Friday, June 5, 2020

The Christian’s Exultation in God’s Unchanging Love – Rom. 8:31-39

“What then shall we say to these things?”  This is a question that we should always ask of Scripture.  The truths of the Bible are not there simply to be looked at and then forgotten.  They are there to be taken and applied to our hearts and lives.  We are to try to understand what they are saying to us, and we to work out their implications and corollaries.  One practical way to do this is to ask questions of Scripture, questions like the one that Paul asks here. 

Now it is supremely important to understand what the text is saying.  It is important to study it in its context and to look at it from its grammatical, historical, and theological perspectives.  But if you just stop at the word studies and the comparisons with parallel passages and the commentaries and so on, and never get to the question Paul asks here, then you have really studied Scripture for naught.  It’s like perfectly knowing the mechanics and techniques of fishing – but if you never throw a hook into the water, you’re never going to catch any fish.  You have to apply the realities of the Bible to your life or you will never grow spiritually or become a more mature Christian. 

Of course, I can’t help but saying that if you don’t even read Scripture, you aren’t even in a position to ask this kind of question.  You can’t even ask questions of something that you know nothing about.  We need to read our Bibles.  But once we are doing that, we don’t stop there.  The Bible is meant to talk to us and to convict us and change us and correct us and encourage us, but that will never happen if we just see its truths as museum pieces, to be admired indeed, but never taken and used in everyday life.

However, Scripture is not going to be applied to our lives if we don’t see its glory and beauty, its reality and relevance to our lives.  Recently, Tim Challies posted some book reviews that are on Amazon.com in which the reviewers gave the books only one star.[1]  The interesting thing about these reviews is that they were all reviews of really good books (the title of the blog post is “Really Bad Reviews of Really Good Books”).  They are classics, and yet some people just don’t get it.  They have literary gold in their hands, but to them it just looks like another rock.  The truths of Scripture are like that to some people.  It shouldn’t surprise us, for the apostle tells us in another place that the things of God are to foolishness to those who are not born again (1 Cor. 2:14).  But it is incredibly sad.  It is grievous to see people look at the God of the Bible and then walk away in disgust.  We need to have a heart that sees the life-giving truth contained in every verse in the New and Old Testaments.

What we see in the verses before us is the response of a man who saw the glory of Biblical truth and who thrilled in its realities.  Verses 31-39 of Romans 8 are best described as a doxology, a hymn of praise to God for the truths he has been writing about.  Paul didn’t just know good theology, he loved it.  It should be the same with us as well.  Doctrine should be savored, not just studied.  It should be exulted in, not just exposited over.  So Paul, having really shown the believer’s security, he cannot but rise to praise God for all he has done.

Now it is important to point out that Paul was not just rejoicing over good doctrine.  It is possible to do that and yet be a stranger to God.  You can enjoy the intellectual aspect involved in understanding systematic and Biblical theology, and yet do so out of a mind and a heart blind to the beauty of God himself. There is a difference between love doctrine and loving the God of the doctrine, and the difference registers its effect when it leads one to worship.  What we have here is worship.

That’s not to say that doctrine is bad!  Some people think that doctrine inevitably leads to a censorious spirit and is of no practical benefit.  They think that if you want to be really useful in the kingdom of God, you need to do an end-run around doctrine.  But nothing is further from the truth.  Doctrine savored is the fuel for Spirit-filled worship.  It is also the fuel for holiness and usefulness.  Romans 1-11 is primarily doctrine, the “application” doesn’t even come until chapter 12. The two sections are connected by that very important word, “therefore.”  Doctrine provides us with the reason and motivation and boundaries for worship and service.  If you don’t understand that, you simply won’t serve and worship the way God intended us to worship and serve.

So what Paul is doing in these nine verses is application and exultation.  Which is what we should do with God’s word.  We need to know it so that we will exult in it so that we will apply it.  “What then shall we say to these things?” 

I want to approach the exposition of this text by asking three questions.  What does Paul exult in?  Then, how can he exult in it?  And finally, why does Paul exult in these things?

What does Paul exult in?

The overall outline of these verses is pretty clear.  In verses 31-34, the apostle argues that God is for us, and in verses 35-39 that nothing can separate us from his love.  They really are saying the same thing, however, from different perspectives.  To say that God loves us is just to say that he is for us in the strongest possible sense.  Together, they tell us that God will never stop being for us.  Together, they argue for the strongest possible security imaginable for the believer.  Truly God is our strong tower; the righteous run to him and are safe.

However, does Paul argue that God will never stop being for us as long as we are for him?  Is it just that nothing outside of ourselves could separate us from God’s love, but that we could separate ourselves from God’s love?  Does the apostle make room in these verses for the possibility that our own decisions may separate us from God’s love?

Now we must say at the outset that we cannot deny the following facts: that there is such a thing as apostacy; that both the Bible as well as our own experience tell us that people who once called themselves Christian can fall away; that there are many exhortations in the Bible warning professing believers against the danger of falling away, and that falling away leads to perdition, not salvation.  These facts would seem to provide very strong evidence that it is possible for a person who was once truly saved to lose their salvation and finally perish.

Nevertheless, I want to argue that what Paul exults in and what he is teaching here is the absolute security of the believer, that our security does not finally reside in us, but in God, and that God will never stop being for us – not because we are for him, but because he will never stop loving his elect.  This text teaches the irrevocable and unchanging commitment of God towards his people, a commitment that neither time nor eternity can erase, and the consequent certainty of the final salvation of all who belong to Jesus by faith.  We will have to consider how this squares with the aforementioned facts, but this turns out to be an easy solution.

Here are four reasons we should read these verses as teaching the final perseverance of the believer.

Verses 29-30

The first reason comes from the preceding two verses.  As we saw last time, Paul does not give us any room to imagine that those who are called and justified can then fall away from their calling and lose their justification.  Precisely those who are called are those who are glorified.  Everyone embraced in God’s eternal love – those who are foreknown – will be finally glorified.  It is not a chain that can be broken by human weakness, for it is a chain that depends upon God, not us, for its strength.  To argue that we could snatch ourselves away from the love of God is to undermine the plain teaching of these verses.

We are in the category of those who are “against us” (31).

When Paul asks, rhetorically, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (31), he is not excluding ourselves nor is there any reason to think so.  It is possible to be against yourself, to be your own worst enemy.  We all know that, except possibly some hard-headed theologians who have a weak cause to defend.  If I could successfully be against myself, as is the case if I can wrench myself from God’s loving arms, then the assumed answer to the question (no one!) would be false.  But the answer, “No one!” is not false.  It is gloriously and eternally true.  We can be against ourselves, but we cannot be so successfully as long as God is for us.  God’s commitment to us is not one that rests upon our own fickle love but upon God’s eternal and unchanging love for us.

The things that are most likely to turn our faith away from Christ are the very things that will never separate us from the love of God (35-37).

Why do people turn away from the faith?  I’m sure it is true that abundance can create an apostate spirit; however, people don’t normally turn away from the faith because their bank accounts are full and their health is good and everyone is slapping them on the back and telling them how great they are.  People fall away because the way of faith became too difficult for them.  Our Lord himself anticipates this in several places (cf. Mt. 13:20-21; Lk. 14:25-33).  We can see why Paul would mention things like tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword (35).  He does so because when a person who claims to be a Christian is faced with one or more of these things because he or she is a follower of Christ (36), this is when our faith is most likely to break under the strain.  If even one of these things could cause us to stop loving Christ, then one of these things could in fact separate us from the love of Christ, the very thing that the apostle does not allow.

So we see that Paul is not just saying that tribulation, etc., are not signs that God has stopped loving us; rather, he is saying something much stronger.  He is saying that God’s love for us in tribulation will keep us from turning our backs on him and becoming apostates. 

That’s not to say that sometimes true Christians won’t momentarily bend under the pressure.  Like Peter, we might even deny Christ for a time.  And yet God rescued Peter (“I have prayed for you that your faith will not fail,” Luke 22:32) and made him one of the greatest of the apostles.  And church history tells us that Peter even went on to suffer a martyr’s death.  He was finally faithful unto death.

Another example of this is Cranmer, the sixteenth century English bishop who was forced to watch as his friends, Ridley and Latimer, were burned alive at the stake during the reign of Bloody Mary.  I’m pretty sure that would be enough to make anyone’s faith waver.  And at first he did decide to recant his faith in the gospel.  But he soon recanted his recantation and was himself burned alive at the stake for his faith.  He too was finally faithful in the end.

Do you know why the true believer won’t finally fall away?  It isn’t because they are extraordinarily brave.  It’s because underneath their faith is the sustaining power of God.  Our Lord put it this way: “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Mt. 24:24).  Why did our Lord put it that way?  I think he did so because it is not possible.  And it is not possible because no one can successfully be against those who have God on their side.

The universal language of verses 38-39.

“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rules, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (38-39).  These two verses make it abundantly clear that Paul is excluding any possibility of our being separated from the love of God.  Just in case you don’t get it, the apostle adds the words, “nor anything else in all creation.”  I think that pretty much sums it up.

The problem of apostates.

Now what about apostates?  The key is this: there is a distinction in Scripture between those who profess faith in Christ and those who have truly believed in him because they were effectually called by God to faith in the gospel.  You see this distinction in Heb. 6:9, when the writer talks about “better things – thing that belong to salvation.”  These better things are compared with the things mentioned in verses 4-5.  It is possible to experience a lot and to look a lot like a believer and have been a part of the church and yet fall away.  And yet what the apostate had was not truly salvific – they were not those spiritual qualities and experiences that belong to the saved.  You see this distinction also in 1 Jn 2:19, where the apostle says that apostates are those who “were not of us.”  Even when they were with us, they were not of us.  Just because you profess the name of Christ does not mean that you are born again, or justified, or on your way to heaven.  Even as an apostle, Judas was “the son of perdition.”

So you see, when someone falls away, it doesn’t mean that they had true faith in Christ and then lost it, or that they were justified and then lost their status of acceptance with God.  It means that they were never saved to begin with. 

Why then the exhortations against apostacy if the elect can never finally fall away?  There are two reasons for this.  They are addressed to those who belong to the church, which consists of both the true Christian and the merely professing Christian.  Of this group, those who are mere professors can fall away.  But the other reason is because even for the elect, God uses the warnings as a means to keep them in the faith.  They are instruments in the Redeemer’s hands to preserve his people.  The warnings are true.  The dangers are real.  And the believer takes heed to the warnings and so, by God’s grace, preserves his or her soul.

This is a glorious truth to exult in.  And this brings us then to our next question.

How can Paul exult in it?

Another way to put this question is, what are the grounds for Paul’s exultation?  How is it that Paul came to glory in the security of the elect?  What reasons does he give?

The reasons he gives are really just a recap of all that has gone before.  When Paul asks, “What shall we say to these things?” I don’t think the “these things” are limited only to the immediate context, or even to the eighth chapter.  I think he is pointing us back to all of 1:16-8:30.  But there are three things he gives special emphasis to.

God is for us. (31)

This leads to the protestation: who can be (successfully) against us?  One threat to our being finally saved is the multitude of enemies that range themselves against us.  Not only men, but devils.  But these are as much as threat to us as were Pharaoh and his chariots to the children of Israel.  I cannot really imagine a greater or more wonderful blessing, to have God for you in the sense here.  Not only for you in the sense of temporal blessing, but for you in the sense of eternally for you as your defender and your Father.  In some sense, this is the culmination and the summation of all our salvation.  We were redeemed by Christ so that we might be brought near to God, which is just another way of saying that Christ died so that God might be for us (cf. 1 Pet. 3:18).

We need this because God is not automatically for us; indeed, by nature God is against us.  To have God as your enemy is the very worst thing in the universe, and yet this is what the apostle says is true of us apart from Christ (Rom. 5:9-10).  It because of what Christ has done that God is now for us in a saving way.

God gave his Son. (32)

“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will not also with him graciously give us all things?”  God gave us the gift of his Son.  Why?  The former part of the epistle tells us why.  The phrase “did not spare” is a reference to Christ’s death as a punishment for sin, not his, but ours.

But the question might arise: maybe God has only done so much and rest is up to me?  Paul’s answer is that if God has given us his Son, he will surely give everything necessary for our salvation.  It is an argument from the greater to the lesser – there is nothing greater than the gift of God’s Son.  Having that, we have no reason to think that God will withhold any other blessing. 

It is this argument that Toplady so eloquently expresses in this hymn:

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.

God justifies (33-34)

In our country, we have a Supreme Court.  It is a court of final appeal.  You cannot appeal further in this country after their decisions.  So it is with God.  His tribunal is not limited to one country, or even one planet or one galaxy.  His throne is the final tribunal before which we must all stand.  His decisions are truly final.  In fact, many Supreme Court judgments will be overturned in that great Last Day.  But God’s can never be overturned.  Though many may accuse the saint, if God acquits them and vindicates them, they are safe. 

Of course this does not mean that many may arise and accuse the believer in the here and now.  But what Paul imagines here is the Final Judgment (note the future tense in “who will bring any charge against God’s elect”).  At that time, the justified will stand vindicated before all the world, not because of their righteousness, but because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to them on the basis of which they stand justified.

Here we see another evidence for the security of the believer.  Justification is something that happens now (present tense: “God is the one who is justifying”), but it is a pronouncement that will last for all eternity.  When we get to the Final Judgment God will not have changed his mind.  Justification is not something that we can get and then lose, it is something that sticks with us because God never stops being for us.

Christ intercedes for us (34)

Christ died, rose, and intercedes for us.  Note the emphasis on Christ’s exaltation at God’s right hand.  He is there exalted over every earthly authority (cf. Eph. 1:20-22; 1 Pet. 3:22).  And in this exalted position, he has not forgotten us – no, rather, he intercedes for us (Heb. 7:25).  John Murray writes, “For nothing serves to verify the intimacy and constancy of the Redeemer’s preoccupation with the security of his people, nothing assures us of his unchanging love more than the tenderness which his heavenly priesthood bespeaks and particularly as it comes to expression in his intercession for us.”  The one who prayed for Peter prays for you.

We often think of salvation as something that Jesus did, and now the rest is up to us.  That is never how the Scripture imagines it.  He is working for the salvation of his elect, past, present, and future.  God is tirelessly and successfully bringing his people to heaven.

One final question and then we’re done.

Why does Paul exult in the security of the elect?

It is a good thing to exult in this.  So it is a good think to have assurance and to rejoice in it.  We do not do so, I think, because these things are not as real to us as they should be.  So why did Paul, and why should we, exult and glory in these things?

I think Paul does this primarily because this doctrine magnifies Christ and his salvation.  He is a successful Savior, not a frustrated Redeemer.  He exults in the security of the believer because it brings us to a greater trust in and love for our Savior who is the one who secures our hope.  In other words, Paul does not so much praise the gift itself, but Jesus Christ through whom we are more than conquerors (37).  It is by his grace and strength and power and faithfulness that we are finally saved and persevere through every trial.  At the end of the day, this does not point us to ourselves, it points us to Christ.  This is not a doctrine that crowns the believer; rather, it is a doctrine that gives to Christ the crown that he deserves.

But another reason he does so (and why we should do so) is because rejoicing in our security in Jesus will keep us from fearing the world and free us to serve others and gospel  with our lives.  It is a courage builder (cf. Ps. 23:4; 56:9, 11; 118:6,7).  It is to steel us through such events as those listed in verse 35.  These things are not written just to add a little soul comfort to our earthly comforts.  Rather, they were written to make us fearless and faithful lights in a world that is in the power of the wicked one.  May the Lord make it so in us!



[1] See https://www.challies.com/articles/really-bad-reviews-of-really-good-books/

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