoken to the mind.  I’m not denying God can do that, but I don’t think that’s what Paul has in mind here.  Rather, this is the inevitable consequence of being born again and being a temple of the Holy Spirit.  To be indwelt by the Spirit of Christ is to be the constant subject to this witness, granting to us the whispers of God’s love to us in Christ.

Finally, we must not sever this witness from holiness.  Just because you have an ironclad assurance of salvation, does not mean that you are saved!  Assurance of salvation is not the same thing as salvation.  There are plenty of hypocrites in the world who have convinced themselves that they are saved.   The mistake is to think that a religious experience is all one needs to draw the conclusion that they are saved.  You cannot divorce adoption from regeneration, and if you don’t have the latter you cannot have the former.

At the end of the day, this is not something that we give ourselves.  It is something that God gives to us as we trust in his Son and follow the lead of the Spirit of God.  It is grace, pure grace, and a window into generosity of God’s heart towards his children.  Think of it: it means that if you are a child of God, then God wants you to know it.  True assurance is not presumption.  It is a gift of God.  God is a good Father who wants his children to know that he loves them.  We should receive it as such and enjoy it.

How then should we live?

These realities should have an impact upon the way we live.  Toward God, it should cause us to strive to enjoy a sense of our adoption, and to maintain fellowship with God, to seek him, to set our eyes upon the Lord, and to confess our sins and turn to him.  To be adopted into God’s family and yet have no interest in the privileges and responsibilities which that relationship implies is a massive contradiction.  There is no greater privilege than to be a son or daughter of God.  Let us therefore take advantage of it.

Towards other believers – they are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Let us therefore act as members of the same family.  It is a tragedy when the world looks at the church and just sees another dysfunctional family.  Let it never be said of us.  Rather, let us seek the unity that is implied in the body of Christ.  Let us love each other and serve each other and esteem each other in love as being more important than ourselves.  Let us so live out this “instance of surprising grace” that the world comes looking to be a part of it.

[1] The following information is from William Barclay’s commentary on Romans, which I don’t particularly recommend, for he was a good historian but a terrible theologian.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Our Response to the Resurrection of Christ – Rom. 8:12-13

Today is Easter Sunday, and on this day we rightly remember and joyfully celebrate our Lord’s victory over death.  Someone has said that the only two certainties are death and taxes; but today we are reminded that there is something even more sure than death for those who belong to Jesus – namely, resurrection and deliverance from sin and all its consequences.  This is not because we conquer death, but because Christ conquered it for us.  On the cross “he drank damnation dry,” and by the resurrection he has opened the way again to the Tree of Life, from which we have been barred since the sin of Adam.  

It is important for us to emphasize the fact, however, that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead does not mean that we are put back in the Garden of Eden.  It does not mean that we are given a second chance.  It does not mean that we are put in the position where we can now save ourselves.  No, resurrection from the dead is the triumph of Christ over sin and all – not just some – of its consequences.  To be united to Christ is to share in his triumph over sin, and that means the enjoyment of salvation in the broadest sense.  Yes, it is true that those who are united to Christ by faith do not yet enjoy glorification in resurrected bodies free from sin, but every aspect of salvation from beginning to end was purchased by Christ for those who belong to him by grace and it shall be infallibly bestowed upon them.  There is nothing left for us to do in terms of meriting salvation.  It has already been done for us by our Lord.  To merit salvation we need complete forgiveness and perfect righteousness, neither of which we can accomplish, but which have both been purchased on the cross and are bestowed freely and fully to all who believe in God’s Son.

What this means is that the life of a Christian is not about living a life which will make me worthy of God’s favor.  This is because if you belong to Christ you already have God’s favor, and there is nothing you can do that will increase or diminish his love for you.  Of course, we can do things that will diminish our enjoyment of God’s fellowship or bring upon us the severe discipline of God.  But the true believer does not need to gain God’s love or favor, for he or she already has it.  As the apostle will say later on, “If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?  Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?  It is God who justifies.  Who is to condemn?  Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that, who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Rom. 8:31-34).  What more can you do for him than he has already done for you?

This also means that we can never pay God back for what he has done for us.  Salvation is not like a house that God bought for us and now you have to pay him back for it.  You can’t and you shouldn’t.  For one thing, nothing I can do is even commensurate with the gifts of grace.  Nothing I give to God could ever even come near to approximating the value of redemption and salvation from sin.  My gifts to God are like half-baked cow chips compared to the pure gold of God’s salvation.  My righteousness is filthy rags compared to the robes of righteousness with which I am clothed through Christ.  

Moreover, whatever good thing I give back to God came from God first.  “What do you have that you did not first receive,” Paul asks the Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:7).  The answer, of course, is nothing.  Listen to what King David says in response to the generosity of the Israelites in giving toward the building of God’s temple: “But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly?  For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you” (1 Chron. 29:14).  You can’t pay off a debt by giving something that already belongs to the one to whom you are indebted.  Neither is it possible for us to “pay God off” by doing good deeds, for our good deeds are themselves gifts of the grace of God (cf. Eph. 2:10).

It might come as a surprise, then, for us to hear Paul’s response to the truths of the previous verses: “So then, brothers, we are debtors” (Rom. 8:12).  Now it is true that this is probably Paul’s response to all of chapter 8, and indeed of the argument of the entire epistle up to this point.  Given the magnitude of God’s blessing, Paul steps back and acknowledges that we are forever in God’s debt.  However, given what the apostle goes on to say, “we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh” – and the implication is that we are debtors to the Spirit – it is likely that Paul is referring to the immediately preceding verses, especially Rom. 8:1-11.  

But this ties this text to Easter because in the previous two verses, the apostle is celebrating our hope in future resurrection which is itself rooted in the resurrection of Christ.  The Spirit comes in because the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ and as such will resurrect in life all who belong to him.  So we could frame this verse as the appropriate response to Easter and the remembrance that our Lord was raised from the dead.  How should we respond?  By acknowledging, and feeling the reality of this truth upon our hearts, that we are debtors to God.

But how does this square with what we’ve been saying?  If salvation is by grace from first to last, this seems to be antithetical to seeing ourselves as debtors.  What is Paul saying here?  How does this work in the life of the Christian?  It is this idea that I want to explore this morning with you: how the resurrection of Christ makes you and I debtors to God, what this means, and what this looks like in the life of faith.   

What does it mean to be a debtor to God?

First of all, we can safely say that it does not mean that we are meant to feel pressured to pay God back for what he has done for us and therefore in some sense merit salvation.  For that is impossible, for the reasons already given.  In particular, it does not mean that I am meant to do something for God out of my own resources.  It doesn’t mean that since God has given grace to me out of the treasures of his infinite goodness, now I’m going to give God something which he didn’t have before.  We simply can’t do that.  Everything we give to God comes from him first.  Any acceptable service can only be done using resources which we get from God in the first place: “whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies – in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 4:11).  We are only “stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Pet. 4:10).  

To understand what this means, let’s consider another passage here in Romans where this word appears: “I am debtor both to Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise” (Rom. 1:14, KJV).  Now Paul does not mean by this that he was trying to pay the Greeks and Barbarians back for something they had done for him (they hadn’t, after all, done anything for Paul!).  Rather, what Paul is saying is that he is under obligation (that is how the ESV translates the word) to the Greeks and barbarians.  The source of this obligation is the grace and commission of God to Paul: “through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations” (Rom. 1:5).  In other words, it was the grace of God that made Paul a debtor to the nations.  Now the object of obligation is different in the two passages: in Rom. 1:14, it is the nations; in Rom. 8:12, it is God.  However, the point I want to make here is that the former passage demonstrates that being a debtor to someone doesn’t mean you are trying to pay them back for something they have given you; rather, it means being under an obligation towards that person or persons in some way.

So when Paul says that we are debtors to God on account of what he has done for us, and especially in light of what Christ has done for us on the cross and what he is doing and will do in us through the Spirit, he is saying that the saving acts of God for us and in us bring us under an obligation to God.  It doesn’t mean we are trying to pay him back.  

When Paul said that he was a debtor to the nations, what he was saying was that it was right and fitting for him to bring the gospel to them.  But more than that, he was saying that it would have been entirely wrong and wicked for him not to do so.  And I think it also indicates the weight with which he felt this obligation.  In the Bible, we are warned to get rid of debts quickly, and not to let them ride.  In the same way, Paul is anxious to pay this debt, to fulfill this obligation: “so, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also” (Rom. 1:15).  The obligation on Paul created a readiness in Paul.  In the same way, understanding our obligation to God ought to bring with it a readiness, a willingness, to fulfill it.

So we can summarize the meaning of this phrase, “debtors to God,” in this way: to be a debtor to God means that I feel under an obligation to God, and that I feel the weight of the obligation in such a way that it creates in my heart a readiness and a willingness to fulfill it.  Now I don’t want you to miss the meaning of the word “weight” there.  I don’t mean “burden.”  A burden does not create the kind of readiness that we are talking about here; in fact, it does precisely the opposite.  Rather, this readiness is a delight in the fulfillment of that obligation upon us.

One more thing as we are considering the meaning of this phrase.  The fact that we are debtors to God means that we have been given something from God.  Grace, not legalism, is behind this reality.  Just as grace created the obligation that Paul had toward the nations, even so grace creates the obligation that we have toward God.  Nothing in this verse is meant to distract us from the grace of God.  Rather, it is meant to remind us of it and to incite us to new obedience through it.

What is the obligation that we have toward God?

So we have described this debt, not in terms of repaying a gift, but in terms of an obligation which has its source in God’s gift of grace and love to us in Christ.  But we have not described what that obligation is.  Let’s do so now.

Paul writes, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh” (12).  Paul states our obligation negatively in verse 12, and then positively in verse 13.  Given what God has done for us, it makes certain things fitting and proper, and it makes other things totally unfitting and improper.  One of those things which is unfitting is for the Christian to live according to the flesh.  Given that Christ has freed us from the law of sin and death so that we might be able to fulfill the righteousness of the law and live according to the mind of the Spirit, it just doesn’t make sense to live according to the mind of the flesh.  

Imagine a man being dragged by an alligator into a lake, who was then rescued by the timely intervention of a game warden.  Imagine that man refusing to acknowledge the benefit gained from the intervention of the game warden.  But more than that, imagine him wanting to later find that alligator and pet it and feed it.  We would say that this person was probably out of their minds.  But this is very similar to what we are doing when we, who claim to be redeemed from a life of opposition toward God want to go back and feed that very mindset.  It’s crazy.  We are not debtors to the flesh to live after the flesh.

Paul goes on to say, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die” (13).  Again, remember that “flesh” here isn’t referring to our physical bodies.  Rather, it is the Biblical way of referring to the mind, heart, and will set in opposition to God.  That is why Paul can talk about “the mind of the flesh” (8:6).  Flesh can only bring death, spiritual and eternal.  To give to the flesh, to sow to the flesh, is to sow death: “For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:8).  “Do not love the world or the things in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of life – is not from the Father but is from the world.  And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 Jn. 2:15-17).  

We, who have been rescued from death by the death and resurrection of our Savior, have no obligation to the flesh at all.

I think this is very similar to what Paul has argued in chapter 6.  “What shall we say then?  Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?  By no means!  How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (6:1-2)  Dying to sin means that we no longer live in the realm determined by sin.  It therefore doesn’t make any sense to live in it.  Even so, we who have been saved from life in the flesh no longer have any obligation to it.  It makes no sense to live for something from which we have been saved, especially when all it can do is bring death.

But there is a positive side to our obligation.  We are not only not debtors to the flesh, but we are debtors to God.  What is this obligation?  Paul puts it like this: “but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (13).  In other words, our obligation to God is fulfilled by putting to death the sin in our lives.  Again, I want to point out that this cannot be done apart from the work of the Spirit, for it is “by the Spirit” that we “put to death the deeds of the body.”  So again, it’s not about paying the Spirit back.  You can’t pay the Spirit back if you can only fulfill your debt through the Spirit!  It would be like asking your creditor for a loan to pay back your loan.  That’s ridiculous on the face of it, so let’s forever put aside such a notion from our minds.  Rather, this means that, given what God has done for us and in us, it is only right and proper for us to walk in step with the Spirit in killing sin.

The right response to the victory of Christ over sin is not to say, “Whew!  Now I don’t have to worry about the pornography” – or the addiction, or the anger, or the bitterness, or the greed in your life.  The right response is to be so overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude and thankfulness, and to see the beauty of what you have been saved to and the ugliness of what you have been saved from, that you cannot help but want to mortify the sin that is in your life.  You feel the obligation to kill sin and you act upon it.

Put to death the deeds of the body!  This does not mean only the acts that other people can see.  It also means the hidden sinful thoughts and passions that no one else can see.  It means being willing to say to God, “Search me, O God, and know my heart!  Try me and know my thoughts!  And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Ps. 139:23-24).  And then to do something about it.

Nor should we miss what is at stake here: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die” (13).  That doesn’t mean physical death, it means eternal death.  Not that the saints are any the less secure.  But what it means is that those who refuse to kill the sin in their lives, who feel no obligation to do so, were never saved in the first place.  Such people will die: their souls will be tragically and everlastingly lost.  To be saved is to feel the indebtedness and to act upon it in killing sin.

Now what does it mean to put sin to death through the Spirit?  It doesn’t mean waiting around for a feeling that the Spirit is doing something in you.  Obedience ought to be prompt and immediate.  Rather, what it means is that as we fight the sin in our lives, we do so in reliance upon God and his grace.  That means that we are putting ourselves in the way of the means of grace: Scripture, prayer, and fellowship with the people of God.  It means believing the promises of God’s word.  And it means that, when it’s all said and done, giving credit to where credit is due (cf. 1 Cor. 15:10).

How does the resurrection reinforce this obligation?

As we’ve already noted, the observation that we are debtors comes immediately after the apostle had finished working out the implication of being in the Spirit, the implication being that through Christ’s resurrection we too will one day be resurrected to life everlasting.  This though so struck Paul that he could not help but feel his indebtedness to God for the immeasurable gift of grace in Christ.  It should strike us in the same way.  So what are some ways that the resurrection of our Lord should reinforce this sense of obligation to God, and in particular the obligation to kill sin through the Spirit?

1. It ought to motivate us to do this by pointing us back to cross so that we see the ugliness and undesirableness of sin.  You cannot of course separate the resurrection from the cross.  So when we cast our minds back to the empty tomb, we see the cross casting its shadow across it.  And we are reminded that in order to gain the victory over death, the spotless Son of God had to endure it – not for himself, but for his elect, for those who belong to him.  Before his victory came his humiliation.  And he did so because of sin – your sin, my sin.  The thought ought to make us abhor that which is evil (Rom. 12:9).  How could we be so flippant in our attitude toward sin, when it cost the very life of God’s own Son?  

2. It ought to motivate us and make us ready to obey by pointing us to the empty tomb, and the victory over sin that was gained in the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord.  We won’t feel the obligation to kill sin and live for holiness, at least not for very long, if we think it is all up to us.  Sin is relentless.  We are surrounded by it.  Our culture reeks of it.  In our own hearts, we continue to be plagued by it.  Like the devil, it goes away for a time but then comes back.  It’s a battle.  Fatigue is real.  Weariness is real.  It is in those times that we need to remember that ultimately the victory is not up to us; and in fact the victory has already been won by our Captain.  The resurrection proves it.  In God’s good time sin and death will be done with.  In the meantime, he gives us needed grace (1 Cor. 10:13).  He supports us, just as he did David in all his battles.  I love the way David describes God’s help: “I love you, O LORD, my strength.  The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.  I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies. . . . He sent from on high, he took me; he drew me out of many waters.  He rescued me from my strong enemy and from those who hated me, for they were too mighty for me.  They confronted me in the day of my calamity, but the LORD was my support.  He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me, because he delighted in me. . . You have given me the shield of your salvation, and your right hand supported me, and your gentleness made me great.  You gave a wide place for my steps under me, and my feet did not slip” (Ps. 18:1-3, 16-19, 35-36).

All of this is because Christ rose from the dead for us.  It is his victory over sin that guarantees our victory over sin (Rom. 8:34).

3.  It ought to motivate us by pointing us to the hope of a future, glorious resurrection of the saints.  When we kill sin, we are anticipating the world to come in which there will be no more sin and death.  The resurrection of Christ reminds us that there is more to reality than this present world which is painted all over by sin and death.  It reminds us that to live for this age is futile while to live for the age to come makes what we do now with our lives incredibly meaningful and vibrant.  It is therefore in light of the resurrection that exhortations like this comes: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:56-58).

Sealed and Standing (Rev. 7)

At the end of the previous chapter, when John sees the breaking of the sixth seal of the scroll, we see Christ coming again in judgment upon...