Thomas Carlyle had married his secretary, whom he dearly loved, but he was thoughtless and absorbed in his own interests and activities, treating his wife as if she were still his employee.
Stricken with cancer she was confined to bed for a long time before she died. After her funeral, Carlyle went back to his empty house. Disconsolate and grieving deeply, he wandered around aimlessly downstairs, engrossed in thinking about the woman he had loved. After a while he went upstairs to her room and sat down in the chair beside the bed on which she had been lying for months. He realized with painful regret that he had not sat there very often during her long illness.
He noticed her diary. While she was alive, he never would have read it, but now that she was gone he felt free to pick it up and thumb through it pages. One entry caught his eye: “Yesterday he spent an hour with me. And it was like being in heaven. I love him so much.” He turned a few more pages and read, “I listened all day to hear his steps in the hallway. And now its late. I guess he won’t come to see me.” Carlyle read a few more entries and then threw the book on the floor and ran out into the rain back to the cemetery. He fell on his wife’s grave in the mud, sobbing, “If only I had known…if only I had known.”1
I wonder how may of us will stand before the Father someday, saying, “If only I’d known, if only I’d known…how much you loved me. You see just like Carlyle, we go throughout our whole lives so engrossed, so demonically captivated by our own agendas and schedules and feats for God, that we are basically strangers to his presence. I fear that. And just like Carlyle’s wife God will not force us to love him and draw near to him, he is simply too meek (not weak) for that. But in contrast to Carlyle’s wife who apparently said little or nothing about her love, God on the other hand has made it abundantly known how he feels how a relationship with us. The cross answers that question—and a host of others I might add—once and for all.
He has made it abundantly clear throughout the NT and especially in the book of Romans. The book of Romans turns on this theme of relationship with God. We were once justly condemned sinners, that’s Romans 1:18-3:20, but we are now justified sinners through the blood of Christ, that’s 3:21 through the rest of the book. We were once enemies, but we are now friends. Once lost, but now found, as it were.
So let me ask you, “Are you like Carlyle, who day after day lived his life completely oblivious to the love and relationship that was his?” Or, “Do you know how much your father loves you and the kind of relationship to which he has called you?” Paul is here today to tell us the good news. Read Romans 5:1-11.
Some small children were asked, “What is true love?” Without hesitation this little blond haired cutie spoke up, “Love is when your mommie reads you a bedtime story. True love is when she doesn’t skip any pages.” My friend, God has not skipped any pages in expressing his love for us and outlining the kind of relationship into which he has called us.
Look with me at Romans 5:1. Paul says “Therefore, since we have been justified, that is, legally declared righteous, we have peace with God. Now let me stop and make a point right here. Justification, referred to here as an act of God at some specific point in the past, means to “declare” righteous, not to “make” righteous. And it is this justification which ushers in a new era, a new era prophesied in the OT, a long hoped for era where the peace of God would transform our relationships with him. Christian, you live in that era. Justification ushers in a present reality for the believer, that is, peace with God.
The idea of “peace” here comes from the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) word for “peace” which itself translates a well known Hebrew Old Testament word, namely, “shalom.” It refers to more than just the mere absence of hostilities, as was common in the Greek understanding of the term. Rather, it is more closely aligned with the Hebrew concept of “peace,” referring not so much to a purely inward peace, but a relationship characterized by God’s peace toward the sinner, toward us. As one writer put it, it is “neither anesthetic bliss nor the repose of a graveyard.”2 It is God’s disposition toward us and the freedom we now have in our relationship with him. There are no obstacles in our relationship with God.
Amid the horrors of World War I, there occurred a unique truce when, for a few hours, enemies behaved like brothers. Christmas Eve, 1914, and all was quiet on France’s western front, from the English channel to the Swiss Alps. Trenches came within 50 miles of Paris. The war was only five months old and already over 800,000 men had been wounded or lost their lives. Every soldier wondered whether Christmas Day would bring another round of fighting and killing, but something happened: British soldiers raised Merry Christmas signs, and soon carols were heard from German and British trenches alike.
Christmas dawned with unarmed soldiers leaving their trenches as officers from both sides tried unsuccessfully to stop their troops from meeting the enemy in the middle of no-man’s-land for songs and conversation. Exchanging small gifts—mostly sweets and cigars—they passed Christmas Day peacefully along miles of the front. At one spot, the British played soccer with the Germans, who won three to two.
In some places, the spontaneous truce continued the next day, neither side willing to fire the first shot. Finally, the war resumed when fresh troops arrived, and the high command of both armies ordered that further “informal understandings” with the enemy would be punishable as treason.
My friend, with God every day is Christmas. Peace has flowed from heaven and will never cease. God will never take up arms against you again. You are no longer an enemy (see 5:10). You have been reconciled to God. There is peace in your relationship.
But it is more than the peace which ensues as a result of a truce. It is a peace that is founded on justification which we receive when we trust Christ. This ushers us into a place of grace with God. We stand, confidently, in God’s grace toward us—a grace he made available though Jesus Christ. For Paul, all of God’s dealings with humanity and indeed with each of us as individuals, is through Christ. Again, all this comes by faith, as the example from Abraham in Romans 4:1-25 makes plain. We cannot and did not earn it. It was given to us!
So God harbors no animosity toward us whatsoever, and further, he is completely at peace toward us. And further still, he has given us hope for the future. Samuel Johnson has rightly said: “the natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope.” So Paul says in v. 2 that we stand in this amazing grace into which God has brought us (through Christ) and that “we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” In other words, we hope that God is as great and awesome as he really seems to be! Our hope is that “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9-11). But there’s a problem: “If I am truly standing in this amazing graze, why do I still struggle and suffer so much? That’s the point of vv. 3 and 4. And, how do I know that His grace won’t just run out, that someday, like the proverbial “good time,” it’ll all just come to an end. I mean after all, I’m a sinner, and maybe, just maybe, God will someday utter those unthinkable words: “I’ve had enough of you…I knew this was a bad idea from the beginning! This is the point of verse 5. Let’s look at vv. 3-5 in order to better understand our relationship with God.
Paul says in v. 3 that “we rejoice in our sufferings.” We do not conclude that God no longer loves us! Quite the paradox indeed! We’re destined for the glory of God, but in the meantime we’re supposed to boast in our sufferings. To some of us this sounds like putting a gun to our heads and pulling the trigger. It’s intellectual suicide to rejoice in the midst of trials. They lock people up for that kind of thing. They’re out of touch. But, O.K. Lord, whatever you say.
But—and it is a big but—there actually are good reasons why we rejoice in our sufferings, according to Paul. We rejoice, because we know—that is, we have knowledge given only to the eye of faith and ultimately credible to it alone—we know, that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character, and character, hope.
On a balmy October afternoon in 1982, Badger stadium in Madison, Wisconsin, was packed. More than 60,000 die-hard University of Wisconsin supporters were watching their football team take on the Michigan State Spartans. MSU had the better team. What seemed odd, however, as the score became lopsided, were the bursts of applause and shouts of joy from the Wisconsin fans. How could they cheer when their team was losing?
It turned out that seventy miles away the Milwaukee Brewers were beating the St. Louis Cardinals in game three of the World Series. Many of the fans in the stands were listening to portable radios—and responding to something other than their immediate circumstances. So it is with us. When we rejoice in our suffering, we are simply responding to another frequency—a frequency recognizable only to the eye of faith.
Paul says we rejoice because we know…. But what do we know? When we rejoice in our suffering we are responding to God’s secret, a secret he let us in on: He has designed the suffering not to drive us from him, but to draw us to him. This is what we know! Though at times our trials fairly threaten to undo us, there is good reason to rejoice. Rejoicing in suffering deepens our hope and creates a longing in us for its realization. It gives us a hunger and thirst for God. Suffering brings about death in us, so that God’s life may be lived out through us. This is why we rejoice: through suffering we come to know God more intimately and we long to be with him more sincerely.
How does this happen? Well, first, suffering produces perseverance. Then, perseverance produces character. Character, for its part, produces hope. There we are talking about hope again. So all these qualities that are produced are for the purpose of deepening and maturing our hope, our deepest longings to be with Jesus.
We need to be careful, though. There is a real danger in suffering. The effects of suffering on Christians can be compared to placing objects in the sun. Ice melts and then warms up, clay hardens. It becomes like stone. We must allow, suffering to soften, not sterilize, our hearts. We need to let suffering fire up our souls, not freeze them. Paul is not talking about some kind of stoicism, though, the so-called stiff upper lip mentality. Suffering is not impersonal. God cares—as Romans 8:28-29 makes plain. Again, we know that in all things, not just some, as if God were almost God, that He works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purpose. And, His purpose is to conform us to the image of his son. In other words suffering will bring in a lot of good changes.
So then, suffering produces perseverance. Perseverance may be defined as patient endurance, the ability to hold up under fire. And, it’s a rare commodity. Sometimes, in our instant-everything world, its easier to come by a three dollar bill, or light a campfire in rain. We have a tendency to bail out, to hit the eject button when we’re going through the flack. We lack a persevering heart.
Victor Villasenor is a Hispanic writer who is a story in himself. Raised in southern California, says writer Jorge Casuso, Victor Villasenor was illiterate because of dyslexia until adulthood. Then a woman in Mexico taught him to read. Ironically, he decided he wanted to become a great writer and he asked God to help him.
While he worked for ten years as a laborer, digging ditches and cleaning houses, his mind was free to think and dream up characters and plots. At home he read voraciously, devouring more than five thousand books. He memorized favorite openings and analyzed paragraphs and sentences, taking them apart to see how they worked. And most important, he started writing. He wrote nine novels, sixty-five short stories, and ten plays. He sent them all to publishers. All were rejected. One publisher sent him a rejection letter that simply said, “You’re kidding.”
Incredibly he was encouraged by that. It meant that at least the publisher had read his submission. Then in 1972 after 260 rejections, Villasenor sold his first novel, which was called Macho. He then published a non-fiction work entitled, Jury: People vs. Juan Corona, an award-winning screenplay called Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, and, the crowning work of his life, a two-part saga of his family called Rain of Gold that took twelve years to write.
As a Christian, by the grace of God, never say “die.” Now, please don’t confuse what I’m saying with the American illusion of the rugged cowboy or the “self-made man,” the latter of which is only testimony to the terror of unskilled labor. No, that is decidedly not the picture. Permit God to work patience and perseverance in you in the midst of your trials. Give him praise and rejoice in his presence for the work of grace he’s doing in your heart (Phil 1:6). Remember what Paul told the Corinthians: “I am what I am, but his grace was not to me without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them, i.e., I didn’t quit…yet not I, but the grace of God with me (1 Cor 15:10). Listen also to the words of James:
Consider it all pure joy my brothers whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete not lacking anything.
But it doesn’t end here. Perseverance itself gives rise to another virtue, that is, the virtue of “character.” The term for character, namely, dokimhn, means “proven character.” “Proven character” is simply the result over time of the consistent exercise of perseverance. In the words of Plutarch, “character is long-standing habit.”
At the heart of this term is the idea of testing, and though Paul may have been the first to coin the term, the concept of God testing a man to reveal his character is found at important points in the Old and New Testament. One needs only to think of Abraham and his sacrifice of Isaac, for example. Indeed Abraham has already been mentioned in 4:1-25 and the testing he underwent regarding the original promise of a son. The importance to Paul that this virtue adorn the Christian, that proven character be our badge, can be seen in Romans 1:28. There is a scary reality in this verse which is communicated through a play on words. Paul says that those who “approved” (dokimasan) the idea that it wasn’t good to have God in their knowledge, were treated equally by God. That is, God, for his part, decided to give them over to an “unapproved” (adokimon) mind. They didn’t approve of him, and guess what, He doesn’t approve of them. But we are people who stand in the grace of God, in a peace oriented relationship with him. Therefore, we should demonstrate proven character by persevering through the circumstances which God permits in our lives. A lack of proven character, according to Paul, adorns the non-Christian more naturally, not the Christian. They are on the road to judgment, we are being saved. Our character is important to God and to the world in which we live:
I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day;
I’d rather one should walk with me than merely show the way.
The eye’s a better pupil and more willing than the ear;
Fine counsel is confusing, but example’s always clear.
And the best of all preachers are the men who live their creeds,
For to see the good in action is what everyone needs.
I can soon learn how to do it if you’ll let me see it done;
I can watch your hands in action, but your tongue too fast may run.
And the lectures you deliver may be very wise and true;
But I’d rather get my lesson by observing what you do.
For I may misunderstand you and the high advice you give,
But there’s no misunderstanding how you act and how you live.
Finally, Paul says that proven character gives rise to hope. But the hope of which Paul speaks is not the same thing as me saying that I hope the Dallas Stars win the Stanley Cup this year. It’s not the same thing because I have no assurance that the Stars will actually do that. In fact, in the last few days (1999 season), all indicators are pointing in the opposite direction. No, the hope of which Paul speaks arises out of the resurrection and ministry of the Spirit, set against the backdrop of his Jewish understanding of God and the certainty of His ways and plans. Paul has a certain conviction that Christians will indeed see the glory of God and their long awaited hope will be realized. The issue in this kind of hope does not concern a question about the certainty of the thing hoped for, but rather the struggles we go through which mitigate against the present experience of that hope.
Years ago an S-4 submarine was rammed by a ship off the coast of Massachusetts. It sank immediately. The entire crew was trapped in a prison house of death. Every effort was made to rescue the crew, but all ultimately failed. Near the end of the ordeal, a deep-sea diver, who was doing everything in his power to find a way for the crew’s release, thought he heard a tapping on the steel wall of the sunken sub. He placed his helmet up against the side of the vessel and he realized it was Morse Code. He attached himself to the side and he spelled out in his mind the message being tapped from within. It was repeating the same question. The question was, “Is…there…any…hope?” (Ben Patterson, The Grand Essentials)
Even in the bleakest of situations, there is always hope for the Christian. But in a fallen world, there are times when it feels like there just isn’t any hope. Someone has once said, “We can live for forty days without food, eight days without water, four minutes without air, but only a few seconds without hope.” But the truth of the matter for the Christian is that there is hope because our God is the author of continual hope. He is the one who constantly, all throughout our lives, develops hope in us. This is Paul’s point in v. 5.
The strange thing about Biblical hope is that the Christian, in the present, actually participates in the thing hoped for in the future. We hope for the glory of God, that is, that we will know him according to his greatness, love and mercy. But there is a very real sense in which we already do in the present, however blurry our vision may be due to sin and other factors. In verse 5 Paul says “And hope does not disappoint because God has poured out his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit whom he has given us.” What does he mean? He means that hope cannot in any way disappoint because we are currently experiencing a measure of the thing hoped for. We currently live in the new age of hope (i.e., the experience of the Spirit) which will be consummated at Christ’s return. We are currently experiencing eternal life and will yet experience eternal life to the nth degree in the eternal state. If God has done this for us while we were sinners, surely our hope for our future glorification and relationship with God is certain. And, it is no less certain when we are in the midst of trials. What changes, however, in the midst of difficulties, is our attitude.
We have had the love of God, that is, his love for us, poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. This is the constant experience of the believer. God’s love has literally gushed forth in our hearts; it has not been given sparingly, but freely and lavishly. Many years ago I was sitting in a McDonalds restaurant, having just become a Christian a few days earlier. I was so excited about my new faith and I was deeply in love (as much as I could be as a young, don’t know anything, Christian) with the Lord. But I was struggling with a question: What happened to me? Why, all of sudden, do I love Jesus and why am I so excited about living life for him? For a guy who grew up never going to church and despising religion, this was strange indeed. I even shared my questions with other people. Well, in those first few days (and weeks) as a Christian, I read my Bible voraciously. I worked an 8 hour job and afterward, being single at the time, I went home or where ever I could, found a place, sat down, and devoured my Bible for hours on end. On this particular day I was having lunch in McDonalds and was reading my Bible with these questions in mind. I was asking God to show me what happened to me. Then, I came across Romans 5:1-5. When I read v. 5 things began to make sense. That’s what happened to me, I thought. I have had the love of God poured out in my heart through the Holy Spirit. That’s why I feel so different. That’s why I have a totally new orientation in my life now. I could not have articulated it then, like I can now, but I was participating in the hope to be realized in the future. And I still participate in that hope and so do you if you’re a Christian. If you have put down your hammer and nails, and the self-designed blueprints for your own life…if you have quit trying to make life work through your own engineering, and trusted Christ to forgive you for such sinfulness, and you know that Christ has paid the penalty for your sin on the cross, then you are a Christian. You share in the hope to be revealed in the future. You will never be disappointed.
How do you know that your hope is real? You know because you have a subjective apprehension of God’s love for you in your heart. This is not the second order experience of talking about theology or philosophy, but the first hand experience of God directly. The Holy Spirit has made that known to you and God has accomplished it all through the atoning death of his Son as 5:6-8 demonstrates. J. I. Packer reminds us of the unquenchable and irresistible love of God:
What matters supremely, therefore, is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it—that he knows me. I am graven on the palms of His hands. I am never out of His mind. All my knowledge of Him depends on His sustained initiative in knowing me. I know Him because he first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me; and there is no moment when His eye is off me, or His attention distracted from me, and no moment, therefore, when His care falters. This is momentous knowledge. There is unspeakable comfort…in knowing that God is constantly taking knowledge of me and watching over me for my good. There is tremendous relief in knowing that His love is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery can now disillusion Him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench His determination to bless me.—Knowing God
So, what can we say about this relationship with God? We certainly don’t want to go throughout life with the Lord like Thomas Carlyle went through life with—or should I say without—his wife; he was completely ignorant of the love she had for him. Our relationship with God is one characterized by His peace toward us. You can get off the treadmill; he won’t punish you. You can stop trying so hard to be somebody you’re not and rest in His presence. Remember, the larger fact is that He knows you! When you go through trials, know in your heart that God is working a deeper longing (i.e., hope) for heaven in you. This shouldn’t cause you to abandon your life here, but rather take it up with renewed vigor to capture the Christian mind and act responsibly in a fallen world—to love well and give freely. You are secure in Him. Persevere in those trials and draw close to Him. Enjoy the love of God in your experience. The Christian life is a life of being drawn, not pushed, and the difference between life now and heaven later is all the difference between “want to” and “have to.”