Sunday, May 24, 2020

God’s Sure Purpose – Romans 8:29-30

In verse 28, the apostle throws suffering saints a lifeline – that all things are working for the good of those who love God.  However, he not only describes believers in terms of their commitment to God (their love to him) but also in terms of God’s commitment to them (his calling and purpose).  I think the apostle knows that believers who are in the thick of spiritual battle will be the most aware of their own fickleness, and to make this promise hang solely on their own resources would be to empty the promise of any real hope and joy.  But Paul does not make the promise to depend either solely or ultimately upon the believer.  For underneath our faith is the calling of God (cf. 2 Thess. 2:13-14) and underneath the calling of God is his eternal and unchangeable purpose.  What Moses sang to Israel is true of those who are sons and daughters of Abraham by faith: “There is none like God, O Jeshurun, who rides through the heavens to your help, through the skies in his majesty.  The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deut. 33:26-27).

To make this promise depend only on the love the believer has for God is like living in a building without a foundation which goes down deep into the earth and which depends only upon its own weight to secure it to the ground.  Such a building may last for a long time, but when the tornadic winds of suffering and tragedy strike, it will easily blow away.  Believe me, because I’ve seen it happen.  My dad’s first workshop was like that – one of those large portable buildings.  It was good enough, I suppose, but when it came face to face with a tornado, the winds just picked the building up and scattered it all over the place.  We were all terrified and ran for the nearest hallway.  My dad just stood there watching and lamenting, “There goes my shop.”  The fact of the matter is that we all need something stronger than our own will-power and faith and love.  We need the everlasting arms of God beneath.  And this is exactly what the apostle offers us in our text.

This is not a text to wrap around the head of the closest Arminian.  That was not Paul’s intention in writing this, obviously, since Arminius wouldn’t come around for another sixteen hundred years.  Though I’m not saying that it can’t be useful in establishing correct doctrine over against false doctrine, we will go wrong if we only approach the Scriptures with the mindset of a theological bulldog, always looking for the nearest heretic’s leg to chew off.  This is not meant primarily for the sake of argumentation, it is meant to encourage you in the face of suffering and hardness, and to give you the spiritual grit and determination and courage to face the winds of opposition without becoming bitter or despairing so that we give up.

If you want to be strong in the midst of battle you need to have a vision of God’s sovereign grace, the kind that is underlined in Romans 8:28-30.  Believing that your salvation ultimately depends on God, not yourself, is not a theology that tends towards spiritual slackness; on the contrary, it gives to those who truly believe it uncommon courage.  Which is what I think the apostle wants this truth to do for you.

Let me give you an example of this.  Say what you want about John Calvin, he understood this truth better than most.  And those in his day who embraced his vision of God’s sovereignty didn’t, as is so often falsely alleged, use this doctrine as an excuse for sin and slothfulness.  Rather, it gave them the faith to face the most fierce and dangerous persecution.  The following is an excerpt from a history of the Reformation, and in particular as it unfolded in France.  As background, you need to know that most of the preachers who embraced the Reformed faith in France had been trained in Geneva by Calvin and then took their faith back to France, where many of them faced the most determined opposition.  But here is how they met it: “Many expired in ecstasy, insensible to the refined cruelties of the savages who invented tortures to prolong their agony.  More than one judge died of consternation or remorse.  Others embraced the faith of those whom they sent to the scaffold.  The executioner at Dijon was converted at the foot of the pyre.  All the great phenomena, in the most vast proportions, of the first days of Christianity, were seen to reappear.  Most of the victims died with the eye turned towards that New Jerusalem, that holy city of the Alps, were some had been to seek, whence others had received the Word of God.  Not a preacher, not a missionary was condemned who did not salute Calvin from afar, thanking him for having prepared him for so beautiful an end.”[1]  How did Calvin prepare them for that?  By teaching them the theology that comes to the fore in verses like the ones before us.  May the truths contained in these verses infuse us with the same kind of courage and conviction!

What we see in the verses before us is the unpacking of the purpose of God in our salvation, and then secondly, the inevitability of the fulfillment of God’s purpose.  Or, to put it another way, we have what is the content of God’s purpose and why we can have confidence in it, that God’s purpose is good and that it is certain.  God’s purposes are not like man’s purposes.  We can have complete and full confidence that it will come to pass: “The LORD of hosts has sworn: ‘As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand” (Isa. 14:24).  The bedrock beneath the promise of verse 28 is more lasting and firm than the Rock of Gibraltar. 

God’s Good Purpose: to conform you to God’s Son.

Paul writes, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (29).  It is important to ground our knowledge of verse 28 in terms of verse 29, because it helps us to understand what it meant by all things working for our good.  All things work for our good in the sense that the work to make us more and more like Jesus.  As the apostle puts it to the Corinthians, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).  In fact, this is why the spiritual gifts are given, so that we might be more like Christ: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ . . . . speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:12-13, 15).  And this is how the apostle John describes the eternal blessedness of the saint: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2).

This is the best of news, because the Son of God enjoys perfect communion with the Father which is the fountain of all true and lasting blessedness and joy, and conformity to Christ must therefore inevitably result in purer and fuller joy.  To the Corinthian Paul describes it in terms of glory as he does as the end of verse 30 as well.  Let us once and forever put away from our minds that conformity to Christ means that we must do with less joy and happiness.  No, rather, it is the opposite.  To run from Christ is to run from the purest and lasting joy; to become more like Christ means to enlarge the resources of our capacity for joy and peace.  As the hymn puts it: “but purer and higher and greater will be, our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see.”

Now what does this mean?  Well, first of all we must put away the notion that conformity to Christ means that we will become like him in every respect.  It doesn’t mean we will become little gods.  It doesn’t mean we will achieve deity.  That is a blasphemous notion and is nowhere, least of all here, taught in Scripture.  You can see that in verse 29, because the apostle says that the end result of conformity to Christ is that he will become the firstborn among many brethren.  The firstborn enjoyed a special status among the sons in the ancient family, a status which could only be enjoyed by one of the sons.  So we are not to be like Christ in every respect.  Our conformity is ultimately so that Christ will be magnified and exalted above all the saints as the object of our worship and praise and love.

At the same time, we must not read the term “firstborn” in a way that diminishes the person of Christ.  It is not meant to convey the idea that the Son of God was the first created being, as some teach.  For the reason given why Christ is to be called the firstborn is not that he was first created, but rather because we are conformed to him.  Our conformity to Christ is given as the reason he is the firstborn among many brethren.  This points not to creation but to redemption.  This is just another way of saying that Christ holds preeminent status among the children of God, and the reason he holds this preeminent status is because he is the eternal Son of God who became incarnate so that he might be the only redeemer of God’s elect.  As such, he defeated sin and death for us, resurrected to glory as the first among many sons.  Yes, he became like us, but the one who became like us is one with the Father (Jn 1:1-3).  Only one who was both the Son of man and the Son of God was able to redeem and save us.

To understand what it means to be conformed to Christ, we must go back to verses 17-18.  There the apostle writes that we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”  We are conformed to Christ in the sense that with him we are heirs of God and all that that implies.  It also means that in the present we suffer with him.  But ultimately it means that we will be glorified with him; in other words, that like him we will share in the resurrection from the dead (cf. Phil. 3:10-11). 

It also implies that we are being made more and more holy, conformed to Christ in the sense that we share in his holiness (cf. Heb. 12:10).  Some have argued that sanctification does not find its way into the “golden chain” in verses 29-30, but it is right here in conformity to Christ.  Neither must we argue that this aspect of conformity to Christ awaits our being taken to heaven or the age to come.  As Paul argues in his letter to the Ephesians, this is happening right now.  And as Paul has argued earlier in the chapter (8:1-13), the believer is even now not in the flesh but in the Spirit, walking in the Spirit and mortifying the sin in their lives.

Again, this is the very best of news.  For Christ came to undo everything that Adam did.  Adam brought sin and death into the world by his disobedience.  That was the point of chapter 5:12-21.  And he brought the entire human race along with the physical creation into a state of bondage to corruption and futility.  When we are struggling with depression and loneliness and anxiety and pain and addiction and guilt we are dealing with the ravaging effects of sin.  Even the pleasure that sin offers is a poisonous mixture that inevitably leads to greater pain and suffering, if not in this world, then in the world to come.  But Christ has undone all that in his redemptive work.  As we are united to him and are conformed to the image of the one who redeemed us, we are more and more freed from that which is destructive and given that which is life abundant. 

But the main point of these verses is that this purpose is sure and certain. So that brings us to our next point.

God’s Certain Purpose: the Golden Chain of Salvation.

How do we know that God will fulfill the purpose for us?  The answer is that our present faith in God is rooted in deep realities that go backward into eternity past and forward into eternity future.  The roots of our confidence are anchored in eternal and unchangeable realities.  What are these realities? 

God’s foreknowledge.

This is not, as some claim, a reference to God looking down through the corridors of time to see what we will do and then conforming his purpose to ours.  That would completely undermine our confidence in God’s purpose by making it to rely ultimately upon our own feeble purpose!  Rather, this is a reference to God’s eternal love for us which motivates his good purpose for us.  Let me give you four reasons why we must read it this way.

First, because to say that foreknowledge means God foreseeing what we will do, implies that our faith is not a gift freely given to us by God.  But this is how Scripture represents it.  For when Peter made his confession of faith, our Lord explicitly tells him that the reason he was able to give this confession is because his Father revealed it to him (Mt. 16:17).  Our Lord told the crowds in Jn. 6:44 that no one can, is able to, come to him in faith unless the Father draws him (Jn. 6:44).  In Eph. 2:8,9 we are told that faith (along with all of salvation) is a gift of God.  In Phil. 1:29, the apostle writes that believing in Jesus is something which is given to us.  But if faith is a gift of God, then faith is not something God merely foresees but something which he gives.

Second, the use of this word in both the NT and OT often means more than mere prescience.  In the OT, to “know” someone often carried connotations of intimacy.  In this way, God is said to know Israel alone of all the nations of the earth (Amos 3:2; cf. also Jer. 1:5; Gen. 18:19; Ps. 1:6).  This meaning is carried over into the NT.  This is explicit in Rom. 11:2, where God is said to foreknow Israel and this is the basis of the claim that God will not reject them – clearly “foreknow” there must mean something along the lines “dedicated or devoted to.”  The same thing is true of the use of the word in 1 Pet. 1:20, where it is said that Christ was foreknown before the foundation of the world (interestingly, the KJV translates this word as “foreordained”).  To be foreknown by God then means that God has been devoted to us with a fierce and unchanging love from all eternity.

Third, God is not said here to foreknow actions but persons.  It is not something about us, or something that we will do that is said to be foreknown here.  It is believers themselves which are said to be foreknown!  This fits much better with the idea that foreknowledge here implies God’s covenant commitment to us from all eternity.

Fourth, this foreknowledge is only true of some people.  Now God foreknows all things about all people in the sense that he knows beforehand who they are and what they will do.  There is nothing distinguishing about that kind of foreknowledge.  But if this means that God has foreloved us from all eternity, then that is true only of God’s elect. 

For these reasons, I take “foreknowledge” here to be synonymous with Gods’ gracious choice of his people in Christ before the world began.  This is greatly encouraging because it means that behind God’s purpose for us is God’s eternal and unchanging love to us.  God did not somehow become loving toward us because of something we have done or become.  It is not rooted in our love to him, although the fact that we are embraced in God’s purpose is evidenced in our love to him.  But it is not rooted in our love to him.  Rather, we love him because he first loved us with an eternal and saving love.


Here Paul gets to the content and essence of God’s purpose, a purpose which issues and is consummated in final salvation.  We’ve noted that the content of God’s purpose is that we are conformed to the image of his Son so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  However, it is a purpose to which we are predestined.  People sometimes will say that they don’t believe in predestination.  But you cannot be a Christian and not believe in it.  Paul clearly teaches it.  So the way some people get around it is by interpreting “foreknowledge” as meaning mere prescience so that God’s predestination of people to salvation means that he simply purposes beforehand to save those who put their faith in Jesus.

But this undermines what it means to predestine and empties the word of any real meaning.  Predestine means to determine the destiny of someone or something before it takes place.  If God is simply rubber-stamping our own choices, he is not determining our destiny, we are.  Rather, it must mean that our final destiny in terms of final salvation is ultimately determined by God, not ourselves, and that he did this before the world began, from eternity past.  Our eternal future is rooted in God’s love and purpose in eternity past.

A lot of people object to this because they think that if you embrace this doctrine then you will have no reason to believe or be sanctified or witness or pray or whatever.  But such an objection is not rooted in the Bible but in assumptions which are nowhere taught in Scripture.  I agree that the Bible clearly does not disconnect God’s purpose from faith and love to God.  It does not disconnect God’s purpose from prayer or evangelism.  But they will say, “Ah, but if you really believe this, then logic requires you to be careless about those other things.”  I disagree!  Logic on its own does not require us to reject this doctrine because reason and logic simply do not require us to say that predestination in this sense requires us to say that it does not matter what we do.  These are assumptions that people bring into the argument.  But it’s important to see that the rejection of this doctrine is not rooted in Scripture or logic but rather in a pre-commitment to certain assumptions, in particular, to the assumption that we are, and must be, ultimately self-sovereign.  I reject that assumption, and I think the Bible does as well.

At the same time, to reject what I think is a Biblical understanding of God’s sovereignty in predestination is to rob us of so much comfort and security.  If you don’t see your need for that then I’m afraid you don’t really understand yourself that well.  Thank God that he holds us firmly in his hand and has done so from all eternity.  This doctrine is expressed in the saying, “I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.”  Not just “I know someone who knows the future” – but “I know who holds the future”!  That’s predestination!  Well, there’s a lot more we could say about this doctrine, but I’ll save that for our consideration of the next chapter.


What does Paul mean by this?  Is he talking about what is sometimes called the “general call,” the call that goes forth in the gospel to all men that they should believe the gospel and repent of their sins?  No.  The reason he can’t be talking about this is because this call is something that always issues in final salvation.  It leads to justification and then to glorification. 

In the Bible, to be called is a reference to conversion, moving out of a state of sin and darkness to righteousness and light.  Paul uses the word in this sense in numerous places (e.g. 1 Cor. 1:23,24,26-31; 2 Thess. 2:13-14).  It is effectual in sense that this call to faith always issues in the response of faith. 

Thank God for calling us out of darkness!  If one wants a more convincing proof of God’s miracles in the present day, one need look no further than the miracle of conversion and the new birth.  He can take the most hardened unbeliever and make them devoted disciples of Christ.  Consider the apostle Paul!  Here was a man who murdered Christians and yet God made him the foremost apostle.  And he was not meant to be an outlier, but as he puts it, he was “an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim. 1:16).  He can take you, wherever you are, and completely transform your life.  Like Lazarus, he can take you in your spiritual deadness and simply by his call awaken you out of your deathly sleep, your bondage to sin.  There is no sin that he cannot free you from.  There is no darkness so dark than he cannot dispel it by his light.

God invades history, he comes into our homes and hearts and brings his kingdom with him.  That’s what the apostle is saying here.  He does not make these wonderful plans for us and then leave us to ourselves to work them out.  He calls us, and when he calls those whom he foreknew and predestined, he does so effectually. 

You see, Christianity is not just a philosophical system but a personal meeting with a personal God.  It is a miraculous encounter with one who made all things and who is remaking all things in Christ.  Have you met him?  Have you encountered him?  Better yet, has he found you?  As Paul put it, “now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (Gal. 4:9). 

Now, this verse (Rom. 8:30) was written to those who had already believed.  Paul wants them to know the behind their profession of faith is the work of God.  They are not out there dangling on their own, and dependent upon their own resources.  But what of those who are not committed to Christ?  What if you do not identify as a believer in Christ – what do you do with this?  Does it mean that you should sit down and do nothing?  No!  Instead, you reach out for God, knowing that if this verse is true, God is there to be known and encountered and that if you truly seek him he will enable your very seeking of him.  He has promised that he will turn away no one who comes to him.  So come to him!


I won’t dwell on this because we’ve already spent a lot of time unpacking what the apostle has had to say about this.  Suffice it to say that those who are called are inevitably justified.  Those who respond in faith to the summons of the gospel have all their sins forgiven and are given a status of perfect righteousness in Christ.  He takes our sins and we are granted his righteousness.  It is the most glorious of exchanges. 


Those who are justified are glorified.  They are finally saved.  Paul does not say that some who are called are justified.  No, those who are called are justified.  If you are a called person you are also a justified person.  In the same way, those who are justified are glorified.  Not some, but all.  Now you will notice that the tense here is the past tense, although for all of us this is yet future.  It is even future for those who are in heaven, because our glorification is not complete until we are resurrected from the dead at Christ’s second coming.  But Paul writes in the past tense because it is as sure as if it had already happened.  It is that sure. 

Why is it so sure?  Because our final salvation does not depend ultimately upon us.  It does not finally depend upon our love for God but upon God’s love for us: he foreknew us before all times and we love him because he first loved us.  It does not finally depend upon our purpose for God, but upon God’s predestining purpose for us.  It does not ultimately depend upon our finding God but God finding us in our misery and our ruin, for he calls us.  It does not ultimately depend upon our imperfect righteousness, which is but filthy rags, but upon the perfect righteousness of Christ in our justification.  And so we come to heaven and eternal glory.  We may not be much now, but one day we will with Christ be glorified.

In these two verses the doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints is effectively summed up.  Because God is at the bottom of our redemption and salvation, our hope is secure.  All who are foreknown are predestined, and all who are predestined are called, and all who are called are justified, and all who are justified are glorified. 

Praise God for his sure and complete and glorious salvation!

[1] George P. Fisher, The Reformation (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1912), p. 220-221.

From Whence This Fear and Unbelief

By: Augustus Toplady
From whence this fear and unbelief?
Hath not the Father put to grief
His spotless Son for me?
And will the righteous Judge of men
Condemn me for that debt of sin
Which, Lord, was charged on Thee?
Complete atonement Thou hast made,
And to the utmost Thou hast paid
Whate’er Thy people owed;
How then can wrath on me take place,
If sheltered in Thy righteousness,
And sprinkled with Thy blood?
If thou hast my discharge procured,
And freely in my room endured
The whole of wrath divine;
Payment God cannot twice demand,
First at my bleeding Surety’s hand,
And then again at mine.
Turn then, my soul, unto thy rest!
The merits of thy great High Priest
Have bought thy liberty;
Trust in His efficacious blood,
Nor fear thy banishment from God,
Since Jesus died for thee.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

All Things for Good --Romans 8:28

I grew up in a home with a grandfather clock.  It chimed every quarter hour, and at the top of each hour it would dong out the number of hours.  It did this 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  It was really a beautiful clock and the chimes were, I think, the Big Ben chimes.  However, since I was around it all the time, I got to where I simply ignored the chimes without even realizing that was what I was doing.  I could sit right next to the clock at the noon hour and never hear a thing.  Five minutes later if I wanted to know the time, I would have to turn and look at the clock to see it was a little after noon.  One day, an older couple who were passing through stopped at our home to spend the night.  We put them up in the living room on the couch which made into a queen-sized bed – right next to Big Ben.  The next morning, we were mortified to realize that the lady had hardly been able to get a wink of sleep – she was continuously awakened by the chimes every quarter hour.  We could have turned them off, but it never occurred to us because we never really heard them anyway!

There are some glorious theological truths that are like that clock.  They chime out beautiful rhythms of hope and promise and glory, but we have heard them so often that we just don’t hear them anymore.  I think Romans 8:28 is like that.  How many times do we hear people remind us that all things work together for our good?  At least if you are in the right theological circles, you are going to hear that a lot.  But the problem is that familiarity too often leads to neglect.  So the challenge of considering passages like this one is to do so in a way that we hear the clear and beautiful tones of its truth so that we enjoy it and embrace it and believe it as we ought.

I think one way we can do this is by carefully considering what the verse actually says.  When my grandfather bought a John Deere tractor lawn-mower, the first thing he did was to take it completely apart to see how it ran.  Those of you who know me well know that I could never do that!  But it is a fitting analogy for what we need to do here.  Let’s take this verse apart and look at it closely, and hopefully we will get a new appreciation for the great hope that we have in Christ.

The first place to start is the context.  How can suffering saints, the kind mentioned in verses 17-18 (and verses 35-36), know that their hope will be realized?  How can they be sure that between now and then nothing will intervene to destroy that hope and render it invalid?  This is surely a valid concern, especially when we consider the nature and number of the enemies of our souls.  We believe that there is a vast armada of demons, led by the archenemy of Christ himself – Satan – who would like nothing better than to sift our souls as wheat so that we will deny Christ and go back as slaves to the world.  And then there is the world itself, arrayed against the Christian, sometimes in outright persecution, and always trying to make the faith less believable and credible, so that we will slink back under its dominion.  Finally, there is our own self.  And the fact of the matter is that we are often our worst enemies.

I know that some teach that God can protect you from the world and the devil but he cannot ultimately protect you from yourself.  Frankly, I don’t know how the verses that supposedly teach the preserving and protecting power of God on our behalf are anything more than cold comfort if they also don’t teach that God protects us even from ourselves if necessary.  That’s why I love the explicit statement of 1 Peter 1:5, which teaches that we are kept by the power of God. 

There are of course many answers to the question – how will I be kept?  But the answer given here in our text is a wonderful and full and hope-giving answer.  The answer is that God is working all things for our good, for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.  This is a truly amazing promise.  What does it tell us?  It tells us three things: to whom the promise belongs, what good we hope for, and how this good comes to us.  Let us consider these three things in order.

To whom does the promise belong?

The answer is that the promise belongs to lovers of God: “for those who love God.”  The ESV puts this phrase first because that is the place it holds in the original text. 

It is important to understand that this is not a universal promise.  It is not a promise that everything is going to work out for everyone in the end.  The fact of the matter is that there are going to be many people who will discover in the end that everything has worked against them, not for them.  All the good they experienced in this world only worked to dull their hearts to God.  And the evil they endured only served to harden their hearts against God.  Like Judas, of whom it was said, it would have been good if he had never been born, there will be a multitude who will find that there was no good in this world that made their judgment worth it.  There is a kind of inverse of verse 18: the blessings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the wrath that is to come.  I do not say that lightly: our Lord himself said more about hell than anyone else. 

This is a promise to those who love God.  But this does not just limit the promise to those who profess Christianity, because unfortunately there are many who claim to be Christian, but it is also clear that there is no real love for God in their hearts.  The NT gives examples of people who for a time professed faith in Christ, but who came to show that their faith was not a saving faith.  Saving faith is inseparable from real love to God.  Simon the Magician professed a kind of faith and was even baptized, yet Peter told him later that his heart was not right before God and that he was in the gall of bitterness and bond of iniquity (Acts 8:21-23).  This is no promise to those who hitch their wagon to the Christian faith for world-serving reasons but who do not truly love God.

What then does it mean to love God?

First, it means that we love God as he is revealed in the Bible, and supremely as he is revealed in Jesus Christ.  This is no promise that if you love some generic “god” then all things will work well for you.  It is not a promise that as long as you are not an atheist, all will be well.  We must remember the warning implicit in James 2:19 – even the devils believe in God and tremble!

But though faith in God as he is revealed to us in Scripture is not a sufficient condition, it is a necessary one.  Those who come to God must believe that he is (Heb. 11:6).  For you cannot love someone you do not know.  And though God has to some extent revealed himself in nature (Ps. 19; Rom. 1:20), this does not give the clearest knowledge of himself; in particular, it does not give a saving knowledge of God.  That comes to us in the gospel.  Paul will draw a straight line from a prayer that calls upon God in truth to the gospel that comes to us by heaven sent messengers (Rom. 10:13-15). 

What this means is that we can test whether we love God in the sense of Rom. 8:28 by asking ourselves the question: do I love the God who is revealed in the pages of the Bible?  Or do I find my spirit rising up against him as he is revealed there?  Nowadays, you hear people say that even if you could convince them that the God of the Bible existed, they could never worship such a God.  Very well, I appreciate the honesty.  But we will be honest too: such people will perish forever. 

I think it’s interesting that in John 3:36 believing in Jesus is contrasted with not obeying him.  Those who refuse to trust him as their Savior do so ultimately because they will not have him as their Lord, and you cannot have Christ as Savior without also submitting to him as Lord.  They will not receive him as he comes to them.  How often we would like to believe in a god we have created in our own minds!  But that is the root of idolatry and the foundation of all our false worship.

There are some who argue that if they believe in God and love the God they believe in, that’s enough, even though they don’t embrace Jesus as Lord.  But the Bible does not allow us to make that move.  Jesus himself does not allow us to make that move.  “Whoever hates me hates my Father also” (Jn. 15:23).  If you hate Jesus Christ as he is revealed in the pages of the NT then you hate God the Father.  You don’t love God at all; in fact, you hate him.

Second, it means that I will obey God.  If I love him, I will obey him.  Again, our Lord put it this way, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me.  And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (Jn. 14:21).  Though this is not a definition of love, it does tell us that obedience is a necessary concomitant to loving Christ.  You can say you love God, but if you don’t obey him, your love is phony. 

The Bible of course teaches that our good works, our obedience, don’t save us in the sense that they don’t contribute one ounce to our justification before God.  The foundation of our relationship to God is the grace of God that comes to us through Christ and his finished work.  However, it is also true that when God saves us he gives us a new nature, a nature that loves God as God, which loves Jesus as Lord and Savior.  And if we love him as such, we will obey him.  To refuse to obey him is to demonstrate that we really don’t love him – or even believe in him.  “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments (1 Jn. 5:3).  Those who love God keep his commandments.  And those who love God have all things work together for their good.  Therefore if you keep God’s commandments, all things are working for your good.  But if you refuse to keep God’s commandments, then you have no hope that all will work for your good, either now or in eternity.

Third, we must also say that love is not just obedience – it does not consist in will-power over the flesh, but in a genuine delight in God for who he is.  But it is related to our obedience and grounds it, for those who delight in God for who he is in the fullness of his attributes revealed in Scripture will gladly and joyfully obey him.  Such people don’t love God simply for his gifts, but for who he is in himself.  To love him for just for his gifts really means that we don’t love him at all.  It follows that they love God through trials, and when he takes things away they don’t stop loving him (cf. the example of Job).

But what does it mean to love God as he is in himself?  What does it mean to delight in God?  Well, it means that we will want to see him glorified.  We will want to magnify him and to see him magnified.  For such people, the opening to the Lord’s prayer is no idle preface but expresses the heart of their petitions: “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”  Furthermore, they want to have fellowship with him, and this is the pinnacle of their happiness and joy.  It is expressed in places like Psalm 63:1-4: “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.  So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.  Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.  So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will life up my hands.”  Or Psalm 84:1-2, which reads, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!  My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.”  Do these ancient hymns express our hearts?  Or are their sentiments foreign to our hearts?  It is a searching question, and gets at the heart of whether or not we truly love God.

What good do those who love God hope for?

We must be careful how we interpret “work together for good.”  For one thing, it is not a guarantee that we will be surrounded all our lives with earthly comforts.  Here the context is so important.  Beware of people who take a verse and import meaning into it which is impossible from the context.  Someone has wisely said that a text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.  That is never more true than it is for this verse. 

The context is suffering.  In fact, you could say that it is sandwiched between passages that speak to the suffering of the saints.  On one side we hear the groaning of the saints who are suffering and weak and ignorant (18-27).  On the other side we see the persecution of the saints who are being “killed all the day long” and “regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” (35-26).  The story of the beggar Lazarus did not have a happy ending in this life

Nevertheless, it is interesting that Paul uses the present tense: “All things are working together for good,” not simply will work together for good.  So however, we interpret the good that is spoken of here, we must interpret it (1) as that which is consistent with suffering in the here and now, and (2) as that which brings good not only in the future but in the present as well.

What then is the “good”?  Well, given that this is a promise given to those who love God, I would say that the good includes everything which increases our delight in God, which builds up a believer in his or her faith, brings us closer to God, and ultimately issues in final salvation and eternal glory which consists in perfect unbroken fellowship with the living God.  To those who love God, the comforts of this world are so many mud pies compared to the blessing of knowing God. 

Now it certainly includes eternal life as the connection between verse 28 and 29-30 shows.  They are connected by the word “for”: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”  All things work together for the good of the saint because everything is working for the believer to bring him or her to final glorification.

But is the only good promised to the believer future  No.  We do experience the “good” in this life because even the suffering that we go through (as well as the multitude of earthly comforts we receive) produces good right now.  Paul says that godliness is a blessing now as well as in the future: “for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:8). 

Here is a test: does this promise really encourage you as Paul meant it to?  What is the “good” that we really want?  What is my hope set upon?  Are we like those in John 6:26 who only seek Jesus for the bread that fills our bellies, or do we seek him because he gives us the bread of life?  This is why it makes sense that Paul introduces the promise with “for those who love God.”  Because lovers of God see God himself as the greatest good.  If this promise disappoints me, I need to do some self-examination and ask myself why I name the name of Christ. 

How does this good come to those who love God?

First of all, it comes through all things.  Literally everything – if even suffering itself, produces our good, then surely all things do as well.  But the point is that even those events in our lives we normally view as bad – things like tribulation and distress and persecution and famine and nakedness and danger and the sword – are working for our ultimate good.

Now we must be careful here.  The text does not say that all things are good.  It says that all things work for good.  The thing that is working for our good may not in fact be good in itself.  It was not good for Joseph to be sold into slavery.  But it worked for his good and the good of his entire family – indeed for our good since the preservation of the nation of Israel and the coming of the Messiah depended on his preservation!  It was not good for Job to lose his flocks and family and fitness, but it worked for his good in the end: “You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (Jam. 5:11).

So when we say all things work for good, we are not saying that cancer is good, or that infidelity is good, or that financial loss is good.  What the Bible is saying is that the cancer and the infidelity and the financial loss will work for the good of those who love God.  It doesn’t mean we don’t weep when we lose our loved ones or pretend that we are unaffected when presented with a terrible loss.  But it does mean that the pain and the hurt we feel can only go so deep, and that underneath it all there is hope in the goodness of God who will bring good out of our suffering.

I am so thankful for the comprehensiveness of this text – all things!  This is true because the God we serve is truly sovereign over his entire universe.  There is no corner over which God does not ultimate control.  Demons may cause pigs to throw themselves over a cliff, but it is only because the Lord gives them permission.  Because of the fact that God is over all things, we know that he can work all things for our good.  And because he will work all things for our good, we can be absolutely sure that our hope will be finally realized.  This leads to our final point.

The good comes to us through the purpose and power of God.  That Paul understood God as behind this is shown in those for whom this happens – those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.  It is God who discriminates, and thus it is God who is causing all things to work together for our good.  Paul is not teaching some Pollyannaish doctrine that everything will somehow work itself out in the end.  Nor he is teaching a materialistic determinism in which everything is naturally trending upwards.  Rather, he teaches that a personal and powerful and holy and sovereign God is moving all things for the eternal good of his people.  I frankly feel sorry for people who think God is constantly running defense and having to fix things.  No my friends, he is the immutable God who is working all things for the good of his people.

Let us therefore learn to trust in God through every eventuality in life knowing that God is behind it all with a good purpose.  He is perfecting us and conforming us to the image of his Son.  And he is doing it for our good and joy. 

How are you hearing this promise?  Can you hear the sweetness of its music waft its way into your heart, even when it is groaning under the strain of some trial?  If so, it is because God has called us to love him, and it is God who is working all things for your good, so let us give him the praise for which he is so worthy.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

The Help of the Spirit – Romans 8:26-27

In the previous verses, the apostle has been reminding us of the hope that we have in Christ.  Even though our lives are now characterized by waiting and groaning, yet it is a waiting and groaning in hope.  We are heirs, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, and looking forward to the full realization of our future glorious inheritance.  The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to be revealed (18).  Nevertheless, in the meantime we are stuck in the present as we look and long for the future glory.  And this means that in some sense we are vulnerable – vulnerable to suffering and persecution, to trials and afflictions and sorrows.  In this vulnerability, one of the things we want to know is what is best for us.  This is especially true when faced with a trial.  We kind of take it for granted that we are doing the right thing when things are going well for us (though this is not always true!).  But when we are going through a hard time we begin to question things, and to reevaluate our position. 

For the Christian, he or she become acutely aware of how important it is in times like this to be in God’s will.  What I mean by God’s will in this case is not God’s will of decree or his eternal purpose (which encompasses whatever comes to pass and which we cannot change – I believe this is what James is referring to at the end of James 4), but rather what has sometimes been called God’s will of command.  In other words, there are certain things that are according to God’s will in the sense that God has commanded that we do them.  And there are things that are against God’s will of command in the sense that to do them is to do what God has forbidden.  For example, Paul says in 1 Thess. 4:3, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality.”  Sadly, this commandment is often broken.  When you do not abstain from sexual immorality, you are not in God’s will in this sense.  This is important because obedience brings blessing whereas disobedience brings God’s displeasure and Fatherly discipline.

So when we are suffering under some trial, as I say, we are more sensitive to the desire to have God’s blessing.  We certainly don’t want to compound our problems by having God’s hand of discipline upon us.  On the other hand, we also want to have God’s blessing and grace in the trials we undergo, because knowing our own weakness, we know that we won’t make it to the other side very well without it.

So how do we know what God’s will is for us in a given situation?  Is it always possible to infallibly know what God’s will is?  Will you always be able to know the right choice when confronted with a major decision? 

This text helps us here.  I am so glad for passages like this.  Several years ago, I was faced with what seemed at the time a very difficult decision.  I didn’t really know what to do.  It wasn’t one of those situations where it’s obvious what God’s will was.  There wasn’t anything obviously sinful about any of the options before me, although there were valid concerns about motives and whether or not I was living by faith and so on.  But I still had to make a choice.  And I had to do so without a clear vision from God telling me, “This is the way: walk in it.”

One of the things that can make the agony of decision-making more intense is the belief that if we are in God’s will, we are inevitably going to know it.  Some teach that you will always infallibly know whether or not you are doing what is best, and if you don’t then you are somehow not living by faith or not living Biblically.  Well, I think I had bought into that idea to some extent, and so what happened is that I became paralyzed by a fear that I might be doing something wrong, no matter what choice I made.  Instead of seeing the matter as a chance to trust in the Lord, I saw the decision before me as a choice of chalices, with one of them containing poison, and I not knowing which one!  I was afraid of the whole Indiana Jones scenario – one drink and then the words, “He did not choose wisely….”

And then I heard John Piper preach on this text (a lot of what I say in this message is highly influenced by his sermon on this text).  He pointed out the obvious lesson of the text, though before that I hadn’t seen it for whatever reason.  Anyway, I thank God that in his providence it was at this point in my life that I heard that sermon, because it freed me up to really live by faith and leave the results up to God.  The truth he pointed out, which is the truth of this text, is that we do not always know God’s will, even if you are living a holy and righteous life.  For Paul explicitly says that, “we do not know what to pray for as we ought” (26).  In other words, I won’t always know what to pray for.  And when you compare this with verse 27, this means that we don’t know what to pray for in terms of God’s will for us.  It’s part of the “weakness” the apostle refers to in verse 26.  But this weakness is not the same thing as sinfulness.  There is no indication anywhere in these verses that not knowing how to pray is a result of sinful living.  In fact, the apostle refers to the subjects of these verses as “the saints” or “the holy ones” (27): the Spirit “intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”  So this can happen to people who are not walking in any known sin. 

So when we’re faced with decisions like, should I stay in this job or not?  Should I take this medication or something else?  Or should I join this church or another?  These are not always questions that will be obvious.  And just because you pray a lot doesn’t mean it will be revealed to you or that you will know what to pray for. 

Now that doesn’t mean that in all cases of life there aren’t Biblical principles to guide us.  Of course there are.  The Scriptures are sufficient in that they give us principles to guide us in our decision making, no matter what the matter is.  For example, I can’t take a job that would involve me in dishonest business practices.  But given two different job opportunities, neither of which are inconsistent with faithfulness to Christ, I can make a decision based on sanctified common sense, and then, as Kevin DeYoung puts it, just do something, and leave the results to God. 

But the point I want to make with respect to our text is that it frees us up to do that.  It allows us the freedom to make decisions – within the clear boundaries that God’s word lays out for us – on the basis of sanctified common sense, and not to become paralyzed because we don’t know exactly what God’s mind is on a particular choice we have to make.  We may be unable to know exactly how best to proceed so that Christ might be best magnified in our lives.  Like Paul, who wrote, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.  Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.  I am hard pressed between the two.  My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.  But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (Phil. 1:22-24).  But Paul doesn’t indicate that this ignorance as to the best path was a result of sin in his life.  Neither should we think that is always the case for us.  We don’t need to live in guilt if we don’t know exactly how to proceed so that God is most honored by our choices.  Rather, we live by faith and make decisions in light of the best information that we have and leave the results to God.

But how exactly does the text free us up to do that?  It does it by showing that our ignorance is not ultimately a handicap because we are not prisoners to our ignorance.  We have help in this weakness of ours.  And the help that the apostle points us to is the help of the Spirit. 

Now this really is part two of three different ways that Paul is pointing us to for help in our suffering.  The first help that we have is the hope we have in Christ that one day we will enter into an eternal state of glory in fellowship with God (18-25).  The second help is the help extended in verses 26-27, the help of the Spirit.  The third help is the knowledge that all things work for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose (28).  This morning, we are going to focus in on this second help, the help of the Holy Spirit.

How does the Spirit help us?

By interceding for us.

He helps us by interceding for us – which is exactly what we need.  When I need to present my cause in a court of law, I don’t know how to argue my case, so I get a lawyer.  In a remarkably similar fashion, the Spirit here is presented more or less as our lawyer who presents our case to God, along with our Lord Jesus Christ (34).  We don’t know how to present our case to God in the sense that we don’t know what to pray for (some translations make this a problem of how to pray, when the problem is more specific – it’s the problem of what to pray for).  So the Spirit steps in and brings our case before God in a way that is perfectly in conformity with God’s will: he makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God (27).

Paul doesn’t use the language of Paraclete here, as our Lord does in the book of John (14:16-17, 26; 16:7), but it fits the picture the apostle is painting for us of the Spirit’s work on our behalf.  The word “paraclete” is very hard to translate.  In the gospel of John, the KJV translates it as “Comforter.”  But the same word is translated in 1 John 2:1 as “Advocate.”  It can mean both.  Broadly, it refers to someone who comes alongside to help.  So the ESV uses the word “Helper” in the gospel of John (though again “advocate” in his epistle).  In the same way, here in our text we see the Spirit coming alongside us to help us in our weakness, a counselor and advocate in the very court of God on our behalf.

With groanings that cannot be uttered.

It is very interesting, however, how this is said to happen.  The apostle writes, “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (26).  What does this mean?  In particular, whose groanings are these?  Are these my groanings?  Are they the Spirit’s groanings?  Or are they my groanings inspired by the Spirit?  I think the latter, for the following reasons.

First, it is unlikely that the Spirit himself would need to groan to the Father.  Groanings seems to befit those who are less than perfect, and in the Holy Trinity there are no imperfections.

Second, the groaning in verse 26 reminds us of the groanings in verses 22 and 23 – and back in those verses they are in part the groanings of the saints due to their sufferings and infirmities.  Again, we are reminded that groaning is an expression that comes out of suffering, and the Holy Spirit himself does not suffer.  Rather, we are the ones who are suffering. 

I also think that what the apostle means by “groanings too deep for words” is that the groanings in some sense take the place of words.  Why would that be?  An obvious explanation would be that words cannot be found to express what is wanted to be said.  Again, that fits our experience, but not so much the Spirit as he is in himself.  We groan because we don’t know what to pray for.  We wish we knew.  But we don’t.  So what comes out are not words which cannot be found but groanings.  It’s all we can do.  It’s a part of our weakness.

Third, the place in which the groaning takes place is the heart, not heaven: “he who searches the hearts” (27).  God searches the hearts where the groaning is taking place.  This is almost certainly a reference to human hearts.

Fourth, this is very much like what we’ve seen before with the Spirit’s ministry to the people of God.  In 14-16, he is the Spirit of adoption, bearing witness with our spirits that we are the children of God (16).  He is not operating independently of our spirits, but in and with our spirits.  In fact, the very cry, “Abba, Father,” is an utterance inspired by the Holy Spirit (15).  In the same way, it is best to take these groanings as the work of the Spirit in and with our hearts.

Now how does this do us any good?  How does it help?  There are three realities that the ministry of the Spirit in our groanings that are pointed to in this text.

Our groanings are good.

We must remember why we are groaning: because we want the will of God for our lives but do not know what God’s will is for a particular situation.  We come to God in prayer to ask for help and guidance but we don’t know what to pray for.  And since we can’t even formulate the words to pray, all that comes out are these groanings.  These may not even be audible, but there they are in our hearts, these deeps expressions of our weakness and helplessness.  And if we only see them as expressions of our weakness, we are likely to be depressed.  But what Paul wants us to see is that these groanings are inspired by the Holy Spirit himself, and are the very means of his intercession for us!  Even the very expressions of our weakness are a reminder that we have help that comes from God.  And that means they are good.

Our groanings are heard.

As a result, verse 27 tells us that because these groanings are inspired by the Spirit of God, God takes notice of them: “he who searches hearts knows that is the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”  This is so important for us to see.   Few things are more spiritually and emotionally debilitating than to think that you are crying out for help and no one is listening.  It can feel like that sometimes, even for believers.  But we must never think that we are alone.  Even when we are at the end of our own abilities and strengths and are groaning out our weakness, this is an evidence that God is working in us and for us.  And our groanings are being listened to by God.  He takes notice of them, and as the hymn puts it, “He hears our praises and complaints.” 

We sometimes think that God won’t hear our prayers if we don’t say the right thing.  And of course we can say the wrong things: we can ask for things selfishly or from wrong motives (cf. Jam. 4:2).  But it is also possible to fall into the belief that our prayers need to have some kind of almost literary embellishment or adornment for God to take notice of them.  We’re afraid if we don’t pray spiritually sophisticated prayers they won’t somehow reach heaven.  But what does our text say?  It says that God inspires and hears even our groaning.  We may not know what to say at all, but that is no hindrance to God!  In fact, there are instances in Scripture where the groanings of God’s people are the precursor to some of God’s greatest deliverances.  For example, the Exodus: “During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help.  Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God.  And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, with Jacob.  God saw the people of Israel – and God knew” (Exod. 2:23-25).  In the end, just like the Israelites, God’s commitment to us does not depend upon our flowery prayers or our worthiness but upon God’s commitment to his covenant, to his promises to us in Christ. 

Our groanings are acted upon.

And so we see that what inevitably follows upon God’s notice is God’s acting for us.  We can know, because of the Spirit’s intercession for us, that God is going to bring about his will in our lives, even if we don’t know what it is.  We don’t have to know what is best for us, because “the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”  We’re going to consider the next verse more fully next time, but this obviously leads to the thought of verse 28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”  Our weakness and ignorance is no roadblock for the fulfillment of God’s good purpose in our lives, because the Spirit is interceding for us according to God’s will.

This text is yet another reminder of the more general principle that God is not limited by our limitations.  Over and over again we are reminded in Scripture that the things that are impossible with men are possible with God.  We are instructed that when we are weak then we are strong because it is precisely in our weakness that God shows his strength.  We need to be reminded of this because we are often trapped by the tendency to measure all possible outcomes in any particular situation in terms of our ability to manage and handle them.  This is dangerous because if we look at life through these lenses, we will less likely look to God for our help.  It is only when we come to the end of ourselves that we truly start to look to God for our help.  Like the psalmist, it is when “my heart is in anguish within me” and “the terrors of death have fallen upon me” and “fear and trembling come upon me” and “horror overwhelms we” that we say, “Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved” (Ps. 55:4-5, 22).

Another way to put it is that this doctrine is an antidote to human pride.  But it is also an antidote to our despair.  Some people don’t look to God because they think they have it all together.  These verses remind us that is not true.  But there are others who are afraid to look to God because all they see when they look within is ugliness and insufficiency and weakness and sin.  What this text reminds us is that we also should not allow our weakness to turn us from God but to remind us of our dependence upon him.  Even in our groaning, the expression of our limitations and ignorance, God is working.

Beware of theological systems that in the end make your life and salvation dependent upon yourself.  My friend, that is a terrifying and debilitating idea.  Thank God, Scripture does not teach that!  Rather, it teaches that ultimately we are wholly dependent upon God.  And that is good news.  We are full of sin, but in Christ we have redemption and justification and sanctification.  We are full of weakness, but in Christ we are made strong.  Without him we can do nothing but in Christ we can do all things through his strength.  We are full of ignorance, but in Christ the Spirit intercedes for us according to the will of God.  Every one of our needs are met in Christ, fully and completely. 

So don’t let discouragement get you down.  Stop looking at your own limitations and look to the one who is almighty and omnipotent and who brings his power and strength on our behalf, not because we are worthy but because Christ is worthy for us.  Look to Christ and trust in him, and find him a full and complete salvation.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Groaning, Hoping, Waiting. Romans 8:18-25

We often hear of the distinction between the sacred and the secular.  The notion is firmly engrained in our minds that this world and its doings – our jobs, our daily chores, our hobbies, the sciences, politics, and so on – is to be separated from religion and the spiritual.  And so we compartmentalize our lives, sometimes without even realizing it.  We go about our daily tasks with one mindset and the read our Bibles and go to church and pray and give alms with a different mindset.  

But the distinction between sacred and secular is not a Biblical distinction.  It is something that modern culture has imposed upon our thinking.  And it is fundamentally contradictory to the way the Christian is supposed to think and live in this world, for to be secular means to go about our lives as if it had no religious basis.  We cannot do that.  All of this world is God’s world, and therefore the secular mindset is a denial of God’s sovereignty over all things.  We are to do everything with all our might for the glory of God.  Paul summarizes it this way to the Corinthians: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).  That word “whatever” is all-encompassing.  If you can’t do it to the glory of God, then you shouldn’t do it!  To the servants Paul would write, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23); even our so-called “secular” work is to be done with a thoroughly religious mindset (see also Tit. 2:9,10).  For the Christian, nothing is to be secular; our whole life is to be lived out before God and with an eye for his glory. 

The apostle saw everything, even the physical and subhuman creation in relation to God.  Paul knew that the promise of God stands true: “truly . . . all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD” (Num. 14:21).  He didn’t compartmentalize like we do because there were no compartments in his mind in which God did not belong.  We can see how true this was of the apostle by looking at our text.  When Paul looked at the physical and animal world, he did not just see trees and flowers and mountains and lions and birds and fish, he saw a stage upon which the drama of redemption is played out to the glory of God and good of God’s people.  

Like the psalmist, Paul didn’t see the Bible and the physical creation as opposed to each other.  Rather, he saw them as two different books in which God was revealing himself to man (Ps. 19).  If we listen hard enough, we will see that even the subhuman world is teaching us about God and his salvation. 

One of the problems with the secular mindset is that, even though it claims to pay attention to the physical and material world better than religious people do, it does not really hear what it is telling us.  The physical world is sending us a message.  But that message is not the message that this world is all there is to it.  It is rather a message that points us forward to the age to come.  Even the physical world is a signpost for the new heavens and new earth.  And that is what is entirely missed by the secular mindset.  The message even of the physical creation is not that we should live only for the present.  It’s message is that we should wait for the world to come.  If there is one word that ties this paragraph together, it is the word “wait,” which we see in verses 19, 23, and 25.  The “creation waits with eager longing” (19); “we [believers] wait eagerly” (23), and “we wait . . . with patience” (25).  

You see, if you take the secular mindset seriously, you have to say that this world is just the way it is, and we shouldn’t say it ought to be different.  You might want it to be different, or you might not like the way it is, but once you rule God out, there is not “ought.”  As Yoda might put it, “It is or is not, there is no ought.”  But the reality is that no one really thinks like that.  We look at this world and we not only want it to be different, we know deep down that it ought to be different, that there is something objectively and fundamentally wrong with this world as it is.  And so I think one of the arguments against the secularist mindset is that it forces us to deny what we all know to be true.  If forces us to turn off the very lesson that Paul reminds us that the creation is teaching us.  It is teaching us to wait, and in teaching us to wait, it is telling us something about sin and redemption, about the saints and salvation.  It is telling us that it is waiting for the very thing God’s people are waiting for, and if you want to truly be in tune with the material universe you are going to have to be in tune with the people of God, for they are both waiting for the same thing.

What is the physical creation waiting for?  What are believers waiting for?  Let’s consider those two questions in order.

The physical creation is waiting for the glory of the children of God.

There are some who think that this entire passage is addressing the people of God and that the “creation” in verses 19, ff. is a reference to God’s new creation in Christ, the saints.  However, this cannot be the case, because the “creation” is contrasted with believers in verses 22 and 23, esp. verse 23: “And not only the creation, but we ourselves…”  The “we ourselves” are those who, in verse 22 are waiting for adoption as sons, the redemption of the body.  This is clearly a reference to the people of God.  They are the ones contrasted to the creation.  So the creation is not a reference to the elect; rather, it is a reference to the subhuman creation, both animal and physical.  

What Paul is saying is that the world and universe as we know it will be delivered from “bondage to corruption” (21).  In other words, from the effects of sin.  We know that when God created the world, it was very good (Gen. 1:31).  There was no sin in it, and therefore no corruption.  However, when man sinned in the Garden of Eden and caused the human race to fall into sin, the world became a stage for men in rebellion against God.  It became a stage for depravity.  The world which was meant to be a platform in which man would have perfect fellowship with God, now became a place where man tried to live in opposition to God.  

As a result, the creation was “subjected to futility” for that is what sin does (20), and it now “waits with eager longing” (19) to be delivered.  Indeed, it groans in childbirth (22).  Paul does not identify exactly what those groanings are, but in light of what our Lord says in Mt. 24:5-8, they include wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes: “all these are but the beginning of the birth pains.”  [The Greek word “birth pains” in Mt. 24:8 is related to the verb Paul uses in Rom. 8:22, which is probably why the ESV translates it, “groaning together in the pains of childbirth.”]  It’s clear from the book of Revelation that earthquakes are sometimes sent as a judgment of God (cf. Rev. 6:12), and so belong to an order that is not the way it was meant to be.  Just as the body reacts when invaded with a virus, so the physical creation is reacting to the virus of sin.  

Paul tells us that the creation wants to be delivered, and that it is looking forward to a time when it will no longer be a stage for sin, when it will again be a place which is “very good.”  I think it is very important to understand what the apostle is saying here, because it counteracts another error, which is that in the age to come there will no longer be a physical earth.  But that is not what Paul says.  He does not say that the earth will be annihilated but rather that it has been “subjected . . . in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (20-21).  In other words, the redemption of the physical creation is tied up in the redemption of the people of God.  Certainly, our redemption is not annihilation into nothingness!  Neither should we expect that for the physical world.   

What I’ve heard people say is that they want to spend eternity in heaven, not on the earth.  What they don’t realize is that the saints which are now in heaven, though they are truly in a better place, are still incomplete, and that they will not be made complete until the resurrection of their bodies.  Even the saints in heaven are longing for a better place! (cf. Rev. 6:10).  Also, according to the book of Revelation, in the age to come heaven comes down to earth so that the dwelling of God is with men.  We need not think that life on a renewed earth will deprive us of the blessings of heaven.  That is a false choice.  In any case, a renewed earth is the perfect place where resurrected people will enjoy undiminished fellowship with God.  That is the essence of heaven.  And that is what the earth in its present condition is longing for.

So it is not annihilation the creation is longing for but redemption.  It longs in hope (20), waiting to be set free (21), struggling with birth pains not death pangs (22).  Its redemption is a corollary to our own redemption and our redemption is not annihilation (23).  And this fits what the Scriptures say elsewhere.  For example, in Heb. 1, we read (quoting Ps. 102:25-27), “And, ‘You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed.  But you are the same, and your years will have no end” (Heb. 1:10-12).  The imagery of changing clothes does not fit the idea that the earth will be annihilated, but rather that its physical appearance will change in a way that is fitting a world without sin for people without sin.

This is the proper victory of Christ over Satan.  When Satan tempted man into sin, he not only did something to Adam and his posterity, he also did something to the earth.  What Paul is saying here is that this will one day be undone.  To completely destroy the world would in some sense to concede defeat to the devil.  But to remake it so that the effects of sin are undone, that is to destroy the works of the devil and win the victory over his rebellion. 

However, some might point to 2 Pet. 3:10-12 and argue that these verses tell a different story, that the earth will indeed be completely done away with.  Is that so?  Here is how these verses read: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.  Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!”  

The answer is in verse 13.  But before I point you to what the apostle says there, you might notice that what is said to be dissolved in ver. 10-12 is not the earth, but the heavenly bodies.  The earth will be exposed, not destroyed.  What is happening, however, is not a fire of annihilation, but a fire of purification, burning up and destroying everything that is impure and imperfect.   What will take its place is not some ethereal, non-material heaven, but rather a renewed heavens and earth: “But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”

This will be a place where there is no sin and therefore no curse (Rev. 22:3 – compare with Gen. 3:17); no more cursed ground, no decay, no death (cf. Isa. 11:6-11).  It will be a place where God dwells (Rev. 21:1-3).  It will therefore be the perfect eternal dwelling place of the righteous, a place where we will be forever with the Lord (Jn. 14:1-3).

Something we should not miss is that this will take place simultaneously with the fullness of the redemption of the people of God, with their glorification.  When will that take place?  It will happen when “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); that is to say, at the resurrection of the dead, which will take place at the Second Coming of our Lord to earth.  

The people of God are waiting for the redemption of their bodies in a renewed heavens and earth

Paul is essentially saying to us, “If even the earth cries out for the second coming, how much more should we?”  Our glorification does not happen now, so we should not look for it now.  We should expect sufferings in “this present time” (18).  The groanings are groanings “until now” (22).  But they are only for this present time.  One day they will pass away.  We ought to join the creation in groaning for the glory that we will enjoy in the age to come.  There is a sadness in this world, a sadness which is common to this present order.  Right now we mourn; but blessed are the mourners for they shall be comforted (Mt. 5:4).  

There is something wrong with us if we are content with the world as it is.  There is something wrong if we are looking for our ultimate fulfillment in this world.  If we are thinking Biblically, we will look at this world as something which is passing away (1 Jn. 2:17).  We will not look for our best life now.  Our best life is yet to come.  So that being the case, what ought to characterize us in the here and now?  Three things.

Groaning (23)

“And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”  We groan because we are strangers and sojourners in the world (cf. 1 Pet 1).  This world as it is, is not our home.  Like a traveler who longs for his home, we long for ours.  And so we groan.  Now that doesn’t mean we groan out of bitterness, but out of a proper dissatisfaction with this present world, like Paul in 2 Co. 5:1-5 and Phil. 1:21,23.  That is not a mark of imperfection but a mark of faith.  It means we have a Biblical estimation of the corruption of this present age and of the glory of the age to come.  Like the aged men who wept when they saw the temple that was being erected in the place of Solomon’s temple, we weep when we consider the difference between the corruption of the present age and the glory of the age to come.  John Stott said in his commentary on this passage that many Christians grin too much and groan too little.  I agree.  Beware of Christians who live with little grins on their face as they enjoy this world with no thought of the world to come, and only think of it when they are faced from time to time with the inevitability of their death.  Is this world our home, or do we look for another? (Heb. 11:9,ff).

However, be careful what you find yourself groaning over!  Too often we groan over the wrong things – a failure to find comfort in this world instead of groaning because of our desire for the world to come.  It is wrong to find the satisfaction of our souls in this world as it is, and like Demas to forsake the cause of Christ because you love this present world.  But it is wrong also to groan over this world because you want it and don’t have its offerings – power, prestige, and possessions.  We groan in this sense of this verse, not because we don’t have what the world has to offer, but because we don’t yet have what God has promised us in the world that is to come.  

Hope (24-25)

The apostle goes on to say, “For in this hope we were saved.  Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

In other words, our groaning is not a groaning in despair, but out of a confident expectation in the sure fulfillment of God’s promises (Tit. 1:2).  Not only God’s promises, but God’s Spirit within us calls us to look in hope to the future.  This is the significance of the “firstfruits of the Spirit” (23), which is not only a foretaste of future blessings but also a guarantee of them (Eph. 1:13-14).  We don’t groan like a prisoner who has given up hope of ever being rescued.  Rather, we groan in hope knowing that we will surely be rescued.  There is coming a day when we will shed these prison clothes for a robe of glory.

It is important that we not only groan, but that we hope.  We need both.  The groaning will become unbearable without the hope.  But the hope will be thin and diminished apart from the groaning.  The groaning gives form and substance to our hope.  We groan because we hope and hope because we groan.

It is important to underline the fact that our hope is in things unseen.  We hope for what we do not see.  Our hope is therefore not in the present order of things or in a rearrangement of society, but in a new heavens and new earth which Christ will bring when he comes again.  Now that doesn’t mean we don’t shine our light and work for the advancement of God’s kingdom in this world.  Of course we do.  But we don’t do so with unrealistic and unbiblical expectations.  With respect to this world, men, governments, treaties, etc., will never completely stop the violence, the poverty, and the corruption.  Only the return of Christ will do it, and that is our hope (Rev. 14:12).  If we really want to see the end of injustice, we are not going to be fully invested in purely temporal schemes to end it.  Rather, our hope will be in the Second Coming of our Lord who will put a stop to all injustice and corruption and wickedness, and to live in light of that hope.

And I would argue that hope in the age to come doesn’t put a damper on our efforts to improve our world through the influence of the gospel.  It inspires it because we realize that we are not laboring for something that will pass away; we are not laboring so much to put people right with this world but to bring men and women into an eternal relationship with God.  But it also keeps us from becoming overwhelmed with the disappointments which we will inevitably meet with in this world – because, again, our hopes are not ultimately anchored in a utopia now, but in a redeemed world to come that will endure under the eternal Lordship of Christ.

Patient Waiting (25)

“…we wait for it with patience.”  

The word “patience” there indicates endurance.  What is hope anyway?  If we really believe these things, it should cause us to continue faithful to Christ, no matter what the cost.  Because what is promised us in Christ is worth far more (18) than whatever we might lose in our faithfulness to him.    It means that we don’t let discouragement keep us from serving the Lord and loving for him, knowing that our labor is not in vain (cf. 1 Cor. 15:57-58).  

Our groaning feeds our hope.  But then our hope grows into patient endurance.  It teaches us to persevere in spite of all the disappointments we meet along the way, because again this world is not all there is to reality.  The present order is not the eternal order.  We may face many trials and discouragements in this world, but we know that we have something far better coming.  And so we keep on keeping on.  

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