Romans

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This 108 part expository study of Romans was preached at Flagstaff Christian Fellowship in 2010-2013. Audio and manuscripts are available for each lesson.

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Lesson 1: Romans: The Gospel of God (Romans 1:1, Introduction)

I’ve been a pastor for 33 years now, but I’ve shied away from preaching through Romans. To be honest, it has always intimidated me. Whenever I teach God’s Word, I am painfully aware of Paul’s rhetorical question (2 Cor. 2:16), “And who is adequate for these things?” But I am especially aware of my inadequacy when it comes to preaching through Romans! It contains some of the deepest theological truths in all of God’s Word. If we get even a glimmer of their majesty, we will join Paul on our faces, exclaiming (Rom. 11:33), “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!”

So the daunting task before me is to teach God’s unsearchable judgments and unfathomable ways in such a way that we all will bow in wonder and worship before Him. And yet, I am painfully aware that I still don’t understand many portions of Romans! But I decided that if I wait to understand it all adequately, I’ll never teach through the book. So with fear and trembling, we begin.

The influence of Romans: God has used this powerful letter in some remarkable ways. In A.D. 386, Aurelius Augustinus, whom we know as Augustine, a North African man, was a professor of rhetoric at Milan, Italy (this and the stories of Luther and Wesley are in F. F. Bruce, Romans [IVP/Eerdmans], pp. 56-58). He was a follower of a false cult called Manichaeism. Under conviction about his sins, but not yet resolved to follow Christ, he sat weeping in the garden of his friend Alypius. Suddenly, he heard a child on the other side of the fence singing, Tolle, lege! (“Take up and read!”) He had never heard this song before, so he took it as a word from God. He picked up a scroll of the Bible and his eyes fell at random on Romans 13:13-14, “Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.”

Augustine later wrote, “Instantly, at the end of this sentence, a clear light flooded my heart and all the darkness of doubt vanished away.” He was saved from his life of sexual immorality. He went on to become the most influential man in church history from the time of Paul to the Reformation, over 1,000 years after Augustine.

Unlike Augustine, Martin Luther, whom God used to spawn that Reformation, was not an immoral man. He was a scrupulous monk, striving through fasting, prayer, and severe treatment of his body to find peace with God. He felt condemned because of the sins that he knew lurked in his heart. As he pored over Scripture, looking for an answer, he wrestled with Romans 1:17, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’” Instead of loving God, as he knew he should, Luther found himself hating God in his heart because of this apparently impossible standard of God’s Law that requires us to be perfectly righteous.

As Luther wrestled with this text, God finally opened his eyes to see that God’s righteousness is that which He freely imputes to the guilty sinner who has faith in Jesus. Luther wrote that then he felt reborn and that he had entered into Paradise. Scripture took on a new meaning and the concept of God’s righteousness, rather than filling him with hate, now became inexpressibly sweet in greater love. He called Romans “the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest gospel.”

Two hundred years later, John Wesley had formed a “Holy Club” at Oxford, striving to live in a manner pleasing to God. He had served as a missionary in Georgia, but had failed miserably. Then, on May 24, 1738, in great agitation of soul he went to a meeting at Aldersgate Street in London, where someone was reading from the preface of Luther’s commentary on Romans. Wesley wrote in his journal, “At about a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken my sins away, even mine; and saved me from the law of sin and death.” That conversion was the spark that lit the great 18th century revival that changed the history of England.

Romans also profoundly affected the life of the church father, Chrysostom, who had it read to him twice each week. God used it in John Bunyan’s conversion. The English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, said that Romans is “the profoundest piece of writing in existence” (these examples from Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: The Gospel of God [Zondervan], pp. 5-7). So God has greatly used the Book of Romans at some key moments in church history. The Swiss commentator, Frederic Godet, wrote (Commentary on Romans [Kregel], p. 1) that “every great spiritual revival in the church will be connected as effect and cause with a deeper understanding of this book.”

The theme: Godet sums up the theme of Romans (ibid., italics his): “For what is the Epistle to the Romans? The offer of the righteousness of God to the man who finds himself stripped by the law of his own righteousness (1:17).” John Calvin puts it (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], xxix-xxx, italics in this edition), “… that man’s only righteousness is through the mercy of God in Christ, which being offered by the Gospel is apprehended by faith.”

In a nutshell, the theme is the gospel: the good news that God declares sinners to be righteous when they trust in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on their behalf. It involves both the imputed righteousness of justification (Romans 3-5) and the imparted righteousness of sanctification, worked out progressively through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit (Romans 6-8). Other sub-themes, such as “flesh versus Spirit,” and “law versus grace,” relate to this overall theme. We will grapple with these as we work through the book.

The author, date, recipients, and purpose: Romans is one of the rare New Testament books where liberal scholars have not challenged the authorship. Almost all agree that Paul wrote Romans, although he used a secretary named Tertius (16:22). He wrote it from Corinth (Acts 20:2-3), probably sometime around A.D. 56-58, just as he was about to go to Jerusalem with the gift for the poor that he had collected from the Gentile churches in Macedonia and Achaia (15:25-26). Phoebe (16:1-2), who was from a port city near Corinth, probably carried the letter to Rome. After his ministry in Jerusalem, Paul hoped to pass through Rome, minister there briefly, and then be helped on his way to do further missionary work in Spain (15:24, 28).

We don’t know how the church in Rome began. It is almost certain that, contrary to Roman Catholic tradition, Peter did not start it, at least by being there. If he had been there, surely Paul would have included him in his long greeting list (16:1-15). Probably the church began when some Jews who were present on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10) got saved and returned home. By the time Paul wrote this letter, the church contained Jews, but was predominately Gentile (1:13; 11:13, 17-31; 15:14-16).

While it is obvious that Romans is Paul’s theological masterpiece, the difficult underlying question is, “Why did he write these truths in this book to this church?” The bottom line is, nobody knows for certain. One reason Paul wrote was to prepare for his intended visit there on his way to Spain. He wanted to secure a western base for that venture.

Perhaps, also, he anticipated that the Judaizers, who plagued his ministry at every step, would try to inflict their errors on the Roman church. To head off that possibility and to defend the gospel of grace that he preached everywhere, Paul felt it necessary to write out a longer treatise, expanding on many of the themes that he had earlier written in Galatians.

He also wrote to help resolve any conflict between the Jewish and Gentile believers in Rome over various food and Sabbath laws (14:1-15:13). Thomas Schreiner sums up Paul’s purposes (Romans [Baker], p. 28), “From the inception of the letter Paul wants to persuade the Romans that his gospel is orthodox and worth supporting. His goal is to unify the Roman church and rally them around his gospel so that they will help him to bring the gospel to Spain.”

Outline and flow of thought: There is a more detailed outline in the bulletin, but we can trace six main sections:

  1. Introduction and Theme (1:1-17)
  2. Sin (1:18-3:20)
  3. Salvation (3:21-5:21)
  4. Sanctification (6:1-8:39)
  5. Sovereignty (9:1-11:36)
  6. Service (12:1-16:27)

After introducing the letter, Paul sums up his theme (1:16-17), “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’”

Then (1:18-3:20), he shows how God in His righteousness is opposed to all sin and all people have sinned. The “good” pagans who did not have the Law of Moses have sinned apart from that Law and will perish because of their sin. The religious Jews, who received the Law, have sinned and will perish because of their sin. Thus no one can hope to be justified in God’s sight because of his own goodness or obedience to the Law.

Since this is the case, salvation must be by God’s grace alone (3:21-5:21). Jesus Christ offered Himself as the only sacrifice for our sins, satisfying God’s justice. By faith alone we can lay hold of the benefits of His sacrifice, just as Abraham and David did. This faith in Christ reconciles us to God and brings us peace, joy, and hope, even in the midst of our trials. By God’s grace, our old identity in Adam is replaced by our new identity in Christ.

But (6:1-8:39), God’s grace does not mean that we are free to go on living in sin. Rather, by being identified with Jesus in His death and resurrection, we too have died to the old life and live to the new. The power of sin is broken, because we are no longer under the Law, but under grace. Although, due to indwelling sin that still remains in us, we struggle against sin, through the indwelling Holy Spirit we have victory in Christ. The hope of future glory in Him and the assurance of God’s unfailing love sustain us in all our trials.

But there seems to be a problem (9:1-11:36): Why have the Jews for the most part rejected God’s grace in Christ? At first glance, it would seem that God’s promises to Israel have failed. But this is not so. Rather, God has always set His choice on a remnant and passed by others. Even so, God has temporarily set aside the Jews because of their rejection of Christ and poured out His grace on the Gentiles. But finally, He will use the Gentiles to bring salvation again to the Jews, all according to His great wisdom and unto His great glory.

In light of these abundant mercies (12:1-16:33), we must give our entire being to God and serve Him in practical godliness. Our relationships should be marked by loving service. We should be subject to our civil government. We should be careful not to wound our fellow Christians by our liberty in Christ. We should join Paul in working to take the gospel to the Gentiles, according to God’s promises. And, as a practical display of Christian love, Paul warmly greets his friends in Rome, ending with a final warning to be on guard against those who cause dissension and strife.

With that as a brief synopsis of the flow of thought of the entire book, I’d like to focus briefly on Romans 1:1, where we see Paul the man; Paul’s Master; Paul’s mandate; Paul’s mission; and Paul’s message.

1. Paul the man:

The most common formula for letters in that time began by identifying the author, then naming the recipients, followed by a word of greeting. Romans, along with all New Testament letters, except for Hebrews and 1 John, begins that way.

The late New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce says of Romans (ibid., pp. 37-38), “There is more autobiography in this letter than meets the eye—the autobiography of a man who has been justified by faith.” Since most of you know the story of Paul’s amazing conversion, I will just mention it in passing. He was an extremely zealous Jew, bent on persecuting the church. He was responsible for the imprisonment and death of many Christians. But the Lord struck him down on the Damascus Road with a blinding vision of Himself (told in Acts 9:3-21; 22:3-16; & 26:4-18). God commanded this Jewish zealot to become His instrument to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, whom he formerly hated (Acts 26:17). God used Paul to take the gospel into Europe, which is why most of us are now Christians.

While perhaps few of us have had the kind of dramatic conversion that Paul experienced, we all should ask ourselves, “Has my heart been changed by personally experiencing God’s grace in Christ’s death and resurrection on my behalf? Am I, like Paul, a new person through faith in Jesus Christ?”

2. Paul’s Master: “A slave of Christ Jesus…”

The word “bond-servant” means “slave.” It emphasizes the “subordinate, obligatory, and responsible nature of his service in his exclusive relation to his Lord.… The slave owes his master exclusive and absolute obedience…. His work earned him neither profit nor thanks; he was only doing what he owed as a bondslave” (R. Tuentes, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. by Colin Brown [Zondervan], 3:596, 595). Jesus Christ had bought Paul with His own blood. Thus Paul was no longer his own, but he belonged exclusively to Christ, to do His will. For Paul, Christ was the center of his life. Note how often he refers to Christ in these opening verses: “Christ Jesus” (1:1); “His Son” (1:3); “His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:4); “His name’s sake” (1:5); “Jesus Christ” (1:6); and, “the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:7).

The questions we need to ask here are, “Is Jesus my exclusive Master because He bought me with His blood? Do I view my daily life as not my own, but belonging to Jesus to serve Him? Do I seek to obey Him, beginning on the thought level? Is He central to my thoughts, words, and activities?”

3. Paul’s mandate: “a called apostle.”

Paul didn’t take a vocational aptitude test that indicated that apostle would be a good career track for him. Rather, he was pursuing his chosen religious career, rising in the ranks of Judaism by persecuting the church, when God knocked him to the ground and saved him. He told Paul (Acts 22:10), “Get up and go on into Damascus, and there you will be told all that has been appointed for you to do.” That mandate primarily was to be an apostle (“sent one”) to the Gentiles, whom Paul formerly despised. The assignment included suffering much for the name of Christ.

When applied to the twelve and to Paul, “apostle” carried the special authority to lay the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20; 1 Cor. 3:10; 2 Cor. 10:8; 13:10). Coupled with the word “called,” “apostle” emphasizes the authority that Paul received from God, given to us in these New Testament epistles. Douglas Moo (the Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 42) observes, “Any reading of this great theological treatise that ignores this claim to authority will fail to come to grips with the ultimate purpose of its writing.”

The application question here is, “Is my heart in submission to what God has revealed here through His called apostle, Paul?” One of the difficult topics that Romans addresses is that of predestination. As I wrestled with this as a college student over 40 years ago, I found myself fighting against what Paul wrote in Romans 9. The breakthrough for me was when I finally realized, “This isn’t just Paul’s word; this is God’s word, and I must submit to it if I am going to be a Christian.”

4. Paul’s mission: “Set apart for the gospel of God.”

The word “set apart” is related in Greek to the word “Pharisee,” which was Paul’s former association. The Pharisees proudly viewed themselves as set apart or separate from the common Jews (John 9:34), and especially as separate from the Gentile “dogs.” But ironically, now Paul is set apart to preach the riches of Christ to the very Gentiles whom he formerly hated. In Galatians 1:15, he says that God had set him apart from his mother’s womb and called him by His grace so that he might preach Christ among the Gentiles (see, also Acts 9:15; 13:2).

As we saw recently when we studied 1 Corinthians 9:23, Paul said, “I do all things for the sake of the gospel ….” While few of us are called into a full-time ministry of preaching or evangelism, we should be growing to imitate Paul, so that our lives are focused more and more on the gospel—first, for our own souls, and then, to proclaim it to others. So we should apply Paul’s mission by asking, “Do I increasingly view my life as set apart for the gospel?”

5. Paul’s message: “The gospel of God.”

As I understand it, the genitive (“of God”) means that the gospel comes from God. He devised the plan before the foundation of the world (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). As 1 John 4:10 puts it, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

Also, the gospel is all about God. He is both its source and its object (Schreiner, p. 37). The gospel is about how we as sinners can be rightly related to the holy God through the sacrifice of His Son. It’s about how God can be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26). As John Piper puts it, “God is the gospel.” He is the treasure that we receive when we believe the good news that Christ died for our sins.

Leon Morris (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 20) points out,

The thought of God dominates this epistle. The word “God” occurs 153 times in Romans, an average of once every 46 words. This is more than in any other New Testament writing (except the short 1 Peter and 1 John). … And not only does “God” occur in Romans more frequently than in any other writing, it occurs more often than any other theme in that book. Apart from a few prepositions, pronouns, and the like, no word is used in Romans with anything like the frequency of “God.”

He concludes (p. 40), “God is the most important word in this epistle.” He also points out (ibid.) that Paul uses gospel 60 out of its 76 New Testament occurrences, the most being nine times each in Romans and Philippians. He uses it in all of his letters except Titus. The gospel is the ultimate good news, that although we are sinners, God made a way through the sacrifice of His Son to reconcile us to Himself. And although it was costly for Him, it is absolutely free to all who believe in Jesus Christ!

The application questions here are, “Am I growing to know God more deeply? Is my understanding of God shaped more by popular cultural ideas or by the great doctrines of the Bible? And, is the good news from God and about God increasingly good news to me, news that I long to share with others?”

Conclusion

Someone has pointed out that although Romans is Paul’s most theological book, a treatise that has stretched the minds of the most brilliant theologians for centuries, he wrote it to a church made up of common people, many of whom were slaves. The Holy Spirit knew that we all need the message of Romans. We need to be stripped of our own righteousness so that we flee to Christ and His sacrifice as our only righteousness. Then, being justified by faith, we need to grow in righteous conduct and relationships. We need to grow to embrace and embody the gospel of God.

Application Questions

  1. “Has my heart been changed by personally experiencing God’s grace in Christ’s death and resurrection on my behalf?”
  2. “Do I view my daily life as not my own, but belonging to Jesus to serve Him?”
  3. “Is my heart in submission to what God has revealed here through His called apostle, Paul, especially on the doctrine of predestination?”
  4. “Do I increasingly view my life as set apart for the gospel?”
  5. “Is the good news from God and about God increasingly good news to me, news that I long to share with others?”

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 2: The Gospel of God: Described (Romans 1:2-4)

The late, great British preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones opened a sermon on Paul’s phrase, “the gospel of God,” by stating his fear that we are often so familiar with certain words, such as “gospel,” or so academic in our approach to them, that we are not thrilled and moved to the depths of our being by the wonder of it all (Romans: the Gospel of God [Zondervan], p. 55). The gospel of God is the theme of Romans and Paul describes it here (1:2-4). I hope that God uses these verses to move us to deeper love for Him.

Romans 1:1-7 is one long and difficult to diagram sentence in the Greek text. Paul begins by identifying himself (1:1); then he describes what he calls “the gospel of God” (1:2-4); next he explains how that gospel goes to the nations (Gentiles) through Paul’s apostleship (1:5-6); and, finally (1:7), he greets the saints in Rome. We’ll only be able to cover verses 2-4 in this message.

Last week we saw (1:1) that the gospel comes to us from God. Paul did not make it up. God originated the gospel. And the gospel is all about God. It tells us how we can be rightly related to Him through His eternal Son, whom He sent. To continue, Paul shows:

The gospel of God was promised in the Scriptures and it centers in God’s Son.

1. The gospel of God was promised beforehand through God’s prophets in the holy Scriptures (1:2).

Why does Paul begin by stating that the gospel of God was that “which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures”? It’s because he wants to show that he didn’t make up the gospel. It wasn’t Paul’s idea. Rather, it comes to us right out of the Old Testament, which he refers to as the “holy Scriptures.”

God promised the gospel in prototype in Genesis 3:15, right after the fall, when He said that the seed of the woman would bruise the head of the serpent. The gospel was implicit in the Old Testament sacrificial system, revealed most thoroughly to Moses but, I believe, even revealed from the outset to Cain and Abel. The wages of our sin is death, but God graciously would accept the blood sacrifice of an acceptable substitute. We see it again in type when God told Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. God intervened, of course, to provide the ram instead of Isaac. But He was showing what He would literally do by sending His own Son as the necessary offering for our sins. As Isaiah 53 makes plain, Jesus is the lamb of God who was wounded for our transgressions.

The record of Paul’s missionary journeys in the Book of Acts shows that when he was speaking to the Jews, he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, trying to show that Jesus is the promised Messiah. For example, in Acts 13, after summarizing Old Testament history down to David (13:16-22), he concludes (Acts 13:23), “From the descendants of this man, according to promise, God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus.” In Acts 17:2-3, we read with reference to Paul’s visit to Thessalonica, “And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.’” (See, also, Acts 9:22; 28:23). It is important to see that the apostles did not make up the gospel. It comes to us from God’s promises through His prophets as revealed in all of the Old Testament.

Paul may have used the word “holy” to describe the Scriptures because some of his critics accused him of promoting licentiousness under the banner of grace (3:8; 6:1). They said that Paul set aside the Law of Moses and therefore opened the door for people to live as they pleased. Paul wants us to know that he viewed the Scriptures as holy because they help us lead holy lives. Also, the Scriptures are holy because they come to us from the holy God through His prophets. Paul had the highest regard for the Scriptures. Paul’s message, the gospel of God, was in line with and in fulfillment of the holy Scriptures. Rather than nullifying the Scriptures, he saw Jesus as fulfilling them (Rom. 3:31; 8:4).

Two other thoughts here: First, the word “Scriptures” means, “the writings.” God saw fit to have the prophets write down His revelation for their own and succeeding generations to read. He could have sent angels to every language group in every generation around the world to communicate His truth. Frankly, it would have been a lot easier than sending people who have to struggle to learn those languages and translate the Bible into them. But God chose to reveal Himself through the written Word. Wherever that written Word has gone, cultures have been transformed as people learned to read the Word of God and He opened their minds to its truths.

We tend to take it for granted that we have the entire Bible in our mother tongue. But do we devour it and treasure it as God’s holy Word to us? Do we pore over it, seeking to know the Creator through the means He has revealed Himself to us? If you don’t have a plan for reading through God’s Word regularly, I encourage you to begin now.

Second, God’s promise in the Old Testament to send the Savior is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Although from the human perspective, it took many centuries—400 years from the prophet Malachi to the birth of Jesus—God always keeps His promises in His time. No doubt there were scoffers then, as there are now, who mocked, “Where is the promise of the Savior?” But there were those, like the godly Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25-38), who were waiting expectantly for God to keep His promise. Although you may be tempted to despair at times, wondering, “Where is the promise of His coming?” (2 Pet. 3:4) persevere in faith. God always keeps His promises. Jesus is coming to judge this evil world and to bring full redemption to His people.

2. The gospel of God centers in the person of God’s Son (1:3-4).

Jesus is the center of the good news. As I emphasized in our recent series on evangelism, one basic principle when you’re sharing the gospel is to keep bringing the discussion back to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus asked the disciples (Matt. 16:15), “But who do you say that I am?” That is the crucial question! If Jesus is who He claimed to be and who the Scriptures present Him to be, then He is Lord of all and we must bow before Him. In succinct form, Paul shows three things about Jesus: He is God’s eternal Son; He was born of the seed of David according to the flesh; and, He is now resurrected from the dead and exalted to the place of power and glory.

A. God’s Son existed eternally before He was born (1:3a).

Paul writes (1:3), “concerning His Son, who was born ….” In Romans 8:3, Paul says that God sent “His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin.” So Jesus was God’s Son eternally before He was born of the virgin Mary. He shared the glory of the Father before the world existed (John 17:5). Jesus often spoke of the Father sending Him into this world (I counted 34 times in John; see John 4:34; 5:23, 24, 30, 36, 37 38).

So Jesus was not a normal man, who became the Son of God when the Holy Spirit came upon Him. God didn’t adopt Jesus as His Son at His baptism. Rather, He is the eternal Son of God, sent by the Father, who took on human flesh in the incarnation, and who has returned to the right hand of the Father to await the day of His glorious coming. In other words, Jesus is fully God and fully man. Any teaching that denies either Jesus’ full deity or full humanity is heresy. He is God’s unique Son, the eternal second person of the Trinity. So when the New Testament writers refer to Jesus as God’s Son, they are affirming His deity (see John 5:18).

Martyn Lloyd-Jones (ibid., pp. 98-99) makes the point that you can have the teachings of Buddhism without the person of Buddha. He is not essential to that religion. The same can be said of all the world’s religions, except Christianity. Christianity is not just the teachings of Jesus. Rather, Christianity is Jesus Christ! You can’t just take His teachings and set Him aside. To be a Christian is to embrace and believe in the person of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Any view that demotes Him from being God’s eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity, is not biblical Christianity.

B. God’s Son was born of the seed of David according to the flesh (1:3b).

This phrase links back to verse 2, showing that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises through His prophets in the holy Scriptures. God promised David that one of his descendants would sit on his throne forever (2 Sam. 7:12-13; see Isa. 11:1; Jer. 23:5-6). Israel’s Messiah and Savior would be of the seed of David. But, David’s line on the throne over Israel ceased to exist at the time of the Babylonian captivity, 600 years before Christ.

But the New Testament writers clearly affirm that Jesus was born of the lineage of David (Matt. 1:1; 20:30-31; 21:9, 15; Luke 1:27, 32, 69; 2:4; 3:23-31; Acts 2:30; 13:22, 23, 32-34; Rom. 15:12; 2 Tim. 2:8; Rev. 5:5; 22:16). (See my sermon, “The Genealogy of Jesus,” on Luke 3:23-38.) Near the very end of Revelation (22:16), Jesus testifies to John, “I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” Thus Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, the son of David, who fulfills God’s promises to Israel.

This means that Jesus is not only fully God; He also is fully human. He shares in our human nature, except for our sinfulness (Gal. 4:4; Heb. 4:15). Thus Jesus could bear the penalty for our sins, since He had no sins of His own. He could be the perfect high priest, who offered Himself for human sins (Heb. 2:14-18). He can sympathize with our weaknesses, which encourages us to come to Him when we are tried and tempted. While I am not aware of any current serious threat to the Christian faith from those who deny Jesus’ full humanity, this was the battlefront of the early church. Even in the New Testament, the apostle John emphasizes this truth (John 1:14; 1 John 1:1; 4:2-3). Jesus was not an angelic or spirit being who seemed to be a man. He was a real man, born physically to Mary, of the lineage of David, according to the flesh.

This also means that Jesus is coming again to reign in power and glory from David’s throne. The Jews of Jesus’ day and down through history since then rejected Jesus because He did not conquer Israel’s enemies and set up His earthly kingdom. Instead, Caesar’s government crucified Him. How could a crucified Man be the Savior promised to reign on David’s throne?

But Jesus Himself, after His resurrection, told the men from Emmaus (Luke 24:26), “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” Then Luke reports (24:27), “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.” (Paul uses the same line of argument in Acts 13:23-39.) While the Book of Revelation has much in it that is difficult to understand, the main idea is pretty clear: The risen Lord Jesus Christ is coming again in power and glory to judge the earth and to reign in righteousness. You’d better be on His side before He comes!

Thus by referring to “God’s Son,” Paul speaks of Jesus’ pre-incarnate glory as the eternal Son of God. By referring to Jesus as being “born of a descendant of David according to the flesh,” he looks at His earthly humility, born of the virgin Mary in the humble stable. As a man, He was rejected by Israel and crucified by the proud Jewish leaders. Then Paul goes back to Jesus’ glory:

C. God’s Son was appointed to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness (1:4a, b).

Verse 4 has some difficult interpretive issues, which I’ll try to explain. First, the word “declared” is not translated that way anywhere else in the New Testament. It means, “appointed” or “determined” or “fixed” (Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 42; Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 47-48). This does not mean that Jesus became God’s Son through His resurrection or that He was shown to be at the resurrection what He was all along. Rather, He was elevated to a new level of power as the Son of God by virtue of His resurrection, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow (Phil. 2:9-11; see Schreiner, p. 42, and Moo, pp. 48-49). In other words, in view of the resurrection, Jesus went from being the eternal Son as Messiah (v. 3) to the eternal Son as Messiah and powerful, reigning Lord (v. 4; Moo, ibid.).

The other difficult question is what is the meaning of, “according to the Spirit of holiness,” which stands in contrast to “according to the flesh” in verse 3? Some argue that it refers to Jesus’ divine nature, in contrast to His human nature (v. 3). Or, some say that it refers to Jesus’ holy, obedient human spirit as He lived always to do the Father’s will. A third view is that it refers to the Holy Spirit’s role in raising Jesus from the dead. A fourth view is that it refers to the sending of the Holy Spirit after Jesus’ exaltation.

Although good men hold to each view for good reasons, the last view in combination with the third is probably the best. Paul is looking at two phases in the ministry of Jesus. According to the flesh, as the descendant of David, Jesus lived in humility with His glory veiled during His earthly ministry. But by virtue of His resurrection from the dead and exaltation on high, Jesus inaugurated the new age of the Holy Spirit (Schreiner, pp. 43-44; Moo, p. 50; F. F. Bruce, Romans [IVP/ Eerdmans], p. 69). Also, implicit in the phrase, “resurrection from the dead,” is that Jesus’ resurrection guarantees our future resurrection (as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15 and Roman 8:11).

It’s interesting that in this opening description of the gospel, Paul does not explicitly mention Christ’s death, although it is implicit in mentioning His resurrection. Paul’s emphasis seems to be on Christ’s exaltation and glory. As Everett Harrison writes (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 10:15), “It was the infinite worth of the Son that made his saving work possible.”

Thus we’ve seen that the gospel of God centers in the person of His Son, who existed eternally, was born of the seed of David, and was appointed to be the Son of God with power by His resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness. Finally,

D. God’s Son is Jesus Christ our Lord (1:4c).

This phrase sums up the first three points. “Jesus” refers to His humanity, that He was born of the lineage of David to the virgin Mary. Jesus was His earthly name, which means “Yahweh saves.” The angel told Joseph before Jesus’ birth (Matt. 1:21), “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Jesus did not come primarily to help you have a happy, fulfilled life or to reach your full potential. He came to save you from your sins. If you do not know Jesus as your Savior from sin and judgment, then you do not know Him at all.

“Christ” means “Messiah,” or “Anointed One,” and also points to Jesus as the descendant of David (Ps. 2:7-12; Ps. 110:1-2). He is uniquely God’s promised Anointed One, who will reign on David’s throne over God’s people. As such, He fulfilled all of God’s promises in the Old Testament. Paul uses “Christ” 379 times out of its 529 New Testament occurrences, including 65 times in Romans. It is because of Paul that “Christ” has become something of a name for our Lord (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Apollos/Eerdmans], pp. 37-38).

“Lord” in Greek could be used as a polite term, like “sir.” But it also could be used of God. It is the word used to translate the divine name, “Yahweh,” in the Greek Old Testament. So when the early church adopted the confession, “Jesus is Lord,” they clearly meant, “Jesus is the Lord God.” Paul loved to use the complete phrase, “Jesus Christ our Lord.” He uses it 68 times, compared to only 19 in the rest of the New Testament (Morris, p. 48).

Matthew 22:41-42 records how Jesus asked His enemies whose son the Christ (Messiah) would be. They correctly answered, “The son of David.” Then Jesus said (22:43-45), “Then how does David in the Spirit call Him ‘Lord,’ saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, until I put Your enemies beneath Your feet”’? If David then calls Him ‘Lord,’ how is He his son?” Jesus was showing them that their view of Messiah was inadequate. They merely thought of Him as David’s son, but in Psalm 110, David calls Him “Lord,” which means that He is God.

It is nonsense to think that somehow you can accept Jesus as your Savior, but not as your Lord. He is one being, “our Lord Jesus Christ.” He never gives us the option of saying, “I’d like to try Jesus as my Savior, but I think I’ll wait to make Him my Lord. I’d like to run my own life for a while.”

While at times William Barclay has some strange views, he at least got it right when he said (cited by Alan Ross, from a sermon Barclay gave at the Round Church, Oxford, England, accessed at: http://www.christianleadershipcenter.org/romans1.htm):

It is now plain to see what a man ought to mean when he calls Jesus “Lord,” or when he speaks of the “Lord Jesus” or of the “Lord Jesus Christ.” When I call Jesus “Lord” I ought to mean that He is the absolute and undisputed owner and possessor of my life and that He is the Master whose servant and slave I must be all life long. When I call Jesus “Lord” it ought to mean that I think of Him as the Head of that great family in heaven and earth of which God is the Father and of which I through Him have become a member. When I call Jesus “Lord” it ought to mean that I think of Him as the help of the helpless and the guardian of those who have no other to protect them. When I call Jesus “Lord” it ought to mean that I look on Him as having absolute authority over all my life, all my thoughts, all my actions. When I call Jesus “Lord” it ought to mean that He is the King and Emperor to whom I owe and give my constant homage, allegiance, and loyalty. When I call Jesus “Lord” it ought to mean that for me He is the Divine One whom I must for ever worship and adore.

Conclusion

Is Jesus your Savior and Lord in that sense? The gospel of God is not primarily about you and how Jesus can help you find happiness and peace and fulfillment. Rather, it is from God and about God. It concerns His eternal Son, who humbled Himself to come from heaven and be born as a descendant of David according to the flesh. But after He offered Himself on the cross, God raised Him from the dead and He ascended into heaven. As Peter put it on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:36), “… know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.”

It ultimately doesn’t come down to, “Can Jesus give me a happy life?” Rather, the crucial question is, “Who is Jesus?” Is He the eternal Son, risen from the dead, exalted as Lord? If so, then make sure that He is your Savior and Lord!

Application Questions

  1. Why is the crucial question, “Who is Jesus?” rather than, “Will He make me happy?” How does this shape our witnessing?
  2. Why is it important to see that the gospel was promised beforehand in the Scriptures? What difference does this make?
  3. Some argue that you can accept Jesus as Savior without submitting to Him as Lord. Why is this wrong? What Scriptures would you use to counter this argument?
  4. List some of the practical benefits that come from affirming both Jesus’ deity and His humanity.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 3: The Gospel of God: To the Nations (Romans 1:5-7)

There is a familiar story about three men who were working on a stone pile at a construction site. A curious passerby asked the first worker, “What are you doing?” He tersely replied, “Chiseling stone.”

Hoping for a better answer, he asked the second worker, “What are you doing?” “Bringing home a paycheck.”

Still wondering what was going on, he asked the third man, “Sir, what are you doing?” The man dropped his sledge hammer, stood erect, and his face brightened as he waved toward the site and exclaimed, “I’m building a great cathedral!”

All three men were doing the same job, but only the third man had the proper vision to make his job meaningful and to put his heart into it.

If someone asked how you serve the Lord, what would you say? Some might say, “I teach Sunday School.” Or, “I help clean up after church socials.” Or, “I serve as a greeter on Sunday mornings.” Or, “I lead a small group Bible study.”

All of those answers are good as far as they go, but a bigger perspective would be, “God has saved me and is using me to help build His church and to be His channel for taking the gospel to the nations.”

That was the apostle Paul’s perspective, as we see in Romans 1:5-7. God saved Paul from being a persecutor of the church and graciously called him as an apostle to help lay the foundation for the worldwide church, which Christ promised to build. God was using Paul to take the gospel to the Gentiles (or, nations) for His name’s sake. While none of us are called as apostles in the same sense that Paul was, the principles still apply:

God saves us and gives us spiritual gifts so that we will be His channels for the gospel to go to the nations.

You should see whatever you do to serve the Lord as fitting into that greater purpose of seeing His name glorified through the power of the gospel going to every people group. Maybe you’re thinking, “But I’m not cut out to be a missionary.” Maybe not, but as God gives you the greater vision of bringing about “the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake” (1:5), there are many ways that you can help out in that cause.

Each of us can pray for the various people groups around the world and for the gospel to go to the ends of the earth. We can give from what the Lord has provided to support missions. We can seek to lead boys and girls and men and women to the Savior, and then instill in them a vision for taking the gospel to the nations. Maybe God will raise up a Hudson Taylor or a William Carey from your labors. Even if it’s a mundane job, like cleaning up after a church social or helping maintain our facilities, it’s helping to build the church. As long as the church keeps its focus on discipling the nations, then you’re part of the team effort.

In these verses, which are the tail end of a seven-verse sentence, Paul gives us five principles about salvation and service. The main thing to keep in mind is that God didn’t save you so that you could sit around and be happy or have a happy family. Happiness is a means to an end, namely, that the gospel would go out to the nations. That, in turn, is a means to the ultimate end of glorifying God. So if God has saved you, He wants you in some capacity to be part of His means of channeling the gospel to the nations.

1. God saves us by His grace and gives us gifts to be used in His service.

Paul writes, “through whom we have received grace and apostleship….” The plural “we” may refer to Paul, along with the other apostles. But the context does not seem to support that meaning, so probably Paul is using “we” in an editorial sense, to mean, “I” (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Apollos/Eerdmans], p. 48).

Grace is one of Paul’s favorite words. He uses it 100 out of its 155 uses in the New Testament, including 24 times in Romans, the most of any book (Morris, ibid.). Paul received grace, which means, God’s unearned, unmerited favor. If you deserve it, it’s not grace. All you can do with grace is to receive it. The Christian life is not a matter of striving to do enough good deeds to pay for or outweigh your bad deeds, so that God owes you forgiveness. Rather, it’s a matter of coming to God as a guilty sinner, deserving of His wrath, and receiving His undeserved favor through Jesus Christ, who paid the penalty you deserved (see Rom. 4:4-5).

So before I go on, may I ask, “Have you received God’s grace through Jesus Christ?” Have you come to Him as a guilty sinner to receive His grace? It’s vital that you start there. You can’t serve God until you have received His grace.

God not only gives grace for salvation, but also grace for service. God sovereignly bestows various spiritual gifts on His people by His grace (Rom. 12:3-8). Paul did not volunteer to be an apostle, much less an apostle to the Gentiles. Rather, God appointed him to that task (Acts 22:10; Gal. 1:1; 2:7-9). The word apostle means “sent one,” and it is used in the New Testament to refer to the twelve and to Paul in the narrow sense of those who had seen the risen Lord (Acts 1:21-22; 1 Cor. 9:1), who performed confirming miracles (2 Cor. 12:12), and who laid the foundation for the church (Eph. 2:20). As such, they were given special authority over the churches (2 Cor. 10:8; 13:10). When those men died, there were no successors with apostolic authority. Their authority is passed on to us in the New Testament.

The word apostle also is applied to Barnabas (Acts 14:4, 14), James (the Lord’s brother, Gal. 1:19; 2:9), perhaps Silas (1 Thess. 2:6), and to Andronicus and Junias (or, Junia [fem.]; Rom. 16:7; see also, 2 Cor. 8:23, “messengers”). These workers were sent out by the churches for various ministries. In this limited sense, missionaries today are “sent ones.” But the foundational gift of apostle passed off the scene when the twelve and Paul died.

We will look at spiritual gifts more in Romans 12. But for now, let me just say that if God has saved you, He has given you a spiritual gift to use in serving Him. Peter (1 Pet. 4:11) divides them into two broad categories of speaking gifts and serving gifts. While I am not a fan of spiritual gift inventories, I would encourage you to figure out what God has equipped you to do in His service and get involved in serving Him. There are no bench-warmers in the body of Christ!

2. God saves us and gives us gifts to bring about the obedience of faith in others.

Paul continues by saying that he has received grace and apostleship “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles.” There is debate about how to interpret the phrase, “obedience of faith.” Some say that it refers to the obedience that springs from faith in Christ. Others say that it means that obedience consists in faith. That is, God commands you to believe the gospel, so not to believe is to disobey.

I think that Douglas Moo is correct when he says that the two words are mutually interpreting (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 52-53): “obedience always involves faith, and faith always involves obedience…. Paul called men and women to a faith that was always inseparable from obedience—for the Savior in whom we believe is nothing less than our Lord—and to an obedience that could never be divorced from faith—for we can obey Jesus as Lord only when we have given ourselves to him in faith.” (See, also, Rom. 10:16, where “heed” means, “obey”; 15:18; and 16:26.) Genuine faith is obedient faith. Genuine obedience stems from faith (14:23).

This has two implications for us all, whether we’re gifted as evangelists or not. First, when we present the gospel we must be clear that the call to trust in Christ as Savior is also a call to follow Him as Lord. There is not the option of believing in Christ as your Savior, but having the freedom to continue living in disobedience to His commands (John 3:36).

Second, to be a part of calling others to the obedience of faith requires that we live in obedience to Christ. We must practice what we preach. If you are not living in obedience to Christ, please don’t try to share the gospel with others. Your life will send a confusing message to them. For example, I’ve seen young women who profess to know Christ, but they’re sleeping with their boyfriends. Yet they’re also trying to tell them about Jesus, hoping that they will get saved so that they can have a Christian marriage. It doesn’t work! It sends a mixed message! If the young woman truly knows Christ, she needs to repent of her sin and break off the relationship with her unsaved boyfriend. Our witness for Christ must flow out of a life of obedience to Christ.

3. God saves us and gives us gifts to take the gospel to the nations (Gentiles).

When Paul uses the Greek word, ethne (1:5), he probably means Gentiles as opposed to the Jews. This does not mean that he did not preach to the Jews. The Book of Acts shows that his custom was to go first to the Jewish synagogues. When they rejected the gospel, he then preached to the Gentiles (Acts 13:44-48). But it’s significant that this formerly ethnocentric, proud Jewish Pharisee would get saved and then devote his life to preaching to the Gentiles, even though it resulted in great personal persecution.

Paul’s focus was all the Gentiles. He could not rest as long as some of the Gentiles had not heard the good news. Bear in mind that the Gentiles to whom Paul preached were raw pagans. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Paul catalogs some of their former sins: “Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” That is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16)!

This means that no matter how pagan your neighbor or co-worker or fellow student may be, no matter how degrading his sin, no matter how enslaving his substance abuse is, God is able to save him from his sin and to make him a new creature in Christ. He does it through the gospel. So your task is to use your testimony, your spiritual gifts, and your verbal witness to share the gospel with the pagans around you. And, as the Lord raises up workers go to foreign cultures and to cross cultural barriers, we at home need to support them with prayer, finances, and in other practical ways, so that the gospel goes to every tongue, tribe, people, and nation.

Thus, God saves us by His grace and gives us gifts to be used in His service. The aim of our service is to bring about the obedience of faith through the gospel among all nations. But, we need to keep the ultimate motive in view:

4. God saves us and gives us gifts to bring glory to the name of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s aim in bringing about the obedience of the faith among the Gentiles was, “for His name’s sake.” Name stands for the person and all of his attributes. It is because of who Jesus is—the eternal Son of God, who took on human flesh as a descendant of David, according to God’s promises in the Old Testament, who offered Himself on the cross as our substitute, who was raised from the dead and is now exalted on high—that Paul endured beatings, plots against his life, and many other hardships to take the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul’s ultimate goal was to glorify the name of the Savior who gave Himself to redeem rebellious sinners.

This principle is so important to keep in mind in your service for Jesus Christ. It’s easy to fall into the trap of serving Christ for personal fulfillment. It makes you feel good to help others. It feeds your pride when others tell you how kind or generous or caring you are. But then someone criticizes you because you didn’t meet his expectations or you neglected to do something in the right way. Or you don’t receive the thanks that you thought you deserved. Your feelings get hurt and your pride is deflated. But, also, your motive for serving gets exposed. You weren’t serving for His name’s sake. You were serving for your name’s sake!

After 33 years now as a pastor, I’ll let you in on a secret: If you serve Christ, you will be criticized. Your labors will often go unnoticed. Your motives will be attacked. Your character will be slandered. Why should you keep on serving when people treat you like that? You keep on serving “for His name’s sake.” Finally,

5. God’s saving us and giving us gifts is based on His calling us and setting His love on us.

Paul’s emphasis in all of verses 1-7 is not on what we do for God, but rather on what God has done for us. The basis for any service for Christ is that God has effectually called us to belong to Christ, He has set His love on us, and He has set us apart unto Himself, bestowing His grace and peace on us. Note five things:

A. God calls us to belong to Jesus Christ.

After mentioning the Gentiles (1:5), Paul continues (1:6), “among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ.” The genitive (“of”) is probably possessive. Throughout Scripture, God the Father is the one who calls us to salvation (Rom. 8:30; 2 Tim. 1:9). For example, in 1 Corinthians 1:9 Paul writes, “God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Here, He calls us to belong to Jesus Christ.

“Called” in the New Testament epistles always refers to God’s effectual call to salvation. Douglas Moo explains (ibid., p. 54), “What is meant is not an ‘invitation,’ but the powerful and irresistible reaching out of God in grace to bring people into his kingdom.” Paul makes this clear in Romans 8:30, “and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.” The entire chain of salvation is God’s doing, so that no one may boast in himself, but rather, only in the Lord (1 Cor. 1:18-31).

To be a Christian means that God has intervened in your life, calling you out of darkness and into His kingdom of light, where you now belong to Christ and have fellowship with Him. Paul often refers to our new standing as being “in Christ.” We are totally identified with Him. This implies a fundamental break with the world, where we no longer love the world and live for the same things that the world lives for (1 John 2:15-17). We now are those who have been called to belong to the Lord Jesus Christ.

B. God calls us because He has set His love on us.

Paul writes (1:7) “to all who are beloved of God in Rome.” Perhaps you’re thinking, “But doesn’t God love everyone?” Yes, but He has a special love for His chosen bride. I’m commanded to love every Christian woman as my sister in Christ, but I have a special love for just one: my bride and wonderful wife, Marla. Even so, “Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). The foundation for everything that we do for Christ is that He “loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20).

C. God calls us as saints.

“Saints” never refers to a special level of believers, who tower above the average. Rather, it refers to all believers. In fact, Paul uses this same phrase, “called as saints,” in his opening greeting to the Corinthian church, with all of its problems (1 Cor. 1:2). The word means, “holy ones,” or “set apart ones.” God calls us to be set apart from this evil world unto Himself.

Robert Haldane points out that there is an order here (cited by James Boice, Romans [Baker], 1:67), “They were saints because they were called, and they were called because they were beloved of God.” In other words, God didn’t call them and set His love on them because of their good deeds. Rather, He called them and loved them and set them apart to Himself for good deeds. The result of God’s calling them as saints is that they live as saints, set apart for God and His service. If you know Christ as your Savior, you are a saint, set apart unto God by His calling you.

D. God calls us to live in a sinful world.

Paul writes “to all who are beloved of God in Rome” (1:7). Rome was the capital of the huge empire that stretched from England to Persia. The Roman emperor was worshiped as a god. Rome was the center of commerce, wealth, power, and status. It represented all that is worldly at its apex. That is where these saints lived and where they were to reach their fellow Gentiles. In Revelation 2:13, the Lord addresses the church in Pergamum, saying, “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; and you hold fast My name ….”

In the same way, we live in the midst of a flagrantly sinful city, where even the “welcome to Flagstaff” signs proclaim our “inclusive community,” a code phrase that means, “your sinful lifestyle is welcome here!” God calls us to live as saints in this city, holding fast to Jesus’ name, and holding forth the word of life (Phil. 2:16).

E. God calls us to receive grace and peace from Him as our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

This phrase is a greeting, but it’s more than a greeting. It stems from the priestly blessing (Num. 6:24-26), “The Lord bless you, and keep you; the Lord make His face shine on you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance on you, and give you peace.” It also combines the usual Greek greeting, Charein, which in sound, although not in meaning, was close to charis, grace, with the Hebrew shalom, peace. The two words sum up the gospel: “Grace is the cause and Peace is the effect” (W. H. Griffith Thomas, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 49). Being saved by God’s grace, we now have peace with Him through Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1; Eph. 2:1-14). Our new standing with God as recipients of His grace and peace is the basis on which we take His good news to the evil city where we live and beyond to the nations.

Conclusion

Several centuries ago in a mountain village in Europe a nobleman wondered what legacy he should leave to his townspeople. He finally decided to build them a church. No one saw the complete plans until the church was finished. When they gathered inside, they marveled at its beauty and craftsmanship. But then someone asked, “Where are the lamps? How will it be lighted?”

The nobleman pointed to some brackets on the walls. Then he gave each family a lamp, which they were to bring with them each time they came to worship. He explained, “Each time you are here the area where you are seated will be lighted. Each time you are absent, that area will be dark. This is to remind you that whenever you fail to come to church, some part of God’s house will be dark.”

God also wants us to carry the light of the gospel out of the church, into the dark world around us (Phil. 2:15-16). He has saved us and given us spiritual gifts so that we will be a part of building His great cathedral, His church, among every tongue, tribe, people, and nation. So whatever you do to serve Christ, do it in view of that greater purpose, for His name’s sake.

Application Questions

  1. Why is salvation the necessary foundation for service? Should churches allow unsaved people to serve? Why/why not?
  2. Why is saving faith necessarily obedient faith? Some argue that this confuses the gospel. Agree/disagree? Why?
  3. How can we guard against serving for some selfish reason, rather than for Christ’s sake? What happens when we don’t?
  4. Why is it important to emphasize God’s calling and His special love as the basis for our service? What can happen practically if we forget this?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 4: Serving Saints (Romans 1:8-15)

Recently I received an email from David and Denise Moore, who serve with Wycliffe in Malaysia, saying that a fellow Wycliffe missionary’s sister and her family had been in a bad accident near Flagstaff. They asked if I could visit them in the hospital and if we as a church could help with any needs.

Marla and I went as quickly as we could to the hospital. We found out that the family was on vacation, driving west on I-40 near Ash Fork, when a car in the left lane blew a tire and swerved in front of them, forcing their motor home over an embankment, where it rolled many times. Miraculously, everyone survived, even the wife who was thrown from the vehicle, although she and their son were pretty banged up.

They told us how well the body of Christ in Flagstaff had come to their aid. I left them my contact info and asked them to call if they needed anything else, but they said that I was the third pastor to visit them and that the other two churches had already largely provided for their family. They said, “The body of Christ is alive and well in this city!”

The wife also told us about an atheist friend of her husband, whom they had known for a long time. He had seen on other occasions that wherever this family went, they encountered other believers who treated them like family. This atheist couldn’t believe that even though the family didn’t know a soul in Flagstaff, when they had this accident they suddenly had an extended network of people coming to their aid. What this atheist observed is what we see in our text, namely, serving saints.

Paul is still introducing his letter to the Romans, most of whom he has never met. He knew that due to his enemies, he was sometimes portrayed as a radical who was teaching all sorts of dangerous things (Rom. 3:8; Acts 17:6; 21:28). But he longed to visit these fellow believers in Rome and share together in the things of God. So he has the delicate task of explaining to these mostly unknown Christians, some of whom may have heard negative things about him, who he is and why he wants to visit them and preach the gospel there.

So he shares how he has heard of their faith and how frequently he prays for them. He shares his heart about wanting to come and spend time with them, both strengthening their faith and also being encouraged himself by them in the things of the gospel. He lets them know that he has often desired to come, but thus far has been prevented. But now he hopes to come and find opportunities to preach there. So Paul wants to use his gifts to serve these people he does not yet know, and he wants to benefit from them using their gifts to serve him, as together they labor to see the gospel expand in Rome. This little snapshot of Paul and the church at Rome gives us a picture of serving saints. The overall lesson is,

God wants all whom He has saved to be serving saints.

I’m taking the theme from Paul’s words in verse 9, “For God, whom I serve in my spirit ….” But it’s obvious that Paul is not the only one in these verses who is serving. He begins by mentioning how he has heard all over about the faith of the Roman believers. He also says that he expects not only to minister to the Romans, but also to be ministered unto by them (1:12). As we saw in verse 7, the believers in Rome were “called as saints.” Thus all believers are to be serving saints.

There are four lessons here: (1) Serving saints spread the gospel and rejoice to hear of it being spread (1:8). (2) Serving saints serve God sincerely in the gospel as they wait on Him in prayer (1:9-10). (3) Serving saints long to be with other saints for the purpose of effective ministry (1:11-13). (4) Serving saints are debtors to all people to proclaim the gospel to them (1:14-15).

1. Serving saints spread the gospel and rejoice to hear of it being spread (1:8).

“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world.” Paul says, “First,” but there isn’t any “second.” He probably just means, “to begin with.” “My God” shows that Paul’s relationship with God was personal. Paul knew God as his God. If you do not know God personally through faith in Jesus Christ, then you are only into religion. True Christianity is not primarily a matter of religion, where you go to church, go through various rituals, and keep certain moral standards. True Christianity is a matter of coming to know the living God personally through His Son as you trust in Him to forgive your sins and give you eternal life (Phil. 3:1-10).

Paul thanks God “through Jesus Christ” because Christ mediates all of God’s blessings to us. It is through Christ that we have access to God in prayer. Paul is thankful to God “because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world.” Paul didn’t thank the Romans for their faith, as if it came from them. Rather, he thanked God, because He brought these former pagans in that corrupt city of Rome to saving faith in Jesus Christ (John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 52). Salvation is God’s gift.

Paul heard others all over the Roman Empire talking about the faith of the Roman Christians. This shows that they were a witnessing church. They didn’t have or need a marketing strategy or an advertising campaign. Rather, they had vibrant testimonies of how God had changed their lives through the gospel. As people heard of what God was doing in Rome and talked to others, the word spread, so that Paul heard about them, even though he had yet to visit Rome. And so his heart rejoiced.

Faith in Jesus Christ is the essential thing: “Without faith, it is impossible to please Him [God]” (Heb. 11:6). Paul often couples faith with love (Gal. 5:6; Eph. 1:15; 6:23; Col. 1:4; 1 Thess. 1:3; 3:6; 5:8; 1 Tim. 1:5). Love for God and for one another is to be the main fruit of our faith in Jesus Christ. But faith in Him is the foundation, because it is through faith that the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in our hearts and produce His love in us (Gal. 5:22). Bringing it down to a personal level, does your home demonstrate faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and love for God and one another?

It is significant that the Roman church was not the result of Paul’s labors, but that didn’t matter to Paul. He rejoiced to hear of God working, no matter who was responsible for it (Phil. 1:15-18). He wasn’t out to build a name or empire for himself. Even so, if we hear that the gospel is spreading, even if we had nothing to do with it, we should rejoice, thank God, and be encouraged that the gospel is taking root elsewhere. Serving saints spread the gospel and rejoice to hear of it being spread.

2. Serving saints serve God sincerely in the gospel as they wait on Him in prayer (1:9-10).

“For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His Son, is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you, always in my prayers making request, if perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you.”

The word translated “serve” means, “worshipful service.” It suggests that all of our service should be offered up to the Lord. It should be “for His name’s sake” (1:5). Paul adds that he serves God “in my spirit.” He means that his service comes from the heart or the inner man, which only God sees. This gets down to our motive for serving. Do we serve for the affirmation that we receive from others? Or, do we serve to please God, who knows our hearts?

This also addresses the methods that we use in our service. Do we get them from the business world or from worldly psychology, where they have been proven to yield results? “Just plug in these marketing techniques and your church will grow!” Or, do we use spiritual methods that come from God’s Word? The world often scoffs at such methods, but, as Paul explains (1 Cor. 1:27), “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong.”

The gospel is such a spiritual “method.” Paul says that he serves God in his spirit “in the preaching of the gospel of His Son.” He states (1:16) that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” The gospel has repeatedly transformed sinners like Paul, a persecutor of the church, into godly saints who exemplify the fruit of the Spirit.

And yet today, many of the church growth “experts” say that you can’t preach the old-fashioned gospel about sin, God’s righteous judgment, repentance, and salvation through faith in Christ’s blood. That sort of thing will scare off the people you’re trying to reach. So we need to tone it down and share about how Jesus can build your self-esteem and give you a happy family and personal success. But it is the simple message of the gospel that God uses to save sinners.

Prayer is also a spiritual method. Weak people, overwhelmed by problems way beyond their ability to solve, cry out to the living God and He answers them! Again, the modern church is much more into techniques than into prayer. Seminars abound on the latest techniques for church growth. There is a proper place for using wise techniques, but the danger is, we then sing the praises of the techniques for how well they worked. God’s way is (Ps. 50:15), “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me.”

But why does Paul call God as his witness with regard to his unceasing prayers about coming to Rome? First, some of Paul’s enemies may have told the Roman Christians, “Paul doesn’t really care about you. He doesn’t even know you!” So Paul wants them to know that before God, his prayers for them are sincere and frequent. Also, Paul’s immediate plans, as he will share later (15:25), were to go first to Jerusalem with the gift for the poor saints there. If he is delayed there, again his critics could say, “He talks a good line about wanting to come here, but it’s all just talk!” So Paul wants the Romans to know that they are often in his prayers and that he prays often that God would open a way for him to go there.

Paul’s words here reveal several helpful lessons about prayer. First, even Paul had delays and frustrations with regard to the answers to his prayers. He prayed often that he might be able to go to Rome, and even often made plans to go, but thus far his prayers and plans had been frustrated (1:13). Sometimes we think that something must be wrong with our prayer life if we don’t get instant answers. But Paul didn’t get a quick answer and when he finally did get an answer, it wasn’t in the way that he had prayed.

That leads to a second lesson: Often God answers through delays or round-about ways that we don’t envision when we pray. Paul prayed that he could go to Rome. God’s way was not a straight path. First, Paul got arrested in Jerusalem, falsely accused of bringing Gentiles into the Temple. Then, he spent more than two years in custody in Caesarea because the governor was hoping for a bribe and he wanted to please the Jews (Acts 24:26-27). Although he should have been freed, Paul had to appeal to Caesar to save his life (Acts 25:9-12). Then, en route to Rome, he was shipwrecked and spent the winter on Malta. Finally, he got to Rome as a prisoner. It wasn’t exactly, “I prayed and presto, God did just as I asked!”

A third lesson on prayer is that we must always submit our prayers to the will of God (1:10). There is a mystery here that I often do not understand. The sovereign will of God often includes evil things that are against His revealed moral will, although God is not responsible for the evil. But He uses the evil to accomplish His greater purpose. We should pray against evil, and yet be subject to God’s will in things that we do not understand.

In this instance, Paul went to Jerusalem in spite of the Holy Spirit’s warning that he would be arrested. He also rejected the pleas of his friends that he not go there. When he insisted upon going, they said, “The will of the Lord be done!” (See Acts 21:11-14.) Although many would disagree, I think that Paul should have heeded this warning from God. But, he went to Jerusalem, was arrested because of the false accusations of evil men, and spent two years in custody because of the sins of a pagan governor. God worked through all of these things to bring Paul to Rome, thus answering his prayers!

So the lesson for us is to pray, but always be subject to God’s will. If He doesn’t answer exactly as we prayed or in the timing that we expected, we must still be in submission to His will, acknowledging that His ways are not our ways.

James Boice (Romans [Baker], 1:87-89) suggests three reasons why sometimes our perfectly proper prayers go unanswered. First, “Unanswered prayer may be God’s way of teaching that we are not as necessary to the work we are praying for as we think we are.” Paul wanted to go to Rome to minister to these saints, but they were able to do quite well without him in the meanwhile. While perhaps Paul didn’t need to learn this lesson through God’s delay in answering, often we do. We are not indispensible in God’s program!

Second, God may not answer our prayers because “He may have other work for us to do.” Paul’s ministry in Greece, Asia, and even in Caesarea, where he preached the gospel to Felix, Festus, and others, was a part of God’s sovereign plan for Paul. If God has you stalled in a frustrating situation, serve Him there!

Third, Dr. Boice says, “There may be spiritual warfare of which you and I are unaware.” The answer to Daniel’s prayers was delayed because of a conflict between a holy angel and an evil demon (Dan. 10:1-14)! Paul explains that our conflict is against unseen spiritual powers, and that prayer is a chief weapon to use in the battle (Eph. 6:10-20). So we often do not know why our prayers are not answered quickly in the way that we envision. But we must trust in and submit to God’s sovereign will.

Thus, serving saints spread the gospel and rejoice to hear of it being spread (1:8). They serve God sincerely in the gospel as they wait on Him in prayer (1:9-10).

3. Serving saints long to be with other saints for the purpose of effective ministry (1:11-13).

“For I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established; that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine. I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented so far) so that I may obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles.”

Someone has pointed out that it’s good that Paul was hindered from going to Rome sooner, because we now have the Letter to the Romans due to his delay (Griffith Thomas, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 53). These verses reveal Paul’s heart for these believers and the aim of his intended visit there. I can only touch on five lessons about effective ministry.

First, the atmosphere for effective ministry is warm personal relationships. Paul longed to see these saints. He often expresses his heartfelt desire to be with other believers (1 Thess. 2:8, 11, 17; 3:1, 5, 6, 10). While Paul couldn’t begin to be close with every believer in Rome, his heart of love and concern for them all still comes through.

Second, the aim of effective ministry is to see others established in their faith. As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, who were new in their faith and going through some intense trials, “for now we really live, if you stand firm in the Lord” (1 Thess. 3:8).

Third, the sphere of effective ministry is spiritual gifts. Paul wanted to go to Rome to impart some spiritual gift to them (1:11). What does he mean? There are several views, but in 1 Corinthians 12:11, Paul says that the Holy Spirit distributes gifts to each person “just as He wills.” So it’s not likely that Paul had the ability to impart various spiritual gifts to others. Rather, he probably means that he wants to impart the gift of his apostolic understanding of the gospel, which we have in the Book of Romans (Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 54; and Martyn Lloyd Jones, Romans: The Gospel of God [Zondervan], p. 226). As Paul exercised his gift of teaching, imparting especially his understanding of justification by faith alone (Romans 3-5), these believers would be more established in their faith.

Fourth, the spirit of effective ministry is mutual encouragement. Paul slightly corrects his comment about imparting some spiritual gift to them by adding (1:12), “that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine.” Even though Paul was such a knowledgeable, gifted man, the ministry would not be all one way, from Paul to them. He quickly acknowledges that he looks forward to being encouraged by their faith as well. Have you ever gone to visit someone in the hospital, to cheer them up, but you’ve come away ministered to by their faith? That’s happened to me many times.

Fifth, the result of effective ministry is to bear fruit. Paul wanted to obtain some fruit among them, as he had among the rest of the Gentiles (1:13). He is mainly referring to new converts, who would come to faith under his preaching in Rome. But the word fruit can refer to any blessing or benefit that comes through God’s working through us. Our aim should always be to glorify God by bearing much fruit (John 15:8).

There is a final lesson on service here:

4. Serving saints are debtors to all people, to proclaim the gospel to them (1:14-15).

“I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.”

The literal rendering of “I am under obligation” is, “I am a debtor.” By “Greeks and barbarians,” Paul means “all nations,” since the Greeks viewed every non-Greek as a barbarian. By “wise and foolish,” Paul means “every level of society, from the most educated to the uneducated.” In other words, every human being needs to hear the gospel, because all have sinned and Jesus is the Savior of every sinner who will repent and believe in Him.

Being a debtor has been illustrated as being a person who has been cured of a deadly disease. You can tell others where to find the cure. And in this case, they don’t have to go anywhere or pay any money. The cure is available and free for the taking. When you meet a sinner (that’s everyone!), you owe it to them to tell them about the cure. And telling them should not be a difficult burden. Paul was eager to preach the gospel to those in Rome, because he knew that it is God’s remedy for sin to everyone who believes.

Paul was eager to preach the gospel to the saints in Rome. He was referring not only to evangelism, but also to the application of the gospel to those who have believed. The gospel has much practical application for the saints, as Paul will show in chapters 12-16.

Conclusion

Thus, serving saints spread the gospel and rejoice to hear of it being spread. Serving saints serve God sincerely in the gospel as they wait on Him in prayer. Serving saints long to be with other saints for the purpose of effective ministry. And, serving saints are debtors to all people to proclaim the gospel to them. Has God called you as a saint, one set apart to Him? Then He has called you to serve in these ways for His name’s sake.

Application Questions

  1. Others were proclaiming the faith of the Roman Christians. What would others proclaim about your Christian life?
  2. How do we determine whether our methods in Christian work are acceptable, since not all methods are given in the Bible?
  3. How can we know whether to keep praying when our prayers do not seem to be answered? What principles apply?
  4. How can the concept of being a debtor to lost people help us to share the gospel more often?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 5: The Gospel: God’s Power for Salvation (Romans 1:16-17)

James Boice wrote that these verses, Romans 1:16-17, “are the most important in the letter and perhaps in all literature. They are the theme of this epistle and the essence of Christianity” (Romans [Baker], 1:103). As you probably know, it was Martin Luther’s wrestling with and finally coming to understand verse 17 that transformed his life and led to the Protestant Reformation. So these verses have had an incalculable effect on world history and they will have a profound effect on your life personally if God opens your eyes to the truths in them.

Before we look at these verses in detail, we need to see the flow of Paul’s reasoning. He begins verse 16 with the word for, which connects it with verse 15. There Paul said, “I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” Why? “For I am not ashamed of the gospel….” Why? “For it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” How is this gospel the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes? “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.” Is this a new idea that Paul thought up? No, he cites Habakkuk 2:4, “as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’”

At the outset, we may wonder why Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” It is a figure of speech called litotes, where through understatement the affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary. For example, if you say, “he’s not a bad athlete,” you mean, “he’s a pretty good athlete.” So when Paul says that he is not ashamed of the gospel, he means, “I glory in the gospel. I’m proud of the gospel.”

But why does he express it this way? Well, there were many reasons that a first century Roman might feel a bit uncomfortable about this Jewish man coming to a sophisticated city like Rome to preach about a Galilean carpenter-prophet who was executed by the Roman government in the most humiliating manner possible, by being crucified. After all, this was Rome, the capital of the civilized world! Your message had better appeal to the educated or it won’t fly here! Your message needs to offer political solutions to the pressing needs of the empire or it will not gain a hearing here! It had better offer some answers to the massive problems of slavery, greed, lust, and violence, or the people in Rome won’t listen!

But Paul’s main message did not directly address these issues. His main message focused on the main need of every human being, whether the most religious Jew or the most educated, worldly, immoral Greek—the need to be reconciled to the holy God. How can I be right before God? As we’ve seen, Paul’s theme in Romans is God and the good news that comes from God, how sinners can be delivered from His righteous judgment and reconciled to Him. This is called salvation. Here Paul tells us…

Because the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, we must believe it and proclaim it boldly.

1. The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.

To proclaim the gospel boldly or unashamedly, we must believe it. But to believe it, we must understand it. The gospel is all about salvation. So I want to explore five statements about salvation that stem from our text.

A. Salvation is the main need of every person.

This anticipates the point that Paul makes from 1:18 through 3:20, where he shows that all have sinned and thus fall under God’s righteous condemnation. Because all have sinned, whether the religious Jew or the worldly Greek, all are alienated from God, who is absolutely righteous. Thus all are under God’s wrath, as Paul immediately explains (1:18), “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”

Salvation refers to being rescued from God’s wrath and judgment that we deserve because of our sin. It means being delivered from the penalty of sin, which happens the moment we believe; being delivered from the power of sin, as we grow in godliness; and, being delivered from the very presence of sin when we stand blameless in His presence in glory (Jude 24). John Piper argues that Paul’s main focus here is this future aspect of salvation (see his sermons on this text on desiringgod.org). Salvation also has many positive aspects, such as enjoying a reconciled relationship with God (Rom. Rom. 5:1), and receiving all of the unfathomable riches of Christ (Eph. 1:3; 3:8).

But if we think that we need to “sell” the gospel by glossing over the negative aspects of salvation and focusing only on the positive side of it, we fall into the sin of being ashamed of the gospel. We do not need God’s salvation and Christ did not need to die on the cross if we’re all basically good people who just need a little encouragement to be right with God. We do not need a crucified Savior if our main need is to polish our self-esteem and learn some helpful hints for happy living.

We need a Savior who was crucified for our sins because we all by nature are ungodly rebels who are under God’s righteous wrath. This is offensive to the natural man, but if we pull our punches on this point, we miss the very heart of the gospel. The gospel is only good news to the person who realizes that he needs to be saved or he will eternally perish.

B. Salvation requires the very power of God.

The gospel does not tell people about the power of God. Rather, it is “the power of God for salvation.” This means that salvation is not something that sinners can attain by their own efforts or good works. If that were so, Christ did not need to die on the cross. Salvation is not a joint project, where God has done His part and now you must contribute your part. You may be thinking, “But don’t I need to believe?” Yes, as we will see in a moment, salvation is received and sustained by faith alone from start to finish. But saving faith, which includes repentance, is not something that sinners can produce on their own. It is the gift of God, so that we will not boast (Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29; 1 Cor. 1:30-31; Acts 11:18; 13:48).

It is crucial to see that salvation does not depend on a human decision, but on the very power of God. It requires that God impart new life to a dead sinner, something that is impossible for men to bring about. When Jesus cried out, “Lazarus, come forth” (John 11:43), the bystanders may have thought, “Is He crazy? He’s speaking to a dead man who has been in the tomb for four days!” But the power of God through the word of Jesus imparted life to a dead man. The gospel is like that.

When the rich young ruler walked away from eternal life, Jesus commented to the disciples (Matt. 19:23, 25, 26), “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were “very astonished and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’” Jesus replied, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” In other words, “Salvation is from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). It requires the very power of God. The gospel is not helpful advice that a person may decide to try out. It is the very power of God imparting new life and salvation to those who were dead in their sins and under God’s just wrath and condemnation. So, as Thomas Schreiner puts it (Romans [Baker], p. 60), “The preaching of the Word does not merely make salvation possible but effects salvation in those who are called.”

C. Salvation demands that the righteousness of God be upheld and applied to the guilty sinner.

In verse 17, Paul explains why the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed….” Before we go on, note that the gospel is not the result of the religious genius of Paul or the other apostles. Rather, it is revealed to us by God through His Son. In Galatians 1:15, Paul explains his own conversion by saying, “But when God who had set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me ….” So the gospel comes to us by revelation from God that centers in His Son.

Also, note (as Bishop Moule points out, The Epistle to the Romans [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 32), Paul does not lead off with the love of God in the gospel, but rather with the righteousness of God. Certainly, the gospel displays God’s love for sinners (Rom. 5:8). But the love of God is not a stumbling block or foolishness to sinners (1 Cor. 1:23). They rather like the idea! If God is loving, but not so righteous, then it’s easy to view Him as our good buddy in the sky. But the righteousness of God presents a problem, because we all know that we have sinned. If God is righteous and we are not, then we need a Savior.

But what does Paul mean when he says that in the gospel, “the righteousness of God is revealed”? There are three main options. First, he may mean that God’s attribute of righteousness, the fact that He always does what is right, is revealed to us in the gospel. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: The Gospel of God [Zondervan], p. 298) strongly rejects this meaning here, because he says that then the gospel would not be good news, but rather terrifying news. But with some fear and trembling, I must disagree slightly with Lloyd-Jones. I agree that this is not Paul’s primary meaning here, but if a person has no concept of the absolute righteousness of God, then he does not understand his precarious and frightening position of being under God’s wrath as an unrighteous sinner (Rom. 1:18). So the gospel reveals God’s righteous character, which shows us our desperate need for salvation. It should drive us to the cross.

Second, by “the righteousness of God,” Paul may be referring to God’s saving power in being faithful to His covenant promises. The Old Testament often refers to God’s righteousness as His salvation of His people (Ps. 71:2; 98:2; Isa. 46:13; Schreiner, p. 66, lists many other references).

Third, by “the righteousness of God,” Paul is referring to the righteousness that comes from God, which He gives to those who believe. F. F. Bruce (Romans [IVP/Eerdmans], p. 73) argues that in the Old Testament, which forms the main background of Paul’s thought and language, righteousness is not so much a moral quality as rather a legal status. He says (p. 74), “God himself is righteous, and those men and women are righteous who are ‘in the right’ in relation to God and his law.” He adds,

When, therefore, the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel, it is revealed in a twofold manner. The gospel tells us first how men and women, sinners as they are, can come to be ‘in the right’ with God and second how God’s personal righteousness is vindicated in the very act of declaring sinful men and women ‘righteous’.

This third meaning is Paul’s primary thought in verse 17. The gospel reveals how sinners may be righteous or justified before God by faith. We know that this is his meaning by comparing the parallels between Romans 1:17 and 3:21-26. There we read,

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

God’s righteousness is revealed in the gospel in that He can grant right standing to sinners because His Son met the righteous requirement of His perfect Law and died to pay the penalty that sinners deserve. Thus sinners are not justified by their own righteousness by keeping the Law (gal. 3:11), but rather by God imputing the righteousness of Christ to them by faith. Paul states this plainly in Philippians 3, where he contrasts his former attempts to be righteous by keeping the Law with his present experience with Christ, where he says (Phil. 3:9), “not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” Salvation upholds God’s righteousness by applying it to the sinner who believes. That leads to the fourth point about salvation:

D. Salvation is by faith from start to finish.

Paul mentions believing or faith four times in these two verses: “to everyone who believes”; “from faith to faith”; and, “the righteous man shall live by faith.” If salvation comes through faith plus good works (as the Roman Catholic Church teaches and all of the cults teach), then it is not good news, because you could never know whether you have piled up enough good works to qualify. But if God declares guilty sinners to be righteous or justified the instant they believe, that is good news!

But, we need to be clear on several things here. First, saving faith in Christ is not a general belief that He is the Savior. The demons believe that, but they are not saved. Rather, saving faith has three elements. First, with the mind we must understand the content of the gospel: who Jesus is, what His death on the cross means, and that He was raised from the dead. Second, we must have a heart response to the truth of the gospel, where we agree that it is true and our agreement causes our hearts to be sorrowful about our sin, but also to rejoice in the free offer of God’s grace. Third, saving faith includes commitment to Christ, where we trust in Him and His death on the cross as our only hope of eternal life and we follow Him as Lord. Saving faith is not a work that we do, but rather simply receiving all that God offers to us in Christ. It is the hand that receives the free gift of God.

Second, we need to understand what Paul means by the phrase, “from faith to faith.” Commentators offer many different views, but I think Paul is emphasizing the centrality of faith in receiving the benefits of the gospel (Schreiner, p. 72). The NIV translates, “by faith from first to last.” We receive the gospel by faith and we go on living by faith.

This is supported by the fact that “believes” (1:16) is a present participle, bringing out the fact that saving faith is not a single event, but rather an ongoing, lifelong process. We are justified the instant we believe, but as we go on believing the gospel, God keeps revealing to us the fact that we have right standing before Him on the basis of Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross. Faith applies the imputed righteousness of Christ to us so that we increasingly rejoice in Christ alone as our only hope of eternal life. We never come to a place where we can trust in our good works as sufficient for or even contributing in any way to our salvation.

Third, we need to understand how Paul uses Habakkuk 2:4, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.” He uses it partly to show that his gospel is not a new idea that he thought up. The Old Testament prophet Habakkuk confirms the truth that righteousness can only be attained on the basis of faith.

Scholars debate whether the quote should be translated, “the righteous man shall live by faith,” or, “the one who is righteous by faith shall live.” The first view would emphasize that those who are righteous are characterized by a life of faith, whereas the second view would say that those who by faith are righteous shall live, which means, be saved. While there are impressive scholars on both sides, I think that in light of the context, Paul is using the quote to say, “The one who is righteous (justified) by faith will live, that is, be saved” (see Bruce, p. 76; Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], pp. 71-72; Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 76-79).

E. Salvation is individual and personal, not corporate and national.

Paul says that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” He could have said, “for the Jews [plural] first and also to the Greeks [plural],” but he put it in the singular. Salvation is an individual and personal matter. Being a member of the Jewish race will not get you saved, even though the Jews were God’s chosen people. Being an American or a member of a Christian family will not get you saved. You must personally believe in Christ.

By “the Jew first,” Paul means that the gospel came first in history to the Jews. God chose Abraham and his descendants through Isaac and Jacob as the race to which He revealed His salvation. It was through the Jews that the Savior came. Thus, as Jesus said, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).

But here Paul’s emphasis is on the universal offer of the gospel. It is for everyone who will believe. It is for the religious Jew who will believe and it is for the pagan Greek who will believe. None need be excluded. The good news is for you, whatever your background! Are you a self-righteous, religious, moral person? You must not trust in any of these things, but as a sinner receive the righteousness of Christ by faith. Are you an atheist or an immoral person or a greedy, cheating businessman? You must turn from these sins and cry out to God to be merciful to you, the sinner, and you will go home justified today (Luke 18:9-14). The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.

2. Because the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, we must believe it.

I ask, “Have you believed the gospel?” Have you abandoned all of your self-righteousness and all of your good works as the basis for your standing before God and instead trusted only in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Do you believe this good news when you fail and Satan accuses you? On the basis of your right standing before God, do you daily battle against sin, so that your attitudes and behavior are progressively righteous? Is God’s power to save you from the power of sin evident in your relationships in the home?

3. Because the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, we must proclaim it boldly.

I could develop an entire message on this point, but I’m out of time. But I ask, “Are you ashamed of the gospel?” Do you dodge warning people about the wrath of God, because that isn’t a popular idea? Do you avoid telling them about the shed blood of Christ as the only remedy for sin, because it sounds kind of primitive? Do you put a positive spin on the gospel, so that it sounds like a positive plan for how to have a happy life here and now? If so, you’re being ashamed of the gospel.

Conclusion

The gospel is the good news that God has revealed to us how we can be rescued from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:5-10). It is the very power of God to save everyone who believes, because in it God reveals how His perfect righteousness will be put to the account of the guilty sinner who trusts in Christ. I pray that we will understand the gospel, believe it personally, preach it to ourselves every day, and proclaim it unashamedly to this lost world.

Application Questions

  1. What are some reasons that you have been ashamed of the gospel in the past? How can you prepare yourself so that it won’t happen in the future?
  2. Why is it important to understand that salvation is not just a human decision, but requires the very power of God in imparting new life? What errors occur when we forget this?
  3. Why is it important to insist that justification means that God declares the sinner righteous, not that He makes them righteous? What implications follow from each view?
  4. What is the difference between genuine saving faith and superficial, false faith (believing “in vain,” 1 Cor. 15:2)?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 6: Is God’s Wrath Justified? (Romans 1:18-23)

Probably the most famous sermon ever preached in America was Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” preached at Enfield, Connecticut, July 8th, 1741. I had a college philosophy professor who ridiculed that sermon and the frantic response that many had to it that day. But, clearly, God used that sermon like He has few others!

To say that the concept of God’s wrath is out of sync with our modern world is to state the obvious. Even many who claim to be evangelicals object to and minimize any mention of God’s wrath. They may say that they believe it because it’s in the Bible, but they’re embarrassed by it. I’ve even heard of professing Christians who say, “I believe in a God of love, not a God of wrath.” Sometimes such people ignorantly imply that the God of the Old Testament was a God of wrath, but by the New Testament, He mellowed out to be a nice old guy! I’ve been told that Jesus was always loving and never judgmental. I always want to ask such people, “When was the last time you actually read the New Testament?”

Modern “seeker” churches have drawn huge crowds by never mentioning sin and judgment, and instead focusing on the more positive aspects of the gospel: “God loves you. He offers you an abundant life full of peace, joy, and love. He will help you with your problems. He wants you to be happy. Won’t you invite Him into your heart?”

But there is no mention of a holy God who is justified in His wrath against sinners. We’ve bought into the old liberal message, which theologian Richard Niebuhr once described (The Kingdom of God in America, p. 193, cited by Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People [Image Books, 1975], 2:249), “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

When the apostle Paul begins to expound on the gospel that he proclaimed, he does not lead off with the love of God (as we saw last time), but with the righteousness of God. When he elaborates further, he does not even then mention God’s love, but rather, God’s wrath. Modern critics would say, “Paul, you’re not going to win any converts by that approach! Lighten up! Maybe, much later, you can touch on that subject. But when you’re trying to win people to Christ, don’t mention God’s wrath!”

But Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, leads off with (Rom. 1:18), “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” For links this to verses 16 & 17. If we’re going to understand why we need God’s power in the gospel and why we need His very righteousness imputed to our account, then we need to understand His wrath against our sin. If we’re not such bad folks and if we have enough good deeds to earn points towards heaven, then we don’t need God’s righteousness and Christ did not need to bear God’s wrath on our behalf. But if we are ungodly and unrighteous in God’s sight, if we have suppressed the truth in unrighteousness, and as a result are under His just wrath, then we desperately need God’s saving power through the gospel!

Thus Paul begins a lengthy section (1:18-3:20) in which he sets forth in great detail the sinfulness of the human race. At first, he gives a general indictment, although the sins that he mentions (Thus Paul begins a lengthy section (1:18-3:20) in which he sets forth in great detail the sinfulness of the human race. At first, he gives a general indictment, although the sins that he mentions (1:23-32) may be more prevalent among the Gentiles. He moves on (2:1-16) to indict those who think that they are moral enough to commend themselves to God. Then (2:17-3:8), Paul turns on the Jews who pride themselves on having the Law, showing how they are also guilty before God. Finally (wing that the entire human race is justly guilty before God. Only at that point (3:21-26) does he come back and pick up the theme of 1:17, that the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ is available to sinners through faith alone.

In our text, then, Paul is showing why God is justified to inflict His wrath on the sinful human race, which shows why we need the gospel. We can sum up his message in 1:18-23:

God is just in pouring out His wrath on the human race because we have sinfully rejected His revelation of Himself and have worshiped the creature rather than the Creator.

1. God is just in pouring out His wrath on the human race because we have sinfully rejected His revelation of Himself (1:18-20).

Paul argues that God has revealed Himself to the human race, both through His wrath (1:18) and through His creation (1:19-20). But we have inexcusably rejected God’s revelation and instead have resorted to inventing gods of our own (1:21-23).

A. God reveals Himself through His wrath against human sin.

There is an obvious parallel and yet contrast between verses 17 & 18. In verse 17, “the righteousness of God is revealed.” In verse 18, “the wrath of God is revealed.” The phrase, “from heaven” adds weight to the revelation. This isn’t just an idea that popped into Paul’s mind. This is a revelation from heaven, that is, from God Himself.

When we think about God’s wrath, we need to get rid of any human notions of someone with a bad temper who flies off the handle over the slightest provocation. Rather, God’s wrath is a part of His holy nature. It is His settled, determined, active opposition to all sin. If God loves righteousness, He also must hate evil. If God were all love and no wrath, then He would not be God at all, because He would be unrighteous. We know this even on a human plane. If a judge was all love and hugs towards cold-blooded murderers or child molesters, he would not be a righteous judge. Even though our anger easily slips from being righteous to unrighteous, we all know that anger is the proper response to certain sins. In the same way, God would not be holy or good if He did not react to evil with wrath and righteous judgment.

We only have time to look at a few of the biblical references to God’s wrath. Ignoring the many Old Testament references, the New Testament starts off with the ministry of John the Baptist, who tells his audience (Matt. 3:7), “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” In Matthew 23:33, after pronouncing a series of “woes” on the Pharisees, Jesus thunders, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?”

In John 3:16, we have the marvelous verse, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall have eternal life.” Oops! I left out something: “shall not perish”! Years ago, I conducted a funeral where they had printed up the little cards with John 3:16 as I just erroneously quoted it to you! I didn’t let it go! To perish means to come under God’s eternal wrath. In John 3:36 we read, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

In Ephesians 2:3, Paul says that we all (Jews and Gentiles) were “children of wrath,” a Jewish way of saying that we were characterized by being under God’s wrath. In Ephesians 5:6, he uses the same Jewish expression to say that “the wrath of God comes on the sons of disobedience” (also, Col. 3:6). In 1 Thessalonians 1:10 he says that Jesus “rescues us from the wrath to come.” In 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9, he writes that God will deal “out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction ….” The entire Book of Revelation shows the many forms of wrath that will be poured out on sinners both before and after Jesus returns.

J. I. Packer (Knowing God [IVP], pp. 134-135) said, “One of the most striking things about the Bible is the vigor with which both Testaments emphasize the reality and terror of God’s wrath.” A. W. Pink (The Attributes of God [Baker], p. 82) wrote, “A study of the concordance will show that there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury, and wrath of God than there are to His love and tenderness.” So we cannot shove God’s wrath into the closet! R. W. Dale observed (cited by R. C. Sproul, The Cross of Christ Study Guide [Ligonier Ministries], p. 35), “It is partly because sin does not provoke our own wrath, that we do not believe that sin provokes the wrath of God.”

Later (2:5), Paul acknowledges that a future day of wrath is coming at the final judgment, but here (1:18) he calls attention to the present revelation of God’s wrath (the verb means, “is being revealed”). What does he mean? If we look around, we can see God’s wrath in all of the effects of the fall, both on creation and on human misery and suffering. We see floods, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, famine, and disease, which cause untold suffering and death. There are the more direct links between sin and judgment, such as STD’s and the AIDS epidemic on the sexually immoral, and the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol on addicts. We see the terrible effects of drunkenness and drug abuse in the home, on our highways, and in society at large. We see the devastating effects of war and terrorism. The list could go on and on.

Also, a glance through past history, both in the Bible and outside of it, shows the ongoing wrath of God. He destroyed the whole world through the flood. He poured out fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah. He punished both Israel and Judah allowing invading armies to kill many and send others into captivity.

But the greatest example of God pouring out His wrath was when He put His own Son on the cross to bear our sins, so that He cried out in agony (Matt. 27:46), “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Jesus’ terrible death shows that God cannot just brush our sin aside. His righteous judgment must be satisfied. As Paul argued with the philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:31), the resurrection of Jesus from the dead proves that God “has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness….” Woe to all who have not repented of their sins and trusted in Christ before that day! God reveals Himself through His wrath. Don’t miss it!

B. God reveals Himself through His creation.

Paul goes on to show another way that God has revealed Himself, namely, through His creation. Here Paul is referring to God’s general revelation in the created universe, not to His special revelation in His written word. Most commentators understand “His invisible attributes” to be a summary term that is further explained by the next two terms, “His eternal power and divine nature.” Anyone should be able to look at the vastness of the universe (even in days before there were telescopes!) and conclude, “God is amazingly, incomprehensibly, powerful! You don’t have to gaze into outer space—get caught in an exposed area in a thunderstorm and you will appreciate God’s power! Marla and I have had some terrifying experiences with that!

God’s “divine nature” refers to the sum of His attributes (S. Lewis Johnson, “Paul and the Knowledge of God,” Bibliotheca Sacra [Jan.-March, 1972], p. 69). This does not mean that we can learn as much about God through nature as we can through His Word. But, even so, men should be able to look at God’s creation and conclude many things about His attributes, in addition to His power.

John Calvin sums it up well (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], pp. 71-72), “His eternity appears evident, because he is the maker of all things—his power, because he holds all things in his hand and continues their existence—his wisdom, because he has arranged things in such an exquisite order—his goodness, for there is no other cause than himself, why he created all things, and no other reason, why he should be induced to preserve them—his justice, because in his government he punishes the guilty and defends the innocent—his mercy, because he bears with so much forbearance the perversity of men—and his truth, because he is unchangeable.”

It is important to recognize that God’s revelation through creation is not enough to save anyone, in that it does not reveal His plan of salvation through Jesus Christ, apart from which no one can be saved (Acts 4:12). But it is enough to condemn everyone. By looking even at their own bodies or at the marvel of a little gnat that can fly, eat, and reproduce, people should bow in worship before God. But they don’t. They swat the gnat in annoyance and go on without a thought about the intelligence, power, and wisdom that it took to create a gnat, much less all of creation! They ignore the obvious fact that there is an all-powerful God and go full bore in their selfishness and sin, ignoring the obvious revelation of His wrath in the fact that they will soon die!

Two brief comments before I move on: First, in answer to the question that often comes up, “Will God judge the innocent heathen who has never heard about Jesus?” The answer is, there are no innocent heathen. All have sinned against the light that they have received and all will be judged accordingly (Matt. 11:20-24).

Second, I hope that you can see how utterly absurd and yet how widely destructive to people’s eternal destiny the belief in evolution is. It gives sinners a supposed escape from being accountable to God, as some prominent atheists have openly admitted. Although there is more than abundant evidence of an all-powerful Creator, evolutionists cling to the absurd idea that everything came out of nothing. At the root of their belief is not science, but immorality. They suppress the truth in unrighteousness. That leads to:

C. Sinners have inexcusably rejected God’s revelation of Himself, suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.

Paul says (1:18) that God’s wrath is revealed “against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” Some commentators see these two words, “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness,” as being somewhat synonymous, repeated for emphasis. But others say that Paul is using them quite strictly to refer to “lack of reverence for God” (“ungodliness”) and “lawlessness or injustice towards our fellow man” (“unrighteousness”).

Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: The Gospel of God [Zondervan], pp. 355-359) argues at length that the terms refer to these two different aspects of sin and that Paul has put them in this order for an important reason: ungodliness is always the root sin and unrighteousness flows from it. Our first and basic problem is that we disregard and disobey God. This leads to our sins against one another. Ungodliness was the first sin, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God. This led to separation from God, which then led to alienation between them and eventually to the sin that caused Cain to murder his brother Abel.

The word “suppress” may mean to hold on to, or to hold down, which is the idea here. It implies that men knew the truth (note that there is such a thing as knowable absolute spiritual truth!), but they want to hold it down so that they can pursue their sins. Whether it is evolution denying God as the Sovereign Creator, or philosophy speculating that we cannot really know God at all, or psychology telling us that we are not responsible for our problems (psychologists don’t like the word “sin”!), these are all ways of pushing God away from us so that we can be our own lord. “So that they are without excuse” is probably a purpose clause that means, “Sinners cannot plead ignorance as an excuse” (Johnson, p. 69). God has posted huge warning signs with flashing lights, namely, His ongoing wrath and His magnificent creation. If sinners drive past them over the cliff, they only have themselves to blame.

So, Paul’s first point is: God is just in pouring out His wrath on the human race because we have sinfully rejected His revelation of Himself. I can only comment briefly on his second point and its implications:

2. God is just in pouring out His wrath on the human race because we have worshiped the creature rather than the Creator (1:21-23).

Paul makes five points here:

A. People knew God generally through the revelation of Creation.

Paul seems here to be interpreting human spiritual history in light of the fall (Johnson, p. 72). Verse 21 does not mean that men knew God in a saving way, but rather that they had a general sense that He exists. In The Institutes (ed. by John McNeill [Westminster Press], 1:3:1), John Calvin asserts that all people have an awareness of God. He says, “There is no nation so barbarous, no people so savage, that they have not a deep-seated conviction that there is a God.” As Paul has just shown, God’s creation makes His attributes evident within all people, until they suppress it. There is also the universal presence of the conscience (2:15).

B. People did not glorify God or give thanks.

This is the root sin: Although people know about God, they do not give Him His proper glory and they do not express thanks to Him for His many undeserved blessings. We could easily develop an entire sermon or two here, but let me apply it directly: It’s easy to sit here and shake our heads at the heathen, who have no concept of glorifying God or giving thanks. But do I glorify God for His goodness and mercy and grace? Do I give thanks to God for His many blessings that He showers on me every day?

C. As a result, the foolish hearts of sinners were darkened.

Paul also refers to this in Ephesians 4:18, where he describes “the Gentiles” (pagans) as “darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart.” When Paul says, “their foolish heart was darkened,” he is referring to their entire inner life, including their intellect, emotions, and will (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 85). To be in the dark refers to total moral and spiritual blindness. Only God can shine His light into such dark hearts (2 Cor. 4:4-6).

D. As a result of darkened hearts, sinners profess to be wise, but are fools.

Since the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Ps. 111:10), those who do not fear God or bow before Him as God profess to be wise, but are fools (Ps. 14:1). “Fools” does not refer to mental deficiency, but to spiritual and moral deficiency. Turning from the revelation that God has given of Himself in His wrath and in creation, sinners plunge into futile speculation. As a philosophy major at a secular university, I know of no better description of godless university professors than Romans 1:21 and 22. The final result is:

E. This foolishness is exhibited by worshiping the creature rather than the Creator.

Rejecting God does not lead to atheism, but to substituting the glory of the one true God with manmade idols “in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.” Man didn’t begin with idolatry and polytheism and work his way up to monotheism. Man began by knowing the one true God, but when he suppresses the truth in unrighteousness, he falls into the supreme foolishness of creature worship (Isa. 44:9-20).

I’ve seen idolatry of statues and sacred cows in Asia. I’ve observed people worship the creation here in Flagstaff. But it never ceases to amaze me, as I’ve said before, that here in a university town, we have a store that has stayed in business for many years by selling nothing but idols! It’s as if the idols of self, sex, money, and power were not enough! We’ve got a store selling just about any conceivable idol that you could see worshiped in India or Nepal or Thailand! Idolatry is really stupid, but, I should add, there is real power in idolatry—but it is demonic power, not God’s power.

Conclusion

So, is God just in pouring out His wrath on those who have rejected His revelation of Himself, who turn instead to worship the creature rather than the Creator? When you stand before Him, do you have any chance of winning your case? Only if by faith you stand there covered by the righteousness of Jesus Christ!

Application Questions

  1. Does the concept of God’s wrath offend or embarrass you? Why? Examine your reasoning and motives.
  2. Some have said that things like the AIDS epidemic and other catastrophes cannot be God’s judgment because the innocent suffer along with the guilty. Why is this faulty reasoning?
  3. There is an organization that purports to be evangelical and yet is dedicated to “theistic evolution.” Why is this not a biblical option?
  4. Why are “glorifying God” and “giving thanks” such fundamental issues? How can we practice these qualities more faithfully?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 7: Going Down, Down, Down, Part 1 (Romans 1:24-27)

If you were born after 1970, you may not realize how drastically America and the West changed during the 1960’s. I grew up in the 1950’s watching TV shows like “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Leave it to Beaver,” and “Father Knows Best,” all of which depicted the typical American family. The father wore a suit, supported the family, and was looked to as the head of the home. The mother wore a dress, prepared the meals, and dispensed wisdom to the kids to help them navigate life’s normal struggles. There was not a hint of sexual immorality, whether with the parents or kids. A kiss between a teen boy and girl was about as far as things went for the kids. There were no references to drugs. It was pretty radical when Ricky Nelson formed a rock band, even though their music was pretty tame compared to today’s standards.

When I was in high school, the word “gay” meant, “happy.” I did not know what homosexuality is until somewhere around ninth grade. Back then, it was a gross put-down to say that a guy “sucked” (that is the origin of that term; I wince when I hear Christians use it). I didn’t know what a condom was until I was in junior high. In my high school, a few of the kids smoked marijuana, but they were not in the “in” crowd. Using more potent drugs was pretty much unheard of.

I do not watch any of the current TV sitcoms. I’m probably a rare American, in that I’ve never watched an episode of “Cheers” or “Seinfeld” or other shows of that genre. But from reading reviews I know that on such shows, sex between unmarried partners is openly accepted, graphically talked about, and sometimes portrayed. Homosexuality is now accepted as normal. A popular show features housewives who are desperately looking for happiness by being unfaithful to their marriage vows. A current movie preaches that children raised by homosexual couples are just as emotionally healthy and normal as other children are.

We’ve gone down a long ways from the 1950’s! Some would say that because of these flagrant sins, America is on the brink of God’s judgment. But Paul would say, “No, America is already under God’s judgment.” When a society flaunts and gives hearty approval to such sins, even applauding them as right, it shows that God has already given that society over to impurity, to degrading passions, and to a depraved mind.

Leon Morris (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 87) explains Paul’s purpose in our text:

It is sometimes objected that this is not a balanced picture; the pagan world could do better than this. Of course it could, and Paul shows us something of this in the next chapter. But here he is not trying to picture the total scene. He is pursuing his theological purpose of showing that all people are sinners. In pursuit of this aim, he concentrates on that part of the picture which is relevant…. It is Paul’s purpose to show that [sin] exists, and that it exists universally. Wherever pagans are to be found, the kinds of sin of which he speaks will be found also.

Paul’s point in Romans 1:24-32 (we will only go through v. 27 this week) is:

When people reject God and exchange His glory for the worship of the creature, He gives them over to their sins and the horrible consequences.

As we saw last week, Paul is showing how the wrath of God is being “revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (1:18). One aspect of God’s wrath is to give sinners over to their lusts, so that they experience the inevitable, horrible consequences of sin. That is to say, sin itself is its own punishment! People think that sin will bring them fulfillment and happiness. It may feel good in the short run. But God has designed His moral laws so that if you break them individually or if a society casts them off collectively, those laws turn around and break you! It’s like the law of gravity: you can break it, but then it breaks you.

We might wonder when this divine judgment of giving people over to their sin took place. Is Paul describing the fall? Or does he have in mind the demise of certain cultures, such as Sodom and Gomorrah? Or is he talking about individuals who go so far in sin that God gives them over to their sins? Probably he is referring to all of the above.

At the fall, the human race was cut off from fellowship with the holy God and plunged into sin. We all are born in sin, alienated from God. We are by nature spiritually blind, children of wrath, and under God’s just condemnation. We are not sinners because we sin; rather, we sin because by nature we are sinners. Unless we are born spiritually by the power of the Holy Spirit, we will pursue a course of sin. Some are restrained from sinning more than others. But all people apart from God’s grace in Christ, have cast off the living and true God and have embraced whatever false gods they think will bring them happiness. So in one sense, this applies to the entire human race, born in sin.

But on another level, it applies to particular cultures down through history. At the Tower of Babel, proud sinners defied God, bringing down His judgment by confusing their languages. Sodom and Gomorrah were so corrupt that God rained fire and brimstone on them as an example to others of His wrath against sin. When God told Moses and Joshua to destroy the Canaanites, it was because over four centuries, they had filled up the measure of their sin (Gen. 15:16). Ancient Greece and Rome had their times of glory, but idolatry and immorality brought them down. And so it has been down through history. When a people abandons God, at some point God abandons that people.

This is also true on the individual level. All people without Christ are in sin, but when an individual brazenly turns his back on the light that God has given him and goes full bore into a decadent lifestyle, it shows that God has given him over to his lusts. If he keeps going in that direction, he may eventually cross the point of no return, where he is so hardened in sin that he is beyond the hope of salvation!

Paul here makes two main points: (1) The root sin is to reject the truth of God and to worship the creature rather than the Creator (1:25). (2) When people reject God, He gives them over to their sins and the horrible consequences (1:24, 26-32). He shows this judgment three times by stating, “God gave them over” (1:24, 26, 28). First, God gave them over to impurity; second, He gave them over to the degrading passions of homosexuality; third He gave them over to a depraved mind, expressed in all sorts of socially destructive sins.

1. The root sin is to reject the truth of God and to worship the creature rather than the Creator (1:25).

“For they exchanged the truth of God for the [lit.] lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.” Verse 25 explains the reason that God gave people over in their lusts to impurity (1:24), to degrading passions (1:26), and to a depraved mind (1:28) by basically repeating the truth of 1:21-23. Because people did not honor God or give Him thanks, their foolish hearts were darkened. Their foolishness led them to exchange the glory of the incorruptible God for idols.

“The truth of God” refers to the truth that He has revealed about Himself and about all things. God is not a projection of our ideas or a figment of human imagination. God is. He exists in and of Himself and He has always existed outside of time before He spoke the universe into existence. Our knowledge of Him can only come through His revelation of Himself, which is centered in Jesus Christ His Son and contained in the Bible. As we saw in 1:18 and 20, God reveals Himself generally through His wrath against sin and through His creation. But to know specifically who God is and how to be saved, we must have His Word. Contrary to the postulates of postmodernism, this truth about God revealed in the Bible is knowable and absolute.

But sinful men exchanged this truth of God for [lit.] “the lie,” which refers to the lie of idolatry. In 1:23, sinners exchanged the glory of God for idols. Here, they exchange the truth of God for the lie, that we can worship things other than God, all of which are mere creatures, not the Creator. It is the lie that any creature can live independently of God as “self-sufficient, self-directing, and self-fulfilling” (John Witmer, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. by John F. Walvoord and Roy Zuck [Victor Books], 2:443). As a result of exchanging the glory of God for idols and exchanging the truth of God for the lie, God gave these sinners over to degrading passions, so that they exchanged their natural sexual orientation for that which is unnatural (1:26). The word “exchange” implies that if you cast off God, you will serve idols.

The important thing to see is that there is this cause and effect relationship. The root cause is the sin of rejecting the truth of God, resulting in worshiping the creature rather than the Creator. By referring to God as the Creator, Paul takes us back to the opening statement of the Bible (Gen. 1:1), “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The Bible does not debate the point or open it up for discussion. Rather, the Bible asserts that God created everything and that He did it by speaking it into existence (“God said,” Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26; Ps. 33:6, 9). This asserts His sovereignty over everything. It means that as creatures, we depend totally on God and must be subject to Him. He is the only true God and He made all things for His glory.

Thus when Paul mentions God as the Creator, he almost uncontrollably adds, “who is blessed forever. Amen.” It’s as if he wants to clear the foul air after referring to men worshiping and serving the creature (H. C. G. Moule, The Epistle to the Romans [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 50). Blessing, extolling, or glorifying God forever and ever is the reason that He created us. “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism). He is in fact blessed forever, whether we acknowledge Him or not (Rom. 9:5). Thus the root sin is when we turn from God and replace Him with the creature. Idolatry is the sin of worshiping anything in place of the true God.

In America, we do not see blatant idolatry as frequently as you see it in Asia or Africa. Most Americans do not set up statues and pray to them or offer incense or gifts before them. But there are many other forms of idolatry in America. If you “use” God for what He can give you and then “set Him back on the shelf” until the next time you need Him, you’re doing the same thing that idolaters do with their idols. They use the idols when they need them to achieve their own purposes. They are not usually subject to the idols to follow their commands. Self is really the root idol. Self uses the idol to get what self wants.

We can fall into idolatry of things that otherwise are good. Some people in effect worship the family. God gives us our families and they are good in their proper perspective. But if we rely on the family in place of God, so that we can only find fulfillment and happiness in our families, we have fallen into idolatry and are not following Jesus as Lord (Luke 14:26). Material possessions are a good gift from God and it’s not wrong to enjoy such things (1 Tim. 6:17). But if we put our hope in things or in our investments and not in God, we have fallen into idolatry (Luke 12:16-21; 14:33). Vocations, entertainment, sports, computers, TV, and many other things can dominate our lives and become idols, taking the place that God alone deserves. This is the root sin: rejecting the truth of God and worshiping the creature instead of the eternally blessed Creator. “Amen” means, “So be it!”

2. When people reject God, He gives them over to their sins and the horrible consequences (1:24, 26-32).

Three times Paul says, “God gave them over”: First (1:24), to impurity; second (1:26), to degrading passions (homosexuality); third, to a depraved mind (1:28). We find a similar expression in Psalm 81:12, where God responds to Israel’s disobedience by saying, “So I gave them over to the stubbornness of their heart, to walk in their own devices.” (See, also, Acts 7:42.) They abandoned God; God abandoned them. The phrase means that God took His hands off their lives and delivered them over to their sentence, where sin takes its own ugly course.

It does not in any way imply that God causes people to sin. But neither is God merely passive. Rather, as Frederic Godet (Commentary on Romans [Kregel], p. 107) says, “He positively withdrew His hand; He ceased to hold the boat as it was dragged by the current of the river.” Douglas Moo (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 111) goes a bit farther: “God does not simply let the boat go—he gives it a push downstream.”

Parents sometimes get to this point with a rebellious child. You say, “Do what you want and you will pay the consequences of your actions.” Maybe you help him carry his duffel bag out the door. The father of the prodigal son did this with the boy’s outrageous request to get his share of the inheritance before the father’s death. He gave him what he wanted, and let him squander it all and end up in the pigsty. It reminds me of Psalm 106:15, where in response to Israel’s demand for meat in the wilderness, it says, “So He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul” (NASB, margin). Sin is its own punishment!

Today we can only look briefly at the first two sections.

A. God gives sinners over to sexual impurity, resulting in the dishonoring of their bodies (1:24).

“Therefore, God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them.” Paul is referring to sexual lusts. God designed sex as a good gift, but He clearly commands that it be restricted to monogamous, heterosexual marriages. In that context, the sexual union glorifies God as it expresses exclusive love between a man and a woman and is an earthly picture of the relationship between Christ and His church (Eph. 5:31-32).

Outside of that context, if we engage in sexual behavior, we dishonor our bodies and defile ourselves with impurity, a word used of decaying matter, like the contents of a grave (John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible, NASB [Nelson Bibles], p. 1661). Paul says that if a man joins himself to a prostitute, he becomes one flesh with her, but in so doing, he defiles the temple of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in believers (1 Cor. 6:16-19). He gives us a godly perspective of how to use our bodies when he concludes (1 Cor. 6:19b-20), “You are not your own. For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.”

Sexual lusts begin in the heart (Mark 7:21-23). If we do not judge lustful thoughts on the heart level, sooner or later we will face the temptation to involve our bodies. Does it feel good at the moment? Yes, of course, otherwise we wouldn’t do it. But it leads to your being enslaved by sin. Since sex outside of marriage is outside of the context for which God designed it, it never completely satisfies. It leaves you empty and broken.

Before I leave this point, let me say to the men, especially: If you are enslaved to pornography, you have exchanged the truth of God for a lie. You are worshiping the creature, not the Creator. Viewing pornography weakens your resistance to an actual sexual encounter, which Satan will bring your way. If you yield to that, you dishonor your body, defile yourself, and start on this downward cycle. If you are married, viewing pornography sabotages your marriage. Jesus warned that if you do not take radical action (pluck out your eye, cut off your hand) to rid yourself of the sin of mental lust, you are on your way to hell (Matt. 5:27-30)! I would not have said it so harshly, but Jesus did and He is Lord. So you don’t want God to give you over to that sin! Get help if you need it, but judge lust before it judges you!

B. God gives sinners over to homosexuality, resulting in them receiving the due penalty of their sin (1:26-27).

We live in a time when the homosexual community has so strongly influenced our godless culture that if you stand against it and say that it is sin, you are labeled as an intolerant bigot. They have skillfully portrayed it as a “human rights” issue, so that those who oppose it seem anti-American. But God’s Word is not tolerant of homosexuality or ambiguous about it: it is clearly sin (Gen. 19:4-5; Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Judges 19:22-23). Paul elsewhere includes it in lists of sins (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10).

But why does Paul focus on homosexual relations here?  Thomas Schreiner (Romans [Baker], p. 94) explains,

Probably because it functions as the best illustration of that which is unnatural in the sexual sphere. Idolatry is “unnatural” in the sense that it is contrary to God’s intention for human beings. To worship corruptible animals and human beings instead of the incorruptible God is to turn the created order upside down. In the sexual sphere the mirror image of this “unnatural” choice of idolatry is homosexuality.

Paul uses unusual Greek words for “male” and “female” here, which are elsewhere used in the creation account. His point is that homosexuality for either sex goes against God’s intention in creation (Schreiner, p. 95). Just looking at how men’s and women’s bodies are designed should prove that point!

Paul says (1:27) that homosexuals receive “in their own persons the due penalty of their error.” The error is not an inadvertent mistake, but rather the rejection of the true God for idols (Schreiner, p. 97). Paul may mean that being delivered over to homosexuality itself is the penalty. Contrary to the word “gay,” homosexuals are disproportionately unhappy people. Those who attempt to live in committed homosexual relationships have a three to four times greater dissolution than that of heterosexual married couples. They experience much higher rates of domestic violence than opposite sex couples do (these statements documented in an email from the Family Research Council, Aug. 10, 2010). The Journal of Human Sexuality (Vol. 1, p. 93, National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, 2009) concludes with regard to homosexuals, “No other group of comparable size in society experiences such intense and widespread pathology.”

Is AIDS God’s judgment on homosexuals? If you mean that each person who has AIDS got it from sexual sin, the answer is no. Babies get it from their mothers and patients get it from tainted blood transfusions. But when God sends a temporal judgment due to a nation’s sin, such as war, famine, natural disaster or disease, the so-called “innocent” suffer along with the directly guilty. The fact is, if there were no sexual promiscuity, especially homosexuality, there would be virtually no AIDS. There is an obvious, direct correspondence between practicing homosexuality and AIDS. So in that sense, it is God’s judgment against that sin.

Are homosexuals born that way? There is no scientific evidence to date to support that claim, although researchers have desperately been looking for it. But even if the inclination is genetic, it still is sin to practice it. Some may be genetically prone to heterosexual lust or to anger or alcohol addiction, but these are still sins. Even if we are genetically predisposed to a sin, we are responsible before God if we yield to that sin.

Conclusion

The good news is, Jesus came to deliver us from our sins. Paul includes former homosexuals in Corinth when he wrote (1 Cor. 6:11), “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” That can be your testimony, too, if you will trust in Christ.

Application Questions

  1. What are some forms of American idolatry? How can we guard ourselves from idols (1 John 5:21)?
  2. Some organizations are committed to recovering the values of our Christian heritage in America through legislation. Is this the right approach? Will it help? What else is needed?
  3. Can a person whom God has given over to his sins be saved? When has he crossed the line of no return?
  4. Can a truly saved man be “addicted” to pornography? Consider Matthew 5:27-30 in your answer.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 
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Lesson 8: Going Down, Down, Down, Part 2 (Romans 1:28-32)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote (Life Together [Harper & Row], pp. 118-119), “The most experienced psychologist or observer of human nature knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest Christian who lives beneath the Cross of Jesus. The greatest psychological insight, ability, and experience cannot grasp this one thing: what sin is.”

We are studying the apostle Paul’s penetrating analysis of sin that runs from Romans 1:18 through 3:20. He is showing why all people, no matter how good they may seem outwardly, need the gospel (1:16-17), namely, because all have sinned. Thankfully, the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. So God’s only solution for the devastating effects of sin on the human race is the gospel, that Christ died for our sins and that He gives His righteousness to all who believe in Him.

Last time, we saw that the main theme of verses 24-32 is:

When people reject God and exchange His glory for the worship of the creature, God gives them over to their sins and the horrible consequences.

In these verses, Paul develops two main ideas:

1. The root sin is to reject the truth of God and to worship the creature rather than the Creator (1:25).

2. When people reject God, He gives them over to their sins and the horrible consequences (1:24, 26-32).

Three times Paul repeats the frightening phrase, “God gave them over”:

A. God gives sinners over to sexual impurity, resulting in the dishonoring of their bodies (1:24).

B. God gives sinners over to homosexuality, resulting in them receiving the due penalty of their sin (1:26-27).

Both of these judgments deal with sexual sins. We saw that sin is its own punishment. It promises freedom, but it enslaves. It entices us by making us think that it will bring happiness and fulfillment, and for a short time, it is pleasurable (Heb. 11:25). But the long-term effects of sin are devastating. It dishonors our bodies, defiles our conscience, destroys loving relationships, tears apart families, eats away at the foundation of society, and results in God’s temporal and ultimately eternal judgment.

John MacArthur (gty.org/Resources/Sermons/45-15_ Abandoned-by-God-Part-2) cites Thomas Watson, who said,Sin puts gravel in our bread and wormwood in our cup.” Commenting on the phrase, “God gave them over,” MacArthur continues (ibid.),

And so man is turned over to the law of his own sinfulness and its compounded consequences.

And people really don’t like it. They run off to the psychiatrist, the psychologist, the analyst. They run off to take a vacation to try to forget. They travel. They entertain themselves. They drink. They take drugs. They seek alleviation of the consequences of sin every way possible. But have you noticed how utterly impossible it is? In fact, the highest suicide rate in America among any profession is that of psychiatrists who not only can’t help people but can’t help themselves. And this is the judgment of God upon them, that there is no way out of the inevitable consequence of their sinfulness. There’s no alleviation. There’s no freedom from the bondage. There’s no limiting of the pain. There’s no easing of the guilt because they’re turned over to wrath. And so it is the divine act of judgment on them that they are doomed to compound their sinfulness and have to endure all of its consequences.

With that as a review and introduction, we continue our study by looking at Paul’s third example of God giving sinners over:

C. God gives sinners over to a depraved mind, resulting in lives full of evil and its consequences (1:28-32).

If Paul had stopped after verses 24-25, many of us could think, “Preach it, brother! Hit all those sexually immoral people! I’m glad that I’ve never fallen into adultery or gross sexual sin!” And, if he had stopped after verses 26-27, many more could say, “Yes, Paul—give it to those homosexuals! They need to hear about God’s judgment on their sin.” We smugly would be thinking, “I’m glad that I’ve never desired to practice that sin!”

But Paul doesn’t stop there! He keeps going by moving from the area of sexual sins to that of relational sins. While some of them, like murder or being a hater of God, sound extreme, before we congratulate ourselves on never doing these sins, we need to remember Jesus’ teaching, that if we’ve ever been angry with our brother, we have committed murder in God’s sight (Matt. 5:21-22). If we do not put God in first place in every area of our lives, and honor and obey Him as He deserves, we really hate Him (Rom. 8:7; John 14:15). So as we work through Paul’s long list of sins that mark those whom God has given over to a depraved mind, if we’re honest we will recognize that he is describing our sins. Thus we need daily to apply the gospel to our hearts.

Paul traces four steps in the downward spiral:

(1). Sin begins when we deliberately shut God out of our lives (1:28a).

“They did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer….” As we saw last time, “they” can refer to the entire human race after the fall. On another level, it refers to certain civilizations that have turned their backs on God. Or on an individual level, it applies to those who go headlong into sin. “God” is in the emphatic position in the sentence, indicating that it was no less than God, the Creator (1:25), whom they no longer saw fit to acknowledge (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Apollos/Eerdmans], p. 93).

The Greek word translated “see fit” means to approve by testing. It was used of testing metals like gold to see if they were genuine. So Paul means that these sinners tested God and concluded, “He’s not real.” And so they rejected Him. Maybe they prayed and asked God to spare the life of a little child or a loved one, but that person died. Maybe they asked Him to deliver them from some problem, but things only got worse. So they concluded that God must not be genuine. They shut Him out of their lives.

At the root of this is that they were sitting in judgment on God. He was on trial and they determined that He is a phony. So rather than seeking to know God and submit to His ways, as revealed in His Word, they did not see fit to hold Him in their knowledge. They thought, “If God is like that, if He doesn’t relieve my suffering, then I don’t want to know Him.” So they cast Him aside like fool’s gold. They shut Him out of their lives.

That is always the first step in sin: Rather than submit to God by obedience to His Word and by persevering through trials, we turn our backs on Him. We decide that we know better than He does about how to be happy. So we move ahead without God.

(2). Sin becomes entrenched when God gives us over to depraved minds (1:28b).

“God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper.” As we saw last time, God’s giving sinners over to the consequences of their sin does not imply that He is in any way responsible for their sin. Rather, He lifts His restraining hand and perhaps gives them a gentle push out the door, saying, “If you want to sin, go for it!” He consigns them to their self-willed rebellion, with all of the horrible consequences. Sin is its own punishment, as we will see again in verses 29-31.

There is a play on words in the Greek text here. Just as sinners tested God and rejected Him, so God gave them over to minds that were tested and found false. They did not see fit to acknowledge God, so God gave them over to unfit minds. William Newell (Romans Verse by Verse [Moody Press], p. 34) renders it, “And just as they did not approve to have God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a mind disapproved of Him.” It means that “their minds became quite unable to make trustworthy moral judgments” (Morris, p. 94). “Those things which are not proper” refers to “that which is offensive to man even according to the popular moral sense of the Gentiles, i.e., what even natural human judgment regards as vicious and wrong” (H. Schlier, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. by Gerhard Kittel [Eerdmans], 3:440).

All sin begins in the mind or heart. Jesus said (Mark 7:21-23), “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.” Many of these sins that Jesus lists overlap with Paul’s list here. But the point is, sin warps our thinking so that we do not see it from God’s perspective. We begin to think that sin is not so bad, because it will get us what we really want in life. So we justify ourselves and blame others.

For example, maybe you start thinking, “I deserve a better wife than this nagging, complaining woman that I live with. I’m a good man. I’ve treated her right, but all I get is griping.” At this point, in your mind you are not acknowledging God and His Word, which tells you to love your wife sacrificially and help her become holy. When you do that, you’re a sitting duck for Satan to bring along a kind, understanding woman at work, who is divorced from her abusive husband. She’s looking for a good man just like you! So you fall into adultery and divorce. It all started in your mind.

So sin begins when we deliberately shut God out of our lives. It becomes entrenched when God gives us over to depraved, spiritually unfit minds.

(3). Sin expresses itself in all sorts of ways that damage interpersonal relationships (1:29-31).

The manuscripts behind the King James translation add the word “immorality” after “unrighteousness,” but it is probably not in the original text. Paul has just dealt with immorality in 1:24-27. So the list contains 21 different sins. Paul has many other such lists (Rom. 13:13; 1 Cor. 5:10-11; 6:9-10; 2 Cor. 12:20; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 4:19, 31; 5:3-5; Col. 3:5, 8; 1 Tim. 1:9-10; 6:4-5; 2 Tim. 3:2-5; Titus 3:3). He isn’t saying that every sinner is guilty of every one of these sins, but rather that the human race is guilty of sin in thought, word and deed. The list contains representative examples. All of the sins except for “haters of God” are relationally destructive sins. When we practice them, our families and our entire society suffer.

A cursory reading of terms like “envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossips, and slanderers” reminds us “that evildoers are not just one happy band of brothers” (Morris, p. 96). Sinners are out to get their way, even if it means destroying the reputation or even the lives of rivals who get in the way.

The first four terms come under the description, “being filled with,” and are general words for sin: “unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, and evil.” Then Paul says, “full of,” followed by five terms (in the genitive), “envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice.” Those terms, “filled with” and “full of,” indicate that these sinners did not just have a slight tendency or inclination towards these sins. Then there are 12 words (in the accusative, in apposition to “they”). The last four words in this group (1:31) all begin with the Greek alpha-privative, which negates the word it is added to. The NIV tries to capture this in English with, “senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” Let’s look briefly at each term (following the NASB):

*“Unrighteousness”—is a general term for sin. William Barclay (The Letter to the Romans [Westminster, revised], p. 34) says that this word refers to “the man who robs both man and God of their rights. He has so erected an altar to himself in the center of things that he worships himself to the exclusion of God and man.”

*“Wickedness”—This word often is used to describe Satan, the evil one, “who deliberately attacks and aims to destroy the goodness of men.” It refers to “the active, deliberate will to corrupt and to inflict injury” (Barclay, ibid.).

*“Greed”—“means the inordinate desire to have more. It is selfishness unlimited…. This covetous person pursues his own desires with a complete disregard of the effect on other people. He does not care about others but is a complete egotist” (Morris, p. 96).

*“Evil”—“is the most general Greek word for badness. It describes the case of a man who is destitute of every quality which would make him good” (Barclay, p. 35). The scale of his life has tipped toward the worse.

*“Envy”—Aristotle distinguishes “envy” from “jealousy.” He says that jealousy is the desire to have what another man possesses, without necessarily bearing a grudge against him for having it. But envy wants to deprive the other man of the desired thing more than to gain it for oneself. Xenophon said, “The envious are those who are annoyed only at their friends’ successes” (D. H. Field, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. by Colin Brown [Zondervan], 1:557).

*“Murder”—Envy often results in murder (Mark 15:10). As we’ve seen, Jesus extended this sin to being angry with someone else (Matt. 5:21-22). So the seeds of murder lie in all of our hearts.

*“Strife”—is “the contention which is born of envy, ambition, the desire for prestige, and place and prominence” (Barclay, p. 35). All of these sins stem from selfishness.

*“Deceit”—is the word used for bait for fishing. It refers to any deliberate attempt to mislead someone for your own advantage. Morris observes (p. 96), “There is nothing straightforward about sin, and sinners do not hesitate to deceive one another if their purposes can be advanced.”

*“Malice”—is “conscious and intentional wickedness” (Morris, p. 97, citing TDNT, 3:485). Aristotle defined it as “the spirit which always supposes the worst about other people” (Barclay, p. 36). It is the opposite of biblical love, which thinks the best about others unless there is solid evidence to the contrary (1 Cor. 13:7).

*“Gossips”—is literally, “whisperers.” It refers to the one who likes secretly to spread malicious stories about others. Since he speaks in secret, the one whom he speaks against cannot defend himself, since he doesn’t know about the falsehood being spread.

*“Slanderers”—refers to someone who openly speaks evil against someone, intending to hurt his reputation.

*“Haters of God”—This is the one term directly aimed at God, not at others. He sees God as “the barrier between him and his pleasures” (Barclay, p 37). God is out to spoil his fun.

*“Insolent”—“refers to a lofty sense of superiority out of which the insolent person treats all others as beneath him” (Morris, pp. 97-98). This person is “so proud that he defies God.” He is cruel and insulting (Barclay, p. 37).

*“Arrogant”—is the word used three times in Scripture when it says that “God opposes the proud” (Prov. 3:34; James 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5). It refers to a man who has “a certain contempt for everyone” except himself (Barclay, p. 37).

*“Boastful”—came from a word meaning “wandering.” It referred to wandering merchants who would make extravagant claims for their products that could not be substantiated (Morris, p. 98).

*“Inventors of evil”—are not content with usual ways of sinning, so they invent new, outrageous sins that push the limit.

*“Disobedient to parents”—This sin strikes at the heart of family solidarity. “It implies a lack of gratitude and a contempt for family authority” (Morris, p. 98).

*“Without understanding”—refers to those who act stupidly, especially in the moral realm. They do not fear God, which is the beginning of wisdom (Ps. 111:10).

*“Untrustworthy”—refers to those who break covenants. They don’t keep their word. They don’t do what they promise and then they make up excuses for why they didn’t do it.

*“Unloving”—means “without natural affection.” It refers to parents who do not love their children or to children who hate their parents or to brothers and sisters who fight with each other.

*“Unmerciful”—refers to someone lacking compassion and kindness for others. Morris says (p. 99), “It is significant that, in an epistle that will stress God’s mercy throughout, the list of vices should be rounded off with ‘merciless.’ This is the very depth of evil. The person who shows no mercy can scarcely go lower.”

Paul isn’t saying that every society is marked by being full of all of these sins. So what’s his point? John Piper answers (desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Sermons/BySeries/2/1056_The_Perils_of_Disapproving_God/), “The point, I think, is to give us enough examples to show that virtually every form of evil has to do with God and comes from failing to know him and approve him and love him above all things. In other words, he gives us a sweeping array of evils to waken us to the fact that the ruin of any area of life is owing to the abandonment of God.”

But we haven’t hit bottom yet! Paul adds one more point:

(4). Sin reaches its depths when sinners not only practice sin, but also heartily approve of others who practice sin (1:32).

“And although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.” What a description of our society! People know God’s moral standards through conscience or a general sense of right and wrong. Maybe they know about the Ten Commandments. But even though God’s Word threatens eternal death for those who break these commandments, these sinners cast off all restraint. They thumb their noses at God as they revel in their sin. And they’re happy to see others sinning. It helps ease their guilt.

The whole “gay pride” movement is a flagrant example of those who not only engage in sin privately, but openly boast of it and encourage others to do it. I recently heard of another example on NPR. It told of a computer dating web site that is devoted to helping married people who want to commit adultery link up with others who want to do the same! The owner of the site defended it as providing a service for those who were unhappy!

Conclusion

The danger of these lists of sin is that we read them and think, “I’ve got my faults, but thank God I’m not that bad!” But these verses should cause us all to examine our hearts and to fear sinning. W. H. Griffith Thomas wisely wrote, (St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 75), “The possibilities of evil in the human heart apart from divine grace are as real as they ever were, and no one who knows the plague of his own heart will ever dare to say that even these depths of evil are impossible, apart from the restraining influence of the grace of God.” These verses should cause us to examine whether we are truly living for God’s glory or whether we may be substituting something from the creation (ourselves, our possessions, some other person, etc.) in the place that only belongs to the Creator.

If all we had were these verses, it would be a hopeless and depressing picture. We can try to pass legislation to promote morality, but such legislation is of limited value. The sins in these verses go down to the heart level; so we need a heart solution. The only solution is the gospel that changes our hearts (1:16-17). God’s wrath is against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (1:18), but, thank God, Christ came to die for the ungodly and unrighteous (Rom. 4:5; 5:6-8)! Romans 1:18-32 shows that God’s wrath against our sin is justified. We all deserve His judgment. But they also lead to the good news, that God has provided the righteousness we need in Jesus Christ (1:17; 3:21-26). And, this gift of righteousness is not given to those who try really hard, but rather to those who trust in Christ.

And so I conclude by asking, “Have you trusted in Jesus Christ to save you from God’s wrath?” And, “Are you applying the gospel to your daily life so that you overcome these sins that characterize the world without God?”

Application Questions

  1. Can genuine believers be given over to a depraved mind or does this only refer to unbelievers? See 1 Cor. 2:16.
  2. Why is it crucial to understand that sin begins in the mind (or heart)? How does this relate to building a strategy for overcoming sin?
  3. Go over the list of sins and ask, “Which ones am I most prone to commit?” How can you plan not to do it?
  4. Discuss: Are Christians giving hearty approval to sin (v. 32) when they enjoy watching sexual or violent scenes in movies?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 9: The Damnable Sin of Self-Righteousness (Romans 2:1-5)

Waiting for his first orthodontist appointment, a 12-year-old boy was a bit nervous. He was completing a patient questionnaire and apparently had high hopes of winning the dentist’s favor. In the space marked “Hobbies” he wrote, “Swimming and flossing” (Reader’s Digest [Aug., 1994], p. 112). That humorous story reflects how we all want to portray ourselves to others as better than we really are. We all want to make a good impression!

But when we do that, we’re forgetting something important, namely, that “all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13). God knows the very thoughts and intentions of our hearts (Heb. 4:12). Someday we will stand before Him to give an account of our lives. So we must judge our sins on the thought level. And especially we must be on guard against the damnable sin of self-righteousness.

In Romans 1:18-32, Paul indicts the Gentiles (mainly) for their many sins: idolatry, sexual immorality, homosexuality, and a long list of destructive relational sins. Being a Jew and a former Pharisee, Paul knew that his fellow Jews would be sitting on the sidelines, cheering him on: “Give it to those pagan sinners, Paul!” They smugly would be thinking, “Thank God that I’m not like those awful Gentile sinners” (Luke 18:11).

So in chapter 2, Paul begins to zero in on the Jews. He does not begin directly (he doesn’t address them directly until 2:17), which has led to a lot of debate about whether he is addressing the moral Gentile or the Jew in these opening verses. It really doesn’t matter practically, but I think he is using the same indirect approach that the prophet Amos uses (Amos 1 & 2), where he begins by condemning the foreign nations around Israel. Just when the Jews are cheering him on, he moves in to hit them with their sins. (See, also, Nathan with David, 2 Sam. 12:1-7.)

From his own pharisaical background Paul knew that self-righteous people tend to justify themselves by blaming others. Self-righteousness is a very difficult sin to get people to see and condemn in themselves. But it’s a serious, damnable sin because it keeps people from seeing their need for the gospel. It believes the lie that we can be good enough in ourselves to qualify for heaven. Thus we don’t need a Savior who died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins. “Maybe really gross sinners need a Savior. But me? Hey, I’m a basically good person! God wouldn’t judge a good guy like me, would He?” Or, would He?

If you’re tired of hearing about God’s judgment, I’m sorry, but clearly it’s a major theme of our text. Paul refers to “the judgment of God” in 2:2, 3, and 5, plus he refers to condemning yourself (2:1) and “storing up wrath for the day of wrath” (2:5). So it’s hard to dodge Paul’s message:

If you do not repent of your self-righteous hypocrisy, you are storing up wrath for the day of judgment.

I was going to say “we” instead of “you,” but I changed it because Paul does. In chapter 1, he speaks of “they.” But in chapter 2, he directly addresses his reader as “you.” He’s going from preaching to meddling! He knows that it is easy to be blind to this deadly sin of self-righteousness, so he reaches out, grabs us by the lapels, shakes us a bit, and says, “I’m talking to you! Listen up!” He makes four points in his indictment. I’m going to follow Paul by using the more direct “you” instead of “we.”

1. You are prone self-righteously to judge others for the very same sins that you commit (2:1).

“Therefore, you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things.”

It is difficult to understand the connection of “therefore.” Probably it refers back to the overall theme of 1:18-32, that God’s wrath is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Therefore, when seemingly moral people condemn other sinners, but then it comes out that they are practicing the very same sins, it renders them without excuse before God. By practicing the same sins, Paul probably is not referring to the more outwardly flagrant sins of idolatry, sexual immorality, and homosexuality (1:24-27), which are not so common among religious people, but rather to the relational sins (1:29-31), of which we all are guilty.

Paul is pointing out how prone we all are to condemn others and justify ourselves, even though we’re guilty of the same sins that we’re condemning in others. I read about a man who was a Republican Party chairman of a county in Florida who sued a former GOP county executive committee member for defamation because he sent out a letter to state party officials accusing the chairman of having been married six times. The chairman called the charge “unconscionable,” and stated that the correct number of marriages is five. He declared, “I believe in family values” (in FlagLive [12/29/05-1/4/06]).

We need to understand that Paul isn’t condemning the act of judging others per se, in that he expects his Jewish readers to agree with him that the sins of the Gentiles (1:24-32) are wrong. The problem with judging others is when you secretly engage in the same behavior that you openly condemn. When a pastor berates sexual immorality from the pulpit, but then it comes out that he secretly looks at porn, he has condemned himself. When a politician postures himself as standing for family values, but it comes out that he snuck off to visit his mistress in South America, he has condemned himself.

Probably one of the most frequently used, but misapplied, verses in the Bible is Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” If people would keep reading, they would see that in verse 6 Jesus tells us not to give what is holy to dogs or to cast our pearls before swine. He was not talking about literal dogs and swine, but rather about people who are dogs and swine. To obey that verse, you have to judge whether a person is a dog or a swine. Then, in verse 15, Jesus warns about false prophets who come as wolves in sheep’s clothing. You have to judge carefully to conclude, “This isn’t a sheep—this is a wolf masquerading as a sheep!” The point is clear: if you don’t make correct judgments about others, you’ll be eaten by wolves! Also, Paul tells us that we are responsible to judge those in the church who profess to be believers, but who are living in sin (1 Cor. 5:9-13).

So in Romans 2:1, Paul is not saying that it is wrong to judge others. Rather, he is saying that it is wrong self-righteously to judge others, while at the same time you’re practicing the sins that you’re judging. We could come up with more, but let me give you five marks of a self-righteous hypocrite by which to evaluate yourself. (If you apply these to your spouse, then you are one!)

(1) A self-righteous hypocrite judges the sins of others while overlooking his own sins. As Jesus says (Matt. 7:5), “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Someone has defined a hypocrite as the guy who complains that there is too much sex and violence on his DVD player! (Reader’s Digest, Oct., 1991, p. 183; I changed VCR to DVD.)

(2) A self-righteous hypocrite judges others based on selective standards, not on all of God’s Word. One of the most helpful chapters for understanding the sin of self-righteousness is Jesus’ indictment of the Pharisees in Matthew 23. The Pharisees picked out certain parts of the Law and prided themselves on their obedience, but they neglected the weightier parts of the Law (Matt. 23:23). They tithed their table spices, but they neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness. They invented loopholes around keeping the Law. They said that if you swore by the temple, you were not obligated to keep your word, but if you swore by the gold of the temple, you were obligated (Matt. 23:16-21).

We laugh at how stupid that sounds, but many Christians do the same thing. God’s Word tells us that God hates violence (Ps. 11:5) and that we should not even talk about immorality, impurity, or greed (Eph. 5:3). We should be innocent in what is evil (Rom. 16:19). But somehow it’s okay to fill our minds with TV shows and movies that are filled with profanity, violence, and sexual immorality. The self-righteous person picks parts of the Bible that he likes and prides himself on keeping those parts. And he condemns as “legalists” those who seek to obey all of God’s Word.

(3) A self-righteous hypocrite is more concerned about external conformity than with true, inner godliness. Jesus said (Matt. 23:28), “So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” The Pharisees were concerned that they not defile themselves for the Passover by going into Pilate’s Gentile court (John 18:28) at the same time that they were seeking to crucify the innocent Lord Jesus! Self-righteous hypocrites want to keep up outward “Christian” appearances, but they don’t judge their own sins on the heart level. They put on the happy Christian face at church, but use abusive speech with their families at home.

(4) A self-righteous hypocrite is not interested in helping others grow in godliness, but only in gaining a following. Jesus said (Matt. 23:13, 15), “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in…. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.” They didn’t care about the people or their hearts before God. They just wanted to gain followers so that they looked good.

(5) A self-righteous hypocrite justifies himself by comparing himself with others or by blaming others for his own sins. Jesus told the parable of the proud Pharisee who went to the temple and prayed, “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:11-12). He wasn’t comparing himself with God’s Word, which condemns pride. Rather, he was comparing himself with others who, in his mind, were worse than he was. In his mind, he kept some of the Law; the tax collector didn’t keep any of it. So, on the curve, he is accepted by God, while the tax collector is rejected. But, God doesn’t grade on the curve!

This is the most common problem that I encounter when couples come to me for marriage counseling. It is also the biggest hurdle for them to get over. The husband says, “I know I’m not perfect, but I work hard to provide a good living for this woman, but all I hear is griping. When I come home after a hard day’s work, I deserve some time to watch a ball game, but she harps at me about disciplining the kids or fixing something around the house.” He justifies himself and blames her.

She does the same thing: “I’m not a perfect wife, but I work hard to make a good home for him. I do all the shopping, cook the meals, do the laundry, clean the house, and take care of the kids. All I want is a little love from him. But he just comes home and ignores me and the kids. He yells at us to be quiet. He gets mad if supper isn’t ready on time. He expects me to respond to him in the bedroom and gets upset when I’m too tired.” In her mind, she’s doing the best that she can do. The marriage problems are his fault.

They are both passing judgment on one another, while each of them is doing the same things that they are blaming their spouse of doing. If each of them would stop blaming the other and justifying himself or herself, they would see dramatic improvement in their marriage. So Paul’s point is quite practical: You are prone self-righteously to judge others for the very same sins that you commit.

2. Self-righteous hypocrisy brings you under God’s judgment (2:2-3).

“And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things. But do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God?”

Verse 2 literally reads, “the judgment of God is according to truth upon those who practice such things.” He means “that God’s judgment against sin is fully in accord with the facts, that it is just” (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 131). Paul’s hypothetical Jewish reader that he is addressing would have agreed that God’s judgment is according to the truth.

Where he would have disagreed is with Paul’s assertion that God’s righteous judgment falls on the Jews just as it falls on the Gentiles. In other words, the Jews claimed special status before God because they were His covenant people. They believed that if you were a Jew living in Palestine, you were treated as if you kept all of the commandments and were guaranteed of the life to come (Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ [Eerdmans], p. 5). But Paul applies God’s just judgment to Jew and Gentile alike and says, “If you judge others for the very sins that you commit, you’re guilty in God’s court of justice.”

At this point, Paul isn’t pointing to God’s revealed Law as the standard for judgment, although he could have done so. Rather, he is saying that if a self-righteous person judges someone else for a sin that he himself is practicing, he will not escape God’s judgment. If you condemn someone else for lying to you, but then you lie to someone else, you’ve just condemned yourself. If you berate someone who stole from you, but then you cheat the government on your taxes or steal something from your employer, you will not escape from God’s judgment. Of course, Paul is not saying that you’d escape God’s judgment if you lie or steal without judging others for those sins! Rather, he is showing that all of us have violated our own standards by doing the very things that we condemn in others. And so we are guilty before God.

3. The riches of God’s kindness, tolerance, and patience should lead you to repentance, not to presume on His grace (2:4).

“Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?”

In verse 4, Paul “introduces a rhetorical question that brings to light the false assumptions of the person who is addressed in v. 3” (Moo, p. 132). Paul is saying, “If you think that you can get away with sin because God is kind, tolerant, and patient, you’re greatly mistaken! His kindness should lead you to repentance, not to self-righteous complacency. If you go on sinning, presuming on His grace, you’re only storing up wrath for the day of judgment (2:5).”

God’s kindness, tolerance, and patience overlap somewhat, but have different nuances of meaning. His kindness points to the many good gifts that He bestows on this rebellious human race. He gives us air to breathe, food to eat, homes to live in, families that love us, beautiful scenery to enjoy, and bodies and minds that (for the most part) function as they are supposed to. He treats us far better than we deserve.

God’s tolerance points to the fact that He does not strike us dead instantly when we defiantly sin against Him. How many times we have known what is right and deliberately disobeyed! God could have struck us dead on hundreds of occasions and He would have been perfectly just, but He did not. He is tolerant.

God’s patience is similar to His tolerance. The word literally means “long on wrath,” or slow to anger. He gives us opportunity after opportunity to repent, without inflicting judgment.

God doesn’t just trickle these benefits on sinners. Rather, He gives them richly. But the problem is, sinners mistakenly think that because they experience all of these blessings and God’s judgment has not hit them yet, He must think that they’re okay. They won’t face His judgment, because they aren’t really bad sinners, like the pagans that Paul has just described in chapter 1. But Paul says, “If you think that God’s kindness, tolerance, and patience mean that you will escape His final judgment, you’re in big trouble! God is kind, tolerant, and patient so that you will repent!”

Thus, you are prone to self-righteously judge others for the very sins that you commit (2:1). Such self-righteous hypocrisy brings you under God’s judgment (2:2-3). Don’t mistake God’s kindness to mean that you will escape His judgment. He is only giving you time to repent (2:4). Finally,

4. If you do not deal with your hard, unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath for the coming day of God’s judgment (2:5).

“But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.”

Frederic Godet (Commentary on Romans [Kregel], p. 116) captures the grim irony of Paul’s words, “Every favor trampled under foot adds to the treasure of wrath which is already suspended over the heads of the impenitent people.” James Boice (Romans Baker], 1:220) pictures it as a miser who for years stores his horde of gold coins in the attic above his bed. It’s his treasure. But then one night, the weight of all that gold breaks through the ceiling and comes crashing on his head, killing him. He thought he was storing up treasure, but he was only adding to his own judgment.

It’s the same for the self-righteous person who presumes on God’s kindness and patience. He judges others, but does not judge his own sin. He goes on in his pride, thinking that his outward righteousness is amassing a great treasure in heaven. But, actually, he is amassing a “treasure” of wrath for the judgment day!

Note that Paul isn’t talking here to idolaters or to the sexually immoral. He’s talking to the moral, religious person. Also, the day of wrath points to its certainty. There will be a day of wrath for those who have not repented of their sins, especially the sin of self-righteousness. It’s on God’s calendar. “He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness …” (Acts 17:31). Since it is absolutely certain, we need to be ready for it. How?

The problem that we’ve got to deal with is our hard, unrepentant hearts. The word “stubbornness” (NASB) comes from a Greek word from which we get our word sclerosis. It means spiritual hardening of the heart. Repentance (2:4) is a change of heart and mind that causes us to turn from sin to God, not just outwardly, but on the heart level. It includes sorrow for our sins and the resolve to turn from them. We don’t just do it once, when we come to Christ. Rather, it is the ongoing mark of true conversion. True Christians habitually judge their own sins on the heart (or thought) level, based on the standards of God’s Word. That includes the damnable sin of self-righteousness, which stems from pride. True Christians are marked by broken and contrite hearts before God (Ps. 51:17).

Conclusion

A man complained about the amount of time his family spent in front of the TV. His girls watched cartoons and neglected schoolwork. His wife preferred soap operas to housework. His solution? “As soon as the baseball season’s over, I’m going to pull the plug” (Reader’s Digest, June, 1981, p. 99). How easy it is to fall into this deadly sin of self-righteousness!

God’s solution is to deal with our sins on the heart level before Him. Come to Christ and confess your sins, turning from them, and He will forgive and cleanse you from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). Spend time daily in His Word. It’s like looking in the mirror and applying soap and water to the dirt in your soul. Don’t play games with God. His kindness should lead you to genuine, ongoing repentance.

Application Questions

  1. How open and honest should we be in sharing our own sins? Where do we draw lines of privacy?
  2. Why is judging others sometimes both necessary and right? When is it wrong? How can we know the difference?
  3. Some hesitate to confront another Christian who is in sin because they don’t want to be judgmental. Is this right? What biblical principles apply? See 1 Cor. 5; Gal. 6:1; 2 Tim. 2:24-26.
  4. Should Christians watch movies that contain profanity, violence, and sex scenes? Where do we draw the line? What criteria should we apply?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 10: Judged by Your Deeds (Romans 2:6-11)

During my college years, several of my friends and I knew an attractive coed who was Roman Catholic. She called us her “minister friends,” because we were always talking to her about the gospel. After hours of spiritual conversations, I persuaded her to read the Gospel of John. I told her that as she read, she should ask God to show her how she could have eternal life.

Shortly after that she came up to me beaming and said, “I did as you said. I asked God to show me how to have eternal life, and He did!” I thought, “Yes! She came to John 3:16 and discovered that those who believe in Jesus have eternal life!” But instead, she took me to John 5:28-29, where Jesus says, “… for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” She said, “I will get eternal life if I do good deeds!”

How would you have answered her? That sounds like what Jesus is teaching there. And, it seems to be what Paul is teaching in our text. He says that those who persevere in doing good receive eternal life. Those who do evil will incur God’s wrath. Is salvation by grace through faith alone, as the Reformers insisted? Or is it by grace through faith plus works, as the Roman Catholic Church has taught?

It’s not just an academic question, because your eternal destiny depends on getting it right! Paul damned the Judaizers for perverting the gospel because they added just one biblical “work” (circumcision) to the gospel (Gal. 1:6-9). So we need to get the gospel right. We need to know for sure that when we stand before God for judgment, it will go well. You don’t get a makeup exam!

Our text continues a sentence that begins in verse 5: “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds.” So verses 6-11 elaborate on “the righteous judgment of God.”

Thomas Schreiner (The Law and Its Fulfillment [Baker], p. 190) explains, “The primary purpose of Romans 2 is to prove that the Jews are guilty before God, for they transgressed the revelation they received, just as the Gentiles rejected the revelation they received (1:18-32).” Charles Simeon says that Paul is countering the pervasive Jewish view “that no Jew could perish, except through apostasy or idolatry; and that no Gentile could be saved, but by subjecting himself to the institutions and observances of the Mosaic ritual” (Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible [Zondervan], 15:36).

So Paul is arguing that being Jewish doesn’t get you any special favors come judgment day. In fact, it gets you to the front of the line because you’ve been given more spiritual privileges! We can apply that to being raised in a Christian home in a country where you can readily hear the gospel. If you do not respond to those privileges, they render you more guilty on judgment day than if you had never known the truth. Paul’s point here is:

Since God will impartially judge each person according to his deeds, we must persevere in doing good.

The text follows a chiastic structure (adapted from Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 135):

A. God will judge everyone according to his deeds (2:6).

B. Those who do good will attain eternal life (2:7).

C. Those who do evil will incur wrath (2:8).

C’. Those who do evil will suffer tribulation (2:9).

B’. Those who do good will receive glory (2:10).

A’. God will judge everyone impartially (2:11).

The main point is at the beginning and the end, that God will judge each person impartially according to his deeds (Moo, p. 136). First let’s look at what the text teaches. Then we’ll try to understand how this fits with Paul’s teaching that we are saved by grace through faith alone, apart from our works.

1. Every person will stand before God in judgment.

Hebrew 9:27 makes this point: “… it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” That verse refutes reincarnation. Our text (and every other Scripture that touches on this topic) shows clearly that there are two and only two destinations after death: eternal life or eternal wrath. Some argue that the wicked will be annihilated after a time of punishment. Frankly, that would be an easier view to accept than the eternality of hell. But in Matthew 25:46, Jesus contrasts the punishment of the wicked with the reward of the righteous: “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Eternal is the same word both times. According to Jesus, life is eternal and punishment is eternal. In Romans 2, Paul contrasts these two eternal destinies:

A. Eternal life includes glory, honor, immortality, and peace.

Eternal life means, life pertaining to the age to come, and since that age will not end, it means life that goes on forever (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 117). But also, it refers to the quality of life in the very presence of God. As Jesus prayed (John 17:3), “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” As such, eternal life begins the moment that we come to know God through faith in Jesus Christ. It grows sweeter as we grow to know Him better in this life. But it will be indescribably deepened and forever expanded the moment we step into God’s presence in eternity, free from all sin.

Paul describes this eternal life by four words: glory, honor, and immortality (2:7); and, peace (2:10). Glory refers to the hope of all believers, that we will be transformed into the image of God’s Son, so that God’s glory will be reflected in us (Rom. 5:2; 8:18, 21, 29-30; 9:23; 1 Cor. 2:7; 15:43; 2 Cor. 3:12-18; 4:17; Col. 3:4).

Honor is similar to glory, and focuses on the approval that God will give us in contrast with the scorn that the world gives us now and the eternal disgrace that God will pour out on the wicked (1 Pet. 1:7). To receive honor will be to hear from the Lord Jesus, “Well done, good and faithful slave…. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21). All glory and honor that we receive in heaven we will immediately turn back in praise to the risen Lamb as we sing (Rev. 4:11), “Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed and were created.”

Immortality refers to the hope of the resurrection, when we will receive new bodies that are not subject to disease, aging, and death (1 Cor. 15:42, 50, 52-54). Paul says that those who seek for glory, honor, and immortality receive eternal life (2:7). But in the parallel verse (2:10), he mentions glory and honor, but substitutes peace for immortality.

Peace refers to “peace with God and peace of heart and mind in the full enjoyment of God to all eternity” (John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 67). It is the eternal peace of “deliverance from sin and its conflicts” (James Boice, Romans [Baker], 1:227). These four terms show that as believers, our hope is not in this short life, but in eternal life with God. Thus, as Paul says (Col. 3:1-4), we should be seeking the things above, where Christ is, because when He appears, “then you also will be revealed with Him in glory” (Col. 3:4).

But, Paul also mentions the other eternal destiny:

B. Eternal wrath and indignation include tribulation and distress.

Paul says that the wicked (we will look at their characteristics later) receive “wrath and indignation” from God (2:8), resulting in “tribulation and distress” for them (2:9). Wrath is the usual word for God’s settled and abiding opposition to sin, with the purpose of revenge (R. C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament [Eerdmans], p. 131). God warns (Rom. 12:19), “‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Indignation indicates the more turbulent, boiling agitation of the feelings (ibid.). Wrath, as in Romans 1:18 (same word), is God’s abiding anger towards the ungodly, whereas indignation points to the outbreak of His anger on the day of judgment (Alford, cited by William Newell, Romans Verse by Verse [Moody Press], p. 60, footnote).

Tribulation and distress describe the trauma experienced by those who are the objects of God’s wrath and indignation. Tribulation means “pressure,” and is illustrated by a form of capital punishment in ancient England where the victim had heavy weights placed on his chest to crush him to death (Trench, p. 203). Distress refers to restriction or confinement. It is illustrated by the torture that Queen Elizabeth used on some of her victims, who were placed in a room so small that they could not stand, sit, or lie at full length (Trench, pp. 203-204). Together, Paul uses both words here to describe the eternal punishment for “every soul of man who does evil.” Soul here refers to the entire person. Those in hell will suffer conscious torment “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:9). The Bible consistently uses frightening descriptions of the agonies of hell to warn, “You don’t want to go there!”

Thus Paul clearly says that every person will stand before God in judgment, resulting in either eternal life or eternal wrath.

2. God will impartially judge each person according to his deeds.

Romans 2:6 is a quote from the LXX (Greek OT) of Psalm 62:12 and/or Proverbs 24:12 (English Bible references). There are three things to note about God’s judgment of our deeds:

A. Judgment according to one’s deeds is the uniform teaching of the Bible.

Leon Morris explains (p. 116),

It is the invariable teaching of the Bible and not the peculiar viewpoint of any one writer or group of writers that judgment will be on the basis of works, though salvation is all of grace. Works are important. They are the outward expression of what the person is deep down. In the believer they are the expression of faith, in the unbeliever the expression of unbelief and that whether by way of legalism or antinomianism.

I can’t be exhaustive here, but let me give a few references from both the Old and New Testaments that show this point.

Jeremiah 17:10: “I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds.”

Jeremiah 32:19, the prophet in prayer describes God as “giving to everyone according to his ways and according to the fruit of his deeds.”

Ezekiel 33:20, the Lord says, “O house of Israel, I will judge each of you according to his ways.”

Matthew 16:27, Jesus says, “For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds.”

2 Cor. 5:10, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”

Galatians 6:7-8, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.”

Ephesians 5:6, after describing the evil deeds of the wicked, Paul warns, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.”

Revelation 2:23, after telling how He will judge those who join in the immorality and idolatry of “the woman Jezebel,” the Lord warns the church in Thyatira, “I will give to each one of you according to your deeds.”

Revelation 20:12, at the great white throne judgment, “the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds.”

Revelation 22:12, Jesus says, “Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done.”

(See, also, Job 34:10-12; Ps. 28:4; Jer. 25:14; 51:24; Hos. 12:2; Matt. 25:31-46; John 5:28-29; 1 Cor. 3:8; 2 Cor. 11:15; Eph. 6:8; Col. 1:21-23; 3:5-6, 24; 2 Tim. 4:14.)

So the uniform teaching of Scripture is that God will judge each of us according to our deeds.

B. Judgment will be individual.

“Each person” shows that this is individual judgment, not corporate or national. Paul uses the same phrase in 2 Corinthians 5:10, “each one may be recompensed for his deeds ….” Or, in Matthew 16:27 and in Revelation 22:12, Jesus says He will render to every man according to his deeds.

C. Judgment will be impartial.

This is inherent in the fact that God is a righteous judge. As Abraham pleads with God prior to the destruction of Sodom (Gen. 18:25), “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” Again, there are many verses in both the Old and New Testaments that show that God judges impartially (Deut. 10:17; 2 Chron. 19:7; Job 34:19; Acts 10:34; Gal. 2:6; Eph. 6:9; Col. 3:25; 1 Pet. 1:17). Here, Paul especially is saying to the Jews that they will not get special treatment because of their being children of Abraham (Matt. 3:9). When he says (2:9, 10), “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (= Gentile), he means that the Jews were first in privileges, in that God chose to reveal Himself to them and bring the Savior through them; so they will be first in either judgment or salvation.

In the same way today, growing up in a Christian home gives you greater access to salvation, if you repent of your sins and believe in Christ. But it also exposes you to greater judgment if you neglect this privilege. But the point is, God will impartially judge each person according to his or her deeds.

3. God is the judge who determines whether a person’s deeds are good or evil.

Note how Paul describes the two groups:

A. Those who persevere in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality.

We’ve already looked at the meaning of glory, honor, and immortality. Here I just note that those who persevere in doing good seek these eternal blessings. Perseverance indicates lifelong persistence in the face of opposition, hardship, and discouragement. It isn’t referring to perfection, but rather to direction (seek) over the long haul. It’s a path or journey that one commits to, much as John Bunyan describes Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress. If the pilgrim gets off the path into By-Path Meadow or Doubting Castle, he persists until he gets back on the path to the Celestial City.

B. Those who do evil are selfishly ambitious, disobedient to the truth, and obedient to unrighteousness.

Scholars debate about the meaning of the word translated selfishly ambitious. Most now take it that way, although some think it has the nuance of factious or contentious. Paul lists it as a deed of the flesh (Gal. 5:20), where the NASB renders it, disputes. He also uses it (Phil. 1:17) to describe those who opposed him by proclaiming Christ “out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives.” Whatever the translation, the word points to those who are selfish in their motivation. They do what they do to promote themselves or to feed their pride. They do not live for God’s glory. God will judge not only outward behavior, but also our motives—why we do what we do.

Paul also says (2:8) that they “do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness.” They “do evil” (2:9). They do not submit to God’s Word and seek to please Him by obeying His commands. Rather, they live to please themselves in disregard of God’s Word.

So, at this point the crucial question is, Which path are you on? Are you doing good as you seek for glory, honor, and immortality? Or, are you doing evil as you live for yourself, disobey God’s truth, and obey unrighteousness? Maybe you’re thinking, “I kind of do both, depending on the situation!” But you can’t straddle the line! You can’t go down two roads heading in opposite directions at once. You’ve got to choose the path of righteousness that leads to eternal life and then persevere on that path. So, how do you get on the right path?

4. The way to persevere in doing good is to experience the power of God for salvation through believing the gospel.

Here is where we come to grips with the question, Is Paul contradicting himself? Is he saying here that we’re saved by works? But later, he clearly says that we’re saved by faith (Rom. 3:20-28; 4:4-5; Gal. 3:11; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 3:9; etc.). Which is it?

I assume that Paul was smart enough not to contradict himself in the space of a couple of chapters. He has already said (Rom. 1:16) that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (the same phrase that he uses twice in our text). The power of God that saves us is not anything that sinful people can effect by their works. It is God’s resurrection power by which He imparts new life to those who were dead in their sins (Eph. 1:19; 2:1-6). God speaks and creates light out of darkness. He makes us new creatures (2 Cor. 4:4-6; 5:17). He changes our hearts, giving us new desires. Formerly, we loved the darkness and hated the light, but after God saves us, we hate the darkness and love the light (John 3:20-21; Eph. 5:8-14). By nature, “there is none who seeks for God” (Rom. 3:10). But here we see people who persevere in seeking for glory, honor, and immortality, which can only come from God. What explains the change? They have experienced the power of God in salvation by believing in Jesus Christ.

Genuine saving faith always results in a life of good deeds. Good deeds are not the basis of salvation, but rather the evidence of it. As Paul clearly puts it (Eph. 2:8-10), “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”

Good works do not earn salvation, but they are the essential evidence that a person is on the path to glory, honor, and immortality. We have to lean on God’s grace not only for salvation, but also for perseverance in good works. So we will be judged by our works, which reveal whether our faith in Christ is genuine or mere empty profession. Paul and James say the same thing: your faith is demonstrated by your works.

Conclusion

Two concluding thoughts:

First, to think that that you will get into heaven without good works because you prayed a prayer once or because you claim to believe in Jesus is foolish. Jesus said (Matt. 7:21-23), “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.’” Genuine conversion means that God has changed your heart. If the direction of your life is not to “do good” out of love for God, you need to repent of your sins and trust in Jesus for salvation.

Second, live with your sights on eternity and the hope of hearing “well done” from the Lord who knows your heart. Would you have lived differently last week if your mind had been on that great day when you stand before Christ? Would you have spent your time differently? Would you have treated others differently? If God exists and He promises to reward those who persevere in doing good and to punish those who live selfishly in sin, it is foolish to live for this short life only. Since God will impartially judge each person according to his deeds, persevere in doing good in light of eternity!

Application Questions

  1. How do you explain 2 Cor. 5:10, that we will be recompensed for not only the good, but also the bad, in light of Romans 8:1?
  2. How can a believer gain a more consistent focus on “the things above,” rather than the things on earth (Col. 3:1-4)?
  3. How would you answer a Christian, doubting his salvation, who asks, “How much good do I need to do to prove that my faith is genuine?”
  4. Those in Matthew 7:21-23 who called Jesus “Lord” had done a lot to serve Him. Why did He reject them?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 11: God’s Impartial Judgment (Romans 2:12-16)

If you’ve talked with people about the gospel, you’ve heard the question, “Is God fair to judge those who have never heard about Jesus Christ?” Will they go to hell because they did not believe in Jesus when they never heard of Him? Another variation of the question is, “Won’t those who have done the best that they could do get into heaven?”

In Romans 2:12-16, Paul is establishing the point of verse 11, “For there is no partiality with God.” God will judge everyone with perfect justice. Paul is anticipating a Jewish objection, “But surely God will treat us more favorably than the pagan Gentiles. We know God’s ways as revealed in His Law, but they don’t!” Or, perhaps a Gentile would object, “It’s not fair for God to judge me for disobeying a standard that I knew nothing about! I’ve done the best that I could with what I knew. God won’t judge me, will He?”

So Paul shows that God will impartially judge everyone for sinning against the light that they were given. His line of reasoning goes like this: The Gentile sinned without the Law, so he will perish without the Law. The Jew sinned under the Law and so he will be judged by the Law (2:12). In other words, as verse 6 stated, God “will render to each person according to his deeds.” Hearing the Law isn’t good enough; you must be a doer of the Law (2:13). Although the Gentiles did not have God’s Law, they all have an inner sense of right and wrong (2:14). And, although occasionally they may do what is right, they all have sinned against what they know to be right. Their consciences and thoughts convict them of their guilt (2:15). But whatever they may think of themselves, the day is coming when God will judge not only outward deeds, but also the secrets of men through Jesus Christ, in accordance with the gospel (2:16). To sum up, Paul is saying:

Since God will impartially judge everyone for sinning against what they know to be right, everyone is guilty and thus everyone needs the gospel.

These verses are not easy to interpret and so godly scholars differ on many issues. There are two main views, going back into the verses that we covered in 2:6-11. One camp argues that verses 7, 10, and 13 are hypothetical. That is to say, if anyone actually could persevere in doing good and obeying the Law, he would be saved by his obedience. But no one is able to do it, so no one can be justified by keeping God’s Law (Rom. 3:20). Justification is only through faith in Christ, apart from works (Rom. 4:4-5).

True, says the other camp, but genuine saving faith always results in a life of obedience to God’s Word (Eph. 2:8-10). We are not saved on the basis of our good deeds, but our good deeds necessarily show the validity of our faith (James 2:18-26). Thus while we are saved by faith alone, we will be judged by our works. Because (as we saw last week) this is the consistent teaching of all of Scripture, Paul is not talking here about something hypothetical.

Rather, he is showing that God’s impartial judgment of all people will be on the basis of their works. Those who are doers of God’s Word will be acquitted and go to heaven. Those who disobey God’s Word will be condemned and go to hell. At this point Paul is not looking at how a person enters into a life of obedience, but rather at the results of it. As we saw last time (and will see again today), we can only live in obedience to God if we have experienced the new birth through faith in Christ. Thus verse 13 (as also 2:7 & 10) is not talking about sinless perfection, but rather about direction. Those who live on the path of obedience to God’s Word are those who will be justified at the final judgment.

Let’s trace Paul’s argument verse by verse:

1. God will judge everyone based on the light that they were given (2:12).

“For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law.”

“For” shows that Paul is explaining verse 11, “For there is no partiality with God.” Verse 12 means that God will judge each person according to the light that he was given. The Gentiles, who did not have the Law, will be judged apart from the Law. The Jews, who received God’s Law, will be judged by that Law. But, note carefully: Both groups have sinned and both groups will be judged for their sin. The Gentiles who sinned without the Law will perish, which refers to eternal condemnation. We have to wait until verses 14 & 15 to answer the question, “How could the Gentiles be guilty of sin if they didn’t have the standard of God’s Law to live by?” But the point of verse 12 is that God will judge every person, Gentile or Jew, according to their response to the light that they were given. So God can’t be accused of partiality.

Jesus taught the same thing in a passage that boggles your brain as you try to grasp it. In Matthew 11:20-24 we read:

Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.”

Jesus is saying that there will be degrees of punishment in hell, based on the amount of light that a person has rejected. Those who witnessed Jesus’ miracles and yet rejected Him will be judged more harshly than those in Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, who never heard about Jesus. What is brain-boggling is that Jesus knew how the pagans in those cities would have responded if they had witnessed His miracles. And, in the case of Sodom, He easily could have had the angels who went there to destroy the city perform enough miracles to bring them to faith. But He did not do that! Sodom did not repent and was judged on the basis of the light they rejected. They will spend eternity in hell for their sins. But their judgment will be lighter than that of the people of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, who witnessed Jesus’ miracles, but still rejected Him.

But don’t let this be a fascinating brain-teaser without applying it: How much light have you received? Have you responded to the light you have received by repenting of your sins and trusting in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord? If not, what kind of judgment will you face when you stand before God?

2. Hearing the Law does not justify before God; only doers of the Law will be justified (2:13).

“… for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.”

Paul again uses “for” (see also, 2:11, 12, and 14) to show that he is explaining or proving what he has just said. The Jews boasted in having God’s Law. They heard it read every week in their synagogues. But Paul says, “Hearing it is not enough. Hearing the Law doesn’t put you in God’s favor ahead of the Gentiles, who have not heard the Law. The issue is, doing it. Only those who do God’s Law will be acquitted or justified on judgment day.”

Again, many commentators understand Paul here to be speaking hypothetically, in that no one is able to keep God’s Law perfectly or to earn salvation by good works. As Romans 3:20 says, “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight.” Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18-3:20 is that all have sinned and thus all need God’s saving grace through the gift of His Son, who died to redeem sinners who trust in Him. No one can earn right standing before God by good works.

But, while that is clear, there are reasons to argue that Paul is not talking here about hypothetical perfect obedience, which no one can do, but rather about a direction of obedience, which those who have been born of God’s Spirit do practice consistently.

For one thing, this agrees with the uniform teaching of the Bible, that God will judge everyone impartially by his works (see last week’s sermon). A person’s works reveal the reality of his faith. Works are the inevitable and essential proof of saving faith (Eph. 2:8-10). Paul is not saying that a person earns justification by obedience. Rather, he is describing those who will be justified by God on judgment day. They are doers of the Law. They obey God’s Word as a way of life.

Also, there are biblical examples of those who are doers of the Law (or, God’s Word). In Romans 2:26-27, Paul mentions the physically uncircumcised man who keeps the requirements of God’s Law. He goes on (2:28-29) to specify that he is not talking about outward observance of the Law only, but rather, obedience from the heart. He is describing Gentiles who have been saved by faith and now demonstrate their faith by obedience to God’s Word. In Romans 8:4, Paul says that through the cross (8:3), “the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” In other words, those who have trusted in Christ’s death now walk by the Holy Spirit and thus fulfill God’s Law.

In Luke 1:6, it says of John the Baptist’s parents, Zacharias and Elizabeth, “They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.” This does not mean that they were sinlessly perfect, because Zacharias goes on to sin by not believing the word of the angel that they would have a child in their old age. Nor does it mean that they somehow would earn eternal life by their blameless obedience. Rather, because they had trusted in God and received His mercy, they became consistent doers of the Law. Their deeds proved that they would be justified on judgment day. (In defending this interpretation, I have relied on Frederic Godet, Commentary on Romans [Kregel], pp. 118-122; Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], loc. cit.; Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment [Baker], pp. 179-204; and, John Piper, “There is no Partiality with God” [part 2], on desiringgod.org.)

So, Paul’s argument thus far is that God is not partial to the Jews by giving them the Law, because He will judge everyone based on the light that they were given (2:12); and, hearing the Law only does not justify anyone; we must be doers of the Law (2:13).

3. Those who do not have God’s Law still have an inner sense of right and wrong that condemns them when they violate it (2:14-15).

“For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, …”

Some argue that Paul is referring here to saved Gentiles who obey the Law and thus are justified. Rather, he brings up the Gentiles to show his Jewish readers that having the Law and occasionally obeying it are not enough. So verse 14 explains (“for) the first half of verse 12, that “all who sin without the Law will also perish without the Law.” Even unsaved Gentiles have an inner sense of right and wrong. Sometimes they do what they know to be right. But they often disobey what they know to be right, so that their conscience condemns them. They will be guilty before God on the day when He judges their secret sins (2:16).

Paul is not saying that the Gentiles instinctively know all of the stipulations of the Mosaic Law. Rather, he is pointing out the obvious fact that even pagans, who have had no exposure to God’s revealed Law, have a built-in sense of right and wrong that coincides with God’s Law. He is not referring to the promise of the New Covenant, when God’s Law will be written on the heart of believers (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10). Rather, when he says that “the work of the Law [is] written on their hearts,” he probably means, what the Law does, namely, teaching the difference between right and wrong (H. C. G. Moule, The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges [Cambridge University Press, 1903], p. 71).

Paul is referring to the fact that almost all cultures believe that murder, stealing, rape, assault, etc. are wrong. Treating others as you want to be treated, obeying just laws, and loving your mate and your children are right. C. S. Lewis opens his argument in Mere Christianity [Macmillan, pp. 17ff.] by showing how even pagans have this sense of right and wrong. They all hold to a standard of behavior that they expect others to hold to also.

But, there is a problem: Even though we all have this built-in sense of right and wrong, we all have violated our own standards. When we do, we justify it by various arguments. “I know that I treated him wrongly, but he had it coming!” “I know that I shouldn’t cheat on my taxes, but everyone else does it. Besides, the government wastes so much money. And I’m not a millionaire!” So our conscience and our thoughts go back and forth, either condemning us or trying to defend us. That’s what Paul is describing.

The conscience is not an infallible guide, but we should never go against our conscience. It is not infallible in that it needs to be informed by Scripture, not just by what our culture may think is right or wrong, or by what we may instinctively feel is right or wrong. I have heard of new Christians, for example, who were so influenced by our godless culture, that they had no inner sense that it is wrong for a couple who love one another to have sexual relations outside of marriage. Their conscience was not reliable. It needed to be informed by the unchanging standard of God’s Word.

But Paul’s point is that every culture has standards of right and wrong that often coincide with God’s Law. And every person has a conscience that condemns him when he violates what he knows to be wrong.

To recap, in answer to the objection that God’s judgment is unfair because He gave the Jews the Law, Paul says, “No, God will judge everyone by the light they have been given and sinned against. Hearing the Law is not enough; it is the doers of the Law who will be justified. With the Gentiles, not having the Law is no excuse. They instinctively know what is right and wrong and they all have violated what they know to be right, as their consciences affirm. Finally,

4. On judgment day, God will judge the secrets of everyone through Christ Jesus according to the gospel (2:16).

“… on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Jesus Christ.”

The connection between verses 15 & 16 is not obvious, which has led some to put either verses 13-15 (KJV) or 14-15 (NIV) in parenthesis. Thus they tie verse 16 back either to verse 12 or verse 13. But that is not necessary. The connection is that the present work of the conscience in either accusing or defending the sinner will reach its climax on the final day of judgment, when God will judge even the secrets of men by His righteous standards. Whether a person had God’s Law or not, he will stand guilty before God on that day.

There are several things that we should not miss in verse 16 (C. H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 31:373-384, has an excellent sermon, “Coming Judgment of the Secrets of Men,” from which I modified these points).

First, there will be a certain day of judgment. God has fixed the day (Acts 17:31). If we believe that, we’d better be ready! And if you don’t believe it, that does not mean that it will not happen! Unless Jesus was a liar or mistaken, that day is coming (Matt. 16:27; John 5:22, 24-29).

Second, on that day, God will judge the secrets of everyone. That is a scary thought! God doesn’t just look at our outward deeds. We can put on a pretty good show towards others. We can impress them with our knowledge of the Bible or our prayers or religiosity. But God knows every secret thought we have and private sin that we do. He knows the hidden prideful motives, even when we outwardly serve Him. He knows the lustful glance that no one else sees. He knows every click of the mouse on your computer, even late at night when no one else is around. He sees the seething anger in your heart, even when you camouflage it. Nothing will escape His penetrating gaze on judgment day.

Third, when God judges the secrets of men, it will be through Christ Jesus. Jesus made the astounding claim (John 5:22-23), “For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, so that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father.” There couldn’t be a clearer claim to deity than that! For Christ to sit in judgment on the secrets of all men, He must have infinite knowledge, which only God can have (Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 58).

Also, this means that if you have a picture in your mind of Jesus as being all-loving and never judgmental, then you do not have the biblical picture of Jesus. He described Himself as the judge of all! In Revelation 19:11-15, He returns on a white horse to judge and wage war. His eyes are a flame of fire. He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood. From His mouth comes a sharp sword to strike down the nations. “He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty” (19:15). So if that isn’t your image of Jesus, you need to change your thinking!

Fourth, this final judgment is according to Paul’s gospel. At first glance, this doesn’t sound like good news! But, if there is no judgment for all sin, then there is no need for a Savior and thus no good news (Morris, p. 129; Spurgeon, p. 383). The gospel does not offer you the option of going on in your sin or shrugging it off as if it will not come under judgment if you do not repent. As Spurgeon put it (ibid.), “With deep love to the souls of men, I bear witness to the truth that he who turns not with repentance and faith to Christ, shall go away into punishment as everlasting as the life of the righteous.” We need to understand the bad news of judgment in order to appreciate the good news of salvation through faith in Christ.

Paul calls it “my gospel” both because he had personally owned it and to defend it against critics who accused him of preaching grace to the neglect of good works (Rom. 3:8). Paul is saying that the gospel he preached was in complete harmony with the solemn truth that God will judge the secrets of men. He “will render to each person according to his deeds” (Rom. 2:6).

Conclusion

Spurgeon rightly argues (p. 384) that if we do not preach the coming judgment and wrath of God, we do not preach the gospel at all. We would be like a surgeon who didn’t want to tell his patient that he is ill. He hopes to heal him without his knowing that he was sick. So he flatters him that he is well and the man refuses the cure. Such a doctor would be a murderer. And so are we, if we do not warn people about God’s impartial, certain judgment of our every secret, and then point them to the good news that Christ offers forgiveness to repentant sinners as their only hope.

Application Questions

  1. How would you answer the objection, “What about the heathen who have never heard about Jesus?”
  2. What arguments support that 2:13 is not hypothetical, but rather describes the direction of life of those who are saved?
  3. Why is the conscience not a totally reliable guide? How can we make it more reliable? Should we ever go against our conscience? Why/why not?
  4. Why is it important to emphasize that God will judge our secrets (2:16)? What practical implications does this have?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 12: What Hypocrisy Does (Romans 2:17-24)

A pastor had been preaching on the importance of daily Bible reading. He and his wife were invited for a meal at a parishioner’s home. While there, the pastor’s wife saw a note that the hostess had written on her kitchen calendar: “Pastor/Mrs. for dinner—dust all Bibles” (from Reader’s Digest [March, 1990], p. 129).

Hypocrisy—presenting ourselves as something that we know we’re not—is one of the most subtle and dangerous of sins. Seven times Jesus thundered against the religious leaders of His day, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” (Matt. 23:12, [14], 15, 16, 23, 25, 27, 29; v. 14 is probably not original). He warned the disciples (Luke 12:1), “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” Leaven spreads subtly and pervasively, until the whole lump of dough is affected. So does hypocrisy. It is a perpetual danger for the religious, and especially for religious leaders. It is the root sin that Paul confronts in our text.

From Romans 1:18-3:20, Paul shows why all people need the gospel of God’s righteousness imputed to the believing sinner: because we all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). First (1:18-32), he shows how the pagans who suppress the truth in unrighteousness are guilty before God. Then (2:1-16), he shows how outwardly moral people have violated their own standards and thus are guilty before God. In doing so, he quietly sneaks up on the Jews, who prided themselves on their special standing before God. But he doesn’t mention them by name until verse 17. Up to this point, they have nodded in approval as Paul indicts the Gentiles. But now, he springs the trap on them.

The Jew thought himself exempt from God’s judgment on three grounds: (1) He was a son of Abraham (John 8:33), not a Gentile dog! (2) Unlike the pagans, he had God’s Law, revealed to Moses on the holy mountain. (3) He was circumcised, again in contrast to the defiled Gentiles.

Paul shows how being a Jew by birth cannot save anyone (2:17, 28-29); how having the Law cannot save those who do not keep it (2:17-24); and, how being circumcised in the flesh is of no avail if the circumcised man does not keep the entire Law (2:25-27; this analysis from Alva McClain, Romans: The Gospel of God’s Grace BMH Books], pp. 81-82.)

In our text, Paul mainly focuses on the Law (2:17, 18, 20, 23 [twice]). He is applying the point of 2:13, “it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.” The Jews will not escape God’s righteous judgment because they were Jews and possessed the Law, unless they obeyed the Law, which they did not do. So he exposes their hypocrisy and shows the spiritual devastation of hypocrisy:

Hypocrisy deceives the hypocrite, damages unbelievers, and dishonors God.

If you’ve ever been deceived by a con artist, you know that the reason he got your money is that you didn’t know at the time that you were being deceived. If you had known, you wouldn’t have let him get your money. And, once you find out, you’re embarrassed that it happened, and so you tend to cover it up in order to save face.

Hypocrites don’t get into hypocrisy deliberately by thinking, “I’d like to bring God’s judgment down on myself by being a hypocrite. That sounds like the way to go!” Rather, due to pride, they think, “I want people to respect me. If they knew what I was really like, they wouldn’t respect me. So I need to keep up a good front. Besides, everyone does that to some extent.” So he tries to impress others, forgetting that God examines the heart. He ends up deceiving himself in the worst way. At the heart of this process is this basic principle:

1. Hypocrisy deceives the hypocrite because he knows the truth but doesn’t obey it.

James 1:22 states the principle: “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers, who delude themselves” (emphasis added). These Jews that Paul confronts felt secure before God because of their religious heritage as Jews. They had God’s Law; they could confidently teach it to others. But they were deluded because they were hearers of the Law, but not doers of it.

At the outset, we need to understand that this is not a racial attack on the Jews. Paul was not being anti-Semitic. He himself was a Jew. He loved the Jewish people so much that he said that he would be willing to spend eternity in hell if it meant the salvation of the Jews (Rom. 9:1-3)! Any form of racism against any race is sinful. If we’re honest, as we read Paul’s indictment of the Jews here, we will see ourselves, because we’re all prone to hypocrisy. We all easily fall into the trap of trying to impress others with how spiritual we are, while our hearts are far from God. So we need to apply these verses carefully to our own hearts! Paul shows five ways that the hypocrite is deceived:

A. The hypocrite is deceived because he may know the doctrine of election, but he misapplies it.

Paul first hits the Jew for taking pride in his birth as a Jew (he will hit this further in 2:28-29). When Jesus confronted the Jews with being enslaved to sin, they arrogantly pointed to the fact that they were Abraham’s children and even made the ridiculous statement, we “have never been enslaved to anyone” (John 8:33; see, also, vv. 39, 53). They knew that they were God’s elect, but they grossly misapplied it!

Moses had told the Jews (Deut. 7:6), “For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” But he knew that they were prone to get puffed up with pride, thinking that God chose them because they deserved it. So he goes on to tell them that God didn’t choose them because of anything in them, but rather because of His love and His faithfulness to His covenant promises to their forefathers.

Just as God chose the Jews to be His people, so He chooses us to believe in Christ and be His people (1 Pet. 2:9; Eph. 1:4-5; 1 Thess. 1:4; Rom. 8:29; 9:11-23; 1 Cor. 1:26-30; etc.). He did not do this because He foresaw anything of merit in us, including our faith. Rather, He did it to display His unmerited favor (grace), so that we would glorify Him (Eph. 1:6).

So if you boast in being one of God’s elect, you’ve missed the whole point of the doctrine of election. Knowing that God chose us in spite of our sin should humble us and cause us to glorify Him for His mercy and love.

B. The hypocrite is deceived because he knows God’s commandments, but does not obey them on the heart level.

Paul says of the Jew, you “rely on the Law.” All of the things that Paul mentions in verses 17-20 are good, in and of themselves. There were many advantages to being a Jew (Rom. 3:1-2; 9:4-5). It’s good to rely on God’s Law, if you truly obey it. It’s good to know His will and be morally discerning. The problem was that the Jews relied on the fact that they had received God’s Law as if it would magically protect them, even though they didn’t obey it.

Paul probably had in mind Micah 3:11, where the prophet rebuked the Jewish religious leaders for their sin and then said, “Yet they lean on the Lord saying, ‘Is not the Lord in our midst? Calamity will not come upon us.’” In the LXX, the word “lean upon” is the same rather uncommon Greek verb that Paul uses to say that they “rely on” the Law. So, the Jews in Paul’s day thought that relying on the Law would protect them from judgment, even though they disobeyed it (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 159-160).

Of course, the Jews did obey some of the external requirements of the Law. They were fastidious about ceremonial cleanliness. They meticulously tithed even their table spices. They fasted and prayed at the stipulated times. But Jesus rebuked them because while they honored God with their lips, their hearts were far from Him (Mark 7:6). They knew God’s commandments, but they just kept those that could be seen by men, so that they looked spiritual. They didn’t seek to please God from the heart. Hypocrisy is all about maintaining outward appearances, with no regard to obedience from the heart.

C. The hypocrite is deceived because he boasts in God, not to honor God, but to honor himself.

Paul says (2:17), you “boast in God.” Again, this is a good thing to do in and of itself. Jeremiah says (Jer. 9:23-24), “Thus says the Lord, ‘Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on the earth; for I delight in these things,’ declares the Lord.” Paul says (1 Cor. 1:30-31), “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”

So boasting in the Lord is good, if our aim is to give Him all glory for our salvation. But Paul’s Jewish readers were boasting in God in the sense of elevating themselves above the pagan Gentiles, who did not know God. It was a form of spiritual pride, where they said, “We know the only true God, but you don’t! We’re better than you are!” They were like the super-spiritual faction in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:12). Some were saying, “I am of Paul,” and others, “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas.” But some boasted, “I am of Christ!” They were boasting in God, but not to honor God, but to honor themselves. But they were deceived by their hypocrisy.

D. The hypocrite is deceived because he knows theological fine points, not for the purpose of obedience, but to impress others.

Paul says (2:18), you “know His will and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law.” Again, these are good things in and of themselves. We should be diligent to study God’s Word so that we know His will. His Word teaches us discernment, so that we can approve the things that are essential (or, “excellent,” ESV). This refers to moral discernment. But, as Charles Hodge (Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 61) comments on that phrase, “It was not their moral judgments, but their moral conduct that was in fault.” It is good to be “instructed out of the Law,” that is, God’s Word. Biblical and theological knowledge is a good thing, in that it helps us to know God and His ways as He has revealed Himself.

But the goal of understanding theology is never to be able to win arguments or impress others with our great knowledge. Rather, it should humble our hearts before God and lead us to worship Him more fervently and obey Him more thoroughly.

Then Paul turns to how his Jewish readers applied their spiritual privileges. We learn a final way that hypocrisy deceives us:

E. The hypocrite is deceived because he confidently teaches others, but does not apply the Word to himself.

Paul continues (2:19-20), you “are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth.” God appointed Israel to be “a light to the nations, to open blind eyes” (Isa. 42:6-7). If they had done it with humility, it was a proper thing to do.

But everyone who teaches God’s Word must first apply it to himself. Knowledge without obedience puffs us up with pride (1 Cor. 8:1), which is the root of hypocrisy. Spiritually proud hypocrites who have a lot of knowledge without obedience look down on the blind, foolish, and immature that they teach. But when you apply the truth to yourself first, it humbles you as you realize where you’ve come from and how much you still need to grow. You realize that if God had not graciously shed His light on you, you’d still be in the dark, too!

I once wrote a short article on preaching titled, “The Gospel Boomerang.” I pointed out how preaching is a hazardous occupation. You aim your biblical arrows at your congregation, intending to hit them where they need to change. But you quickly discover that God’s Word is not just an arrow—it’s also a boomerang! It comes back and clobbers the preacher with how he needs to change! As John Calvin said, “It would be better for [the preacher] to break his neck going up into the pulpit if he does not take pains to be the first to follow God” (cited by T. H. L. Parker, Calvin’s Preaching [Westminster/John Knox Press], p. 40). Before we teach others, we need to apply the Word to our own hearts.

That’s what Paul goes on to confront these Jewish teachers with (2:21-22): “You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal? You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?”

Paul’s first two examples are easy enough to understand. Sadly, we’ve all known of preachers who have done what he accuses the Jews of doing. They have preached against stealing, but then it comes out that they were embezzling money from the church. Or, they preached against adultery, but they are exposed for committing that very sin. It happened with the Jewish religious leaders in Paul’s day. It still happens today. Whenever it happens, it’s a spiritual tragedy.

But what does Paul mean when he accuses the Jews of robbing temples? Almost all scholars agree that this does not refer to sacrilege (KJV), but to robbing pagan temples to get the idols or their gold for sale. But we don’t have much evidence from history that the Jews were known for robbing pagan temples. Moses warned the Israelites that when they conquered pagan nations, they must burn the pagan idols with fire and not covet the gold or silver on them (Deut. 7:25). In Acts 19:37, the town clerk who quieted the Ephesian riot, said of Paul and his men, these men “are neither robbers of temples nor blasphemers of our goddess.” So, perhaps the practice was more widespread than we know about.

But it is still a bit puzzling as to why Paul picked these three sins to bring against the Jews. While some Jewish leaders may have been guilty of such flagrant sins, most Jews would probably have said, “Yes, Paul, we agree that those sins are terrible. Shame on anyone who does these things, but we don’t do them.” So why did Paul bring up these sins?

He may have been picking especially shocking sins as examples to argue that the Jews did not keep the Law they possessed and taught (Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], pp. 133-134). He could be saying that although not all Jews did these things, the fact that some do them illustrates that having the Law and teaching it does not spare you from God’s judgment if you don’t practice it. The implication, then, would be, “Maybe you don’t do these sins, but do you keep the whole law? Are you without sin?” (The previous two thoughts are from John Piper, “The Effect of Hypocrisy,” Part 2, Dishonoring God, on desiringgod.org.) Douglas Moo explains (ibid., p. 165), “It is not, then, that all Jews commit these sins, but that these sins are representative of the contradiction between claim and conduct that does pervade Judaism.”

To summarize, Paul is saying that hypocrisy deceives the hypocrite because he knows the truth, but he doesn’t obey it on the heart level. His knowledge feeds his pride, rather than humbles him, because he doesn’t examine his own heart and teach himself first. But, hypocrisy not only deceives the hypocrite. Also,

2. Hypocrisy damages unbelievers.

“For ‘the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,’ just as it is written” (2:24). Paul is citing Isaiah 52:5, where because of Israel’s sin, the nation has been destroyed and the people taken into captivity. Because of their sin, the Gentiles mock their God, who was not, in their minds, able to deliver them. But the real cause of their captivity was not God’s inability to rescue, but rather Israel’s disobedience. It made their God look bad.

The point is, if we tell others that we’re Christians, but we’re living in disobedience to God, unbelievers will mock the Christian faith. If a professing Christian is dishonest in business or immoral in his personal life or abusive towards his family, the world concludes, “Why follow their God? Who needs that kind of life?” And while God is sovereign in saving His elect, humanly speaking, a sinning Christian keeps a needy sinner from the only good news that can save him. We were supposed to be a light to those in darkness (2:19), but we ourselves were in the dark. We may well be the only “Bible” that those in the world around us ever read. Our lives should make them want to know our God.

Hypocrisy deceives the hypocrite and damages unbelievers. Finally, and most seriously, …

3. Hypocrisy dishonors God.

Verse 23 may be a rhetorical question or it may be read as a statement: “You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, you dishonor God.” This is the root sin of all sin, to dishonor or not to glorify God: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). In Romans 1:21, the Jews would have cheered as Paul indicted the Gentiles because they did not honor God or give thanks. But now Paul brings the same charge against the Jews. God chose Israel to be a glory to Him (Isa. 43:7). But by their disobedience, they have failed to honor God. In the same way, God chose us to be “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (Eph. 1:4, 6). But if we disobey His Word, we dishonor Him.

Sometimes, living in obedience to God’s Word is presented as the path to blessing, and it is. If we obeyed God’s Word by loving our wives as Christ loved the church and if we consistently showed God’s kindness and grace toward our children, we would be blessed with happy families. God knows what is best for us and obedience to His Word brings blessing. Disobedience always results in pain and trouble.

But the main reason we should want to obey God is not to be blessed, but rather, to honor Him. The main reason we should fear disobedience is that God’s holy name would be dishonored. He is infinitely worthy of all honor and glory and praise. So we should fear the sin of hypocrisy, of putting a veneer of godliness over disobedient hearts, because we do not want to dishonor the all-glorious God who saved us for His glory.

Conclusion

Since deception is always a tricky thing to overcome, how can we overcome the deception of hypocrisy? There are no slick formulas, but let me offer a few action points:

First, fight daily to maintain reality with God on the heart level. Meet with Him in the Word and in prayer, not to check off that you did your “quiet time,” but to come before Him and expose everything in your heart to Him. Confess your sins and your struggles. Seek His strength. Be aware that He examines your heart (1 Thess. 2:4).

Second, cultivate honesty and humility towards others. Don’t try to impress others with your godliness. Let them know that you are weak, but the Lord is strong. Pick up Stuart Scott’s booklet, “From Pride to Humility” on the book table and go over it often.

Finally, when you read and meditate on the Bible, aim at applying it personally. Ask, “So what? How am I supposed to live in light of this text?” And, if you struggle with a particular sin (anger, lust, greed, etc.), memorize relevant verses to help you apply it. Don’t let the sin of hypocrisy deceive you, damage unbelievers, or dishonor our glorious God!

Application Questions

  1. How can we cultivate the constant sense that Paul had, that God “examines our hearts” (1 Thess. 2:4)?
  2. How honest should you be with others? Should you share all of your struggles? If you don’t, are you being a hypocrite?
  3. How can we cultivate genuine humility and thus avoid hypocrisy?
  4. Why should honoring God, not seeking happiness, be our number one priority? What is practically involved in this?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 13: Ritual Versus Reality (Romans 2:25-29)

Who are the most difficult people to reach with the gospel? I realize that only God can save a soul and that nothing is too difficult for Him. But, from a human standpoint, some types of people seem to be more difficult to bring to saving faith than others are (Luke 18:24-27). The Bible shows us that the most difficult people to reach are religious people who trust in their religion. They relish their rituals and religious traditions. They don’t see their need for a Savior from sin because they view themselves as pretty good people. They think they are right with God because of their religious performance (Luke 18:11-12).

They may be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Baha’i, Mormon, Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant. They can even be Baptists! They think that their performance of their religious rituals will somehow commend them to God. But they lack reality with the living God on the heart level.

Paul knew that the most difficult people to reach with the gospel were not the pagans whom he described in Romans 1:18-32. Like Matthew or Zaccheus (Luke 5:27-32; 19:1-10), the tax collectors, or like the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears (Luke 7:36-50), many obviously wicked people know that they are sinners. They may not be sure that God could ever forgive them. But they welcome that news when they hear it.

But the religious Jews didn’t see themselves as sinners and so they didn’t see any need for a Savior. They trusted in their Jewishness, in their possession of God’s Law, and in their conformity to the prescribed religious rituals, especially circumcision. Why did they need the gospel? Why did they need to get right with God? Didn’t Paul know what kind of people they were?

Yes, Paul knew. He was one of them. At one time, he had taken great pride in his circumcision, his Jewishness, and his zeal for the Jewish religion (Phil. 3:4-6). But he didn’t know Christ. He didn’t have his sins forgiven. He wasn’t reconciled to God. So now he wants his fellow Jews who trusted in their religious rituals to see their need for the gospel. So he hits them with what would have been a shocking argument: the obedient Gentile will fare better on judgment day than the disobedient Jew. Paul is trying to strip every religious person of his religiosity as the basis for acceptance with God, so that he will be driven to the cross of Christ for mercy. He wants us to see that…

Reality with God is not a matter of outward conformity to religious rituals, but rather of obedience that results from God changing your heart.

Paul here hits the first and third reasons why the Jew would claim to have exemption from judgment. The first was, “I am a Jew, a son of Abraham.” Second, “We have the Law given to our chosen nation.” (Paul dealt with that in 2:17-24.) Third, “I have been circumcised, unlike those unclean Gentiles.” But Paul shows that being true Jew and being truly circumcised are not outward matters, but matters of the heart.

1. Reality with God is not a matter of outward conformity to religious rituals (2:25).

“For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision” (2:25).

God instituted the practice of circumcision (the removal of the male foreskin) as a sign of His covenant with Abraham, over 500 years before He gave Moses the Law (see Genesis 17). It symbolized moral purity and separation from the world unto God. Under the Law of Moses, it became a sign of membership in the covenant community. So as a God-ordained ritual, circumcision was of value to the Jews as a reminder of their covenant relationship to God and of the need to be morally set apart to God.

When Paul says that circumcision is of value, he is speaking to the Jews as Jews. When he addresses those who are in Christ, he says (Gal. 5:6), “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.” Circumcision was a Jewish sign of the covenant that ended when Jesus instituted the new covenant. Except for hygienic reasons, it holds no value for believers in Christ.

Also, when Paul says, “circumcision is of value if you practice the Law,” I do not understand him to mean, “if you practice the Law perfectly.” Some think that when Paul mentions keeping the Law in this section (2:25, 26, 27), he is speaking hypothetically of perfect obedience, which no one can do. But I understand him to be referring to a lifestyle of obedience to God’s Law, which is possible for those who have been born again (Luke 1:6; 2:25). For such Jews before the cross, circumcision was of value.

But the perpetual danger of religious rituals, even of those that God commands, is that they become external only. Thus from the earliest times Moses exhorted Israel (Deut. 10:16), “So circumcise your heart….” Later (Deut. 30:6), he again gave the ritual a spiritual meaning when he promised, “The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live.” Later, the prophet Jeremiah preached with similar imagery (Jer. 4:4), “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord and remove the foreskins of your heart, men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or else My wrath will go forth like fire and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds.”

Moses and Jeremiah were making the point that the physical ritual of circumcision had to be accompanied by its spiritual meaning, namely, holiness and obedience to God on the heart level. Without such reality with God, the ritual had lost its essential meaning and was virtually worthless.

But by Paul’s day, the Jews had come to put great stock in the ritual itself. Several of the Jewish rabbis taught that no circumcised man will go to hell (Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 63). So Paul is standing in line with Moses and Jeremiah when he tells the Jews that if they do not obey God’s Law, their “circumcision has become uncircumcision.” They might as well be pagan Gentiles if they lived in disobedience to God. Their circumcision meant nothing.

How do we apply Paul’s words to Christian “rituals”? Do the rituals of the ancient Christian church have spiritual value for us today? Many who were raised in evangelical circles have moved to Episcopal, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox churches because they felt that the rituals and liturgy made them feel closer to God. Are we missing something if we abandon these rituals?

First, we need to be clear that there are only two “rituals” (or “sacraments” or, better, “ordinances”) prescribed in the New Testament: baptism and communion. To add other rituals, or to invest those two rituals with meaning that is not taught in the New Testament, is to worship God falsely. In New Testament terms, every believer is a priest (1 Pet. 2:9), and so we do not need a human priest, dressed in special robes and vestments, offering the sacrifice of the mass or performing rituals on our behalf. Jesus is our high priest and He offered Himself as the complete and final sacrifice for our sins (Heb. 9:11-14; 10:1-14).

Also, the New Testament is clear that being baptized or partaking of communion are of no spiritual value, unless you do them out of faith in Christ. Baptism, whether performed on infants (which I believe is wrong) or on those old enough to understand what it means, does not convey salvation or forgiveness of sins. Neither does partaking of the Lord’s Supper. If the baptized person acts in obedience to Christ as a confession of saving faith in Christ, then baptism is of great value. If we partake of the Lord’s Supper as a reminder of His death on our behalf and of all that that means to us, it, too, is of great value. We should not minimize or abandon these rituals. But there is no spiritual benefit conveyed just by going through these religious rituals, apart from reality with God through faith in Christ. So Paul’s first point is that reality with God is not a matter of outward conformity to religious rituals.

2. Reality with God is a matter of obedience that results from God changing your heart (2:26-29).

At this point, Paul would have shocked his Jewish readers. He makes the point that…

A. God regards obedience that results from a changed heart as righteous, apart from religious ritual (2:26-27).

Paul writes (2:26-27), “So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law?”

He means, “If a Gentile obeys the moral requirements of God’s Law, God will count him as righteous, even though he is uncircumcised!” And, even more shocking, “The obedient, but uncircumcised Gentile some day will condemn you who have the written Law and have been circumcised, but are disobedient to that Law.” He does not mean that obedient Gentiles literally will act as judges against the Jews, but rather that they will “be a witness for the prosecution in the sense that the Gentiles’ obedience will be evidence of what the Jew ought to have been …” (C. E. B. Cranfield, cited by Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 139).

There is debate about who is the uncircumcised man who keeps the requirements of the Law. Is this merely hypothetical? Does Paul mean that no Gentile has ever kept the Law or could do it, but if he could, he would be counted as circumcised and thus condemn the Jew? Or, could Paul be referring to unsaved Gentiles like Cornelius (Acts 10), who were devout, God-fearing men? Or, is he referring to Gentiles who really do obey the Law because God has changed their hearts?

As I’ve already said, it seems to me that Paul is talking about genuinely converted Gentiles, who keep God’s Law because God has circumcised their hearts through faith in Christ. Paul will explain this in verses 28 and 29, where he says that being a true Jew (which means, one who is in right relationship with God) is not a matter of external circumcision, but of internal circumcision of the heart, brought about by the Holy Spirit. Thomas Schreiner (who gives much more support for this point than I can cite here, The Law and Its Fulfillment [Baker], pp. 197-201), states (p. 198), “Paul’s main point in this section is … that no one can be saved and observe the law without the Holy Spirit. Those who have the Spirit are empowered to observe the law (8:4), but one only receives the Spirit by believing in Jesus, whom God has set forth as a propitiation for sin (3:21-26).”

So Paul’s point in 2:26-27 is that God regards obedience that results from a changed heart as righteous, apart from keeping the external ritual of circumcision.

B. Reality with God depends on His Spirit changing your heart, not on the performance of religious rituals (2:28-29).

“For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God” (2:28-29).

Again, this would have been shocking to the Jew of Paul’s day, who took great pride in being a circumcised son of Abraham. The Jews despised the “unclean” Gentiles and took great pride in their Jewish lineage and religious rituals. But they wrongly were concerned more about outward matters than about their hearts before God. As Jesus said (Matt. 23:25), they cleaned the outside of the cup, but inside they were full of sin. So Paul cuts through all of the external privileges and practices and says that the main thing in God’s sight is not the outward, but the inward. Reality with God is a matter of the Holy Spirit changing your heart, not of your performing religious rituals.

Paul uses four somewhat overlapping contrasts to drive home this point: (1) not outward, but inward; (2) not the flesh, but the heart; (3) not the letter, but the Spirit; and, (4) praise not from men, but from God.

(1). Reality with God is not an outward matter, but inward.

Jesus made this point in the Sermon on the Mount when He pointed out that you have committed murder in God’s sight if you’ve been angry with your brother. You’ve committed adultery in God’s sight if you’ve lusted in your heart after a woman, even if you’ve never touched her. God looks on the heart. You can impress people with polished prayers, powerful sermons, generous gifts to the church, and all sorts of religious activities. But all the while you’re impressing people, God is looking at your heart. What was your motive when you did those things? And, what kinds of thoughts were you entertaining? You can take the communion elements while you’re lusting after the girl sitting nearby or while you’re angry with your mate. To have reality with God, you’ve got to focus on the inward. Of course, if you’re right inwardly with God, it will express itself properly in outward deeds. But the outward must begin with the inward.

(2). Reality with God is not a matter of the flesh, but of the heart.

Paul says (in line with Moses and Jeremiah) that true circumcision is not a matter of the flesh, but of the heart. This means that we must deal with sin on the heart or thought level. We must put to death or cut off the deeds of the flesh when they occur in our minds. Paul says (Rom. 8:12-13), “So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

This means that the second you are tempted, turn from it, cry out to God’s Spirit for the strength to run from it, and fill your thoughts with Christ (Rom. 13:14; Col. 3:1-4). If you develop that habit, you will not fulfill the deeds of the flesh by outward sins.

(3). Reality with God is not a matter of trying to keep the letter of the Law in your strength, but of God’s Spirit changing your heart by faith in Christ.

In Ezekiel 36:25-27, God promised a spiritual revival for His sinning people: “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” While those promises will still be fulfilled with the Jews in a future revival (Rom. 11:2-32), they also now apply to all who believe in Christ. Ezekiel was talking about the new birth, which Jesus told the religious Nicodemus he needed (John 3:1-16). Nicodemus’ observance of religious rituals was not enough. He needed God’s Spirit to give him a new heart by faith in Jesus’ death on the cross for his sins.

The “letter-Spirit” contrast is a salvation-historical one (Schreiner, Romans, p. 142; Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 175). The letter refers to the past age of the Law and its many commandments. The problem was, the Law combined with sinful human flesh, resulted in disobedience and death (Rom. 7:5-6; 2 Cor. 3:3-11). The Law by itself did not give the power to obey it. But now that God’s Spirit has been poured out on His people and He has changed our hearts, we are able to obey God from the heart (Rom. 6:17; 8:1-4; 13). Reality with God means that His Spirit has changed your heart so that now you are able joyfully to obey Jesus Christ.

(4). Reality with God means that you do not receive praise from men, but from God.

This refers ultimately to the rewards that we will receive from God when Christ returns. In 1 Corinthians 4:5, Paul says that when the Lord comes, He “will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.”

This means also that those whose hearts the Spirit has circumcised live with a new focus. Rather than seeking to impress others with their religious activities, as the Pharisees did, they seek to please God from the heart. Instead of focusing on what others think of us, we focus on what God thinks of us. As Paul said when he contrasted himself with the Judaizers, who focused on the ritual of physical circumcision (Phil. 3:3), “For we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.”

This final phrase, “his praise is not from men, but from God,” is a word play that the Jews would have picked up on. Although Paul wrote in Greek, his Jewish readers would know that in Hebrew, Jew comes from Judah, meaning, praise (Gen. 29:35; 49:8). So Paul has a double meaning: “his Judaism/praise is not from men, but from God.” In other words, the one who has experienced the circumcision of his heart by the Holy Spirit is the true Jew. He hasn’t just gone through a religious ritual, but he is now pleasing God, who gave him a new heart through faith in Jesus Christ. He isn’t practicing his religion to get the praise of men (Matt. 6:1-6). Rather, he lives before God, so that one day he will hear, “Well done.” His praise will be from God.

Conclusion

If you had asked one of these religious Jews, “Are you going to heaven?” he would have been offended. He would have said, “Of course, I’m going to heaven!” If you had pressed him for the reasons that he was going to heaven, he would have said, “I’m a Jew. I’ve been circumcised.” In other words, he would have had absolute assurance of his salvation, but it was false assurance!

Why should God let you into heaven someday? “I was raised in a Christian home.” That doesn’t matter. “I believe in God and I’ve always gone to church.” Nope! “But, years ago I invited Jesus to be my Savior and was baptized.” But, has God changed your heart so that you now seek to love Him, obey Him, and please Him on the heart level? Do you live to know Christ more deeply? Are you growing in victory over the deeds of the flesh and in habitually displaying the fruit of the Spirit? If your honest answer is, “Well, not really,” you may be into ritual, not reality with God.

In the fall of 1999, I stepped inside of the Orthodox Church at the town square in Timisoara, Romania. The architecture was beautiful. Icons were everywhere. Candles floating in water lit up the dimly lit sanctuary. My eye was drawn to a woman, seductively dressed, who was kneeling before an icon, praying with tears running down her cheeks. A priest with his full beard and long robe walked by and looked approvingly at her. I wanted to grab him by his robe and shout, “Tell her about the blood of Jesus that cleanses from all sin!” The woman was going through the prescribed religious rituals. Only God knows her heart, but my guess was, she didn’t have the reality of knowing Jesus.

Reality with God is not a matter of going through religious rituals or of a general belief in God. Rather, reality with God means having a personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord. Reality with God means that He has changed your heart and you now see the evidence of that change by a lifestyle of obedience to His Word. Don’t substitute religious ritualism for true spiritual reality with the living God! Following religious rituals has never saved anyone. True religion is a matter of God changing your heart.

Application Questions

  1. How can we keep the biblically-prescribed “ritual” of communion from becoming a meaningless repetition? Are we free to abandon rituals that have lost their meaning?
  2. Why does the fallen human heart gravitate towards ritual over reality? What are the spiritual benefits and dangers of rituals?
  3. Jonathan Edwards’ thesis in Religious Affections was that “true religion, in great part, consists of holy affections.” How can we cultivate such “holy affections,” or heartfelt feelings?
  4. Since the fallen human heart is deceitful (Jer. 17:9), how can we guard our hearts so that we walk in reality with God?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 14: Objections Answered (Romans 3:1-8)

If you share the gospel with unbelievers, you will encounter a number of common objections: Why does a good and loving God allow so much suffering in the world? Why is Jesus the only way to God? Will God send good, sincere people from other religions to hell? What about all the people who have lived and died without ever hearing about Jesus? Will they be punished eternally in hell even though they never had the chance to believe? Is this fair? What about all the errors and contradictions in the Bible? What about the contradictions between science and the Bible? Etc.

I gave two messages last summer dealing with these and other objections, so I’m not going to speak directly to these questions today. (See “Witnessing: Answering Questions and Objections,” Parts 1 & 2, June 27 & July 4, 2010, on the church web site.) But our text shows the apostle Paul responding to questions and objections that he anticipated in response to his teaching in chapter 2. These were probably questions that he had often encountered when he preached the gospel in Jewish settings. He knew that religious Jews would challenge his statements (2:28-29) that being a true Jew and being truly circumcised were not external matters, but rather, matters of the heart. His aim is to show that even the most religious of Jews, like the Gentiles, are all under sin and thus need the gospel (3:9-20).

So in rapid fire he raises and answers a series of questions that Jewish critics would have fired at him. If you find it difficult to track with the flow of Paul’s argument in these verses, you’re in good company. Many commentators admit that these are the most difficult verses to interpret in Romans. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: The Righteous Judgment of God [Zondervan], p. 174) says that many say they are not only the most difficult verses in Romans, but also in the whole of Scripture! John Piper devoted an entire sermon on these verses to answer the question, “Why God Inspired Hard Texts” (on desiringgod.org). John Bunyan (cited by William Newell, Romans Verse by Verse [Moody Press], p. 74) composed a little ditty: “Hard texts are nuts—I would not call them cheaters: whose shells do oft times keep them from the eaters.” So to eat the meat of this “nut,” we have to work hard to crack the shell.

First I want to try to explain the text, because we cannot properly apply any Scripture unless we understand what it is saying. Then I will offer some practical applications. First I will give an overview; then we’ll work through the text more carefully.

The first question Paul anticipates in response to his comments that being a Jew or being circumcised physically are not what matter is (3:1), “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision?” These are the same question stated in two ways to correspond to Paul’s assertions in 2:28-29. To paraphrase, Paul’s Jewish readers would have objected, “Paul, if being a physical descendant of Abraham and receiving the sign of circumcision are of no value, then you’re throwing out the entire Old Testament! What good are God’s promises to Abraham? What good was God’s choice of the nation Israel?” Paul replies (3:2), “Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.”

That leads to a second objection (3:3): “What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it?” Does Jewish unbelief negate God’s promises? Paul responds with horror to the thought that God might be unfaithful (3:4): “May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar.” Then he cites David from Psalm 51:4 to show that God is faithful whether He keeps His promises or whether He judges guilty sinners. He is glorified in both instances.

This leads to a third objection (3:5): “But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? (I am speaking in human terms.)” If our sin glorifies God’s righteousness in judgment, then isn’t God unrighteous to punish us for it? Paul apologizes for even stating such an ungodly thought and then adds (3:6), “May it never be! For otherwise, how will God judge the world?”

But the objector isn’t silenced yet. He restates the objection of verse 5 (in 3:7): “But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner?” The absurd idea is, if my sin brings God glory when He judges me, then He should thank me, not judge me! Paul takes it further by alluding to some slanderous charges that had been leveled against his teaching (3:8), “Let us do evil that good may come.” He replies tersely, “Their condemnation is just.”

Now let’s work through this dialogue more carefully. I will paraphrase the critic’s challenge, followed by Paul’s response.

1. “Doesn’t your argument about being a Jew inwardly imply that there is no advantage in being a Jew?” “No, because God entrusted His Word to the Jews.” (3:1-2)

The Jewish critic is saying, “Your view, Paul, takes away all the advantages that the Old Testament promised to the Jews. In effect, you just wiped out the entire Old Testament!” Because of what Paul said in 2:28-29, you would expect him to answer, “You’re right! Being a Jew or being circumcised doesn’t get you anywhere.” But instead, he surprises us by saying, “Great in every respect.” He then says, “First of all,” but he doesn’t list a second or third. Much later (9:4-5), he gives a list: “who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.” All of Romans 9-11 is devoted to answering the question of whether the unbelief of the Jews somehow nullified the promises of God.

But in Romans 3:2, Paul only lists one great advantage of being a Jew: “They were entrusted with the oracles of God.” This refers to the Old Testament as a whole, with special reference to God’s promises of salvation (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 182; Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 149). God had not revealed Himself in this specific way to any other nation on earth (Deut. 4:8; Ps. 147:19-20). God promised through the Jewish prophets, as recorded in the Old Testament, to send the Savior of the world through them (John 4:22). Through the symbolic significance of the Temple and of the laws and sacrifices, the Jews uniquely had God’s revelation about the coming Messiah and Savior. All the other nations were left in spiritual darkness. God entrusted the Jews with His very Word!

This was a great privilege, but also a great responsibility. To have the light of God’s Word and yet to reject it means that you are more accountable than the person who had no light except the general revelation of creation (Rom. 1:20; Matt. 11:21-24). During two thousand years of human history from Abraham to Christ, the pagan nations worshiped their false gods, offering sacrifices to appease their anger, living in fear and confusion, with no hope of salvation. But the Jews knew how to approach the living and true God, maker of heaven and earth. They had His promises to send the Savior. The godly in Israel were looking for the fulfillment of that promise (Luke 2: 25-32). What an unspeakable privilege!

But the fact that many in Israel did not believe in God’s promises of salvation leads to the second objection:

2. “But doesn’t the unbelief of many Jews nullify God’s promises?” “No, Jewish unbelief does not nullify God’s faithfulness to them or His right to judge their sin.” (3:3-4)

“What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written, ‘That You may be justified in Your words, and prevail when You judge’” [most scholars agree that the last verb is active in meaning, in line with Ps. 51:4].

Paul answers this more thoroughly in Romans 9-11, where he shows that the widespread Jewish unbelief did not thwart God’s sovereign election of a remnant. There is still a future widespread conversion of the Jews, when “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26). But here, he first gives some grace to his critics by asking (3:3), what if some did not believe? Actually, most of the Jews did not believe. Only a few were faithful. But Paul probably is being gracious so as not needlessly to offend his Jewish critics.

But then he takes it farther by arguing that even if every person in the world were unfaithful and accused God of being unfaithful to His promises, it would only mean that they all are liars and God is true. God’s faithfulness to His Word is a necessary attribute of His being. If He were not faithful, He would not be God, but a liar. But it is a given that God cannot lie (Titus 1:2). If there seems to be a discrepancy between His promises and what we perceive, the fault always lies with us, not with God. In any contention, He is right, even if the whole world lines up against Him.

Paul backs up his assertion by citing Psalm 51:4, “That You may be justified in Your words, and prevail when You judge.” Psalm 51 is David’s confession and plea for mercy after his sin with Bathsheba. He agrees that God is justified in every word that the prophet Nathan spoke to David about the consequences of his sin. David has no excuses and no grounds to complain. He deserved death, but God mercifully spared his life. But God also pronounced a series of judgments against David. David is saying, “God, You are completely right in Your judgments and I am completely wrong and guilty before You.”

Paul uses this quote to show that God is just as faithful when He judges His people for their sins as He is when He saves them according to His promise. If sinners repent, God mercifully forgives the guilty, but He never treats them unjustly, even if He judges them. We all have sinned many times, so we all deserve His judgment. If He judges the guilty, He does not cease to be faithful to His promises to save those who repent and trust in Him.

At this point, those who object to Paul’s reasoning move into the realm of the ridiculous. They are showing what William Barclay (The Letter to the Romans [Westminster Press], rev. ed., p. 54) calls their “amazing ingenuity” in justifying their sin. But Paul had no doubt heard this objection when he preached in the synagogues:

3. “But if our sin demonstrates God’s righteousness, how can He judge us for it?” Paul replies, “But that argument would mean that God can’t judge even the Gentiles.” (3:5-6)

“But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? (I am speaking in human terms.) May it never be! For otherwise, how will God judge the world?”

To paraphrase: “Paul, if you’re saying that God’s righteousness shines through when He judges us, then He would be wrong to judge us because we would actually be instruments for His glory! How can God judge us for something that He turns to His own advantage?” It’s an outrageous argument, but when people start to rationalize their sin, reason goes out the window, replaced by “amazing ingenuity”!

Paul answers this objection first by apologizing for even stating it (“I am speaking in human terms”). Then he gives the strong negative, “May it never be!” Then he asks a question that he knows his Jewish opponents would not want to concede: “For otherwise, how will God judge the world?” The Jews wanted God to judge the Gentiles for their many gross sins, but they thought that the Jews would get a free pass. But Paul is saying that their line of reasoning would prohibit God’s judgment on anyone. If the sins of the Jews bring God glory and thus should be exempt from His judgment, then the sins of the Gentiles would also merit exemption. Their argument proves too much.

But Paul’s critics are not ready to concede defeat, so they rephrase the objection of verse 5 again in verse 7:

4. “But your teaching, Paul, implies that if my sinning abounds to God’s glory, not only should I not be judged; also, I ought to sin all the more.” “That’s ridiculous! You just hung yourself!” (3:7-8)

Paul shifts here to the first person. Some (John Piper, “Let God Be True Though Every Man a Liar,” on desiringgod.org; the following is my summary) think that Paul is using himself to refute the critic by saying, “Take me, for example. If you think that what I’m teaching here is false, but my lie results in greater glory for God, then how could God judge me?” In other words, “The argument that you’re using to prove that God should not judge you (3:5) applies to me, also. If God shouldn’t judge you for your sin, then neither should He judge me if I’m lying.” Or, Paul may be using the first person to individualize his critics’ argument by bringing it home to the individual’s conscience. In this case, verse 7 should be in quotes, as the critic asks, “But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner?”

Paul adds a logical extension of this retort (3:8), “And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), ‘Let us do evil that good may come’? Their condemnation is just.” In other words, Paul’s critics accused him of teaching that if our sin magnifies God’s grace, then let’s sin a lot so that God will be more glorified! The end justifies the means. But Paul has shown that his critics have just hung themselves. If they accuse Paul of arguing that we should sin more to bring more glory to God, they accuse themselves, because that’s where their excuses for their own sin lead (3:5, 7). So Paul refutes them with a terse, “Their condemnation is just.” Their absurd conclusions reveal that they are under God’s righteous judgment.

Although Paul’s argument in these verses is not easy to follow, his bottom line is pretty clear:

If you contend with God, He will win and you will be condemned.

Paul’s bottom line is, you can raise all the objections you want against God, but in the end, He wins and you lose. You will end up under His just condemnation.

Conclusion

Now (hopefully) that we understand the text, let’s apply it:

1. Spiritual privileges do not give you any advantage with God if you do not respond in faith and obedience; rather, they increase your accountability to God.

Israel as a nation was given amazing spiritual privileges. They were the only nation on earth entrusted with the very words of God. But rather than responding in faith and a life of thankful obedience to God, most of the Jews rebelled against Him and worshiped the idols of the pagan nations around them.

If you grew up in a Christian home, you have an amazing spiritual privilege. Your parents taught you about God and the way of salvation that He provides in Jesus Christ. They took you to a church where you could hear God’s Word explained and applied. But, have you responded with faith in Jesus Christ as your Savior? Have you repented of your sins? Do you seek to walk in obedience to God’s Word? If not, on judgment day growing up in a Christian home will prove not to have been a blessing, but a curse, because it increased your accountability to God.

2. The Bible is a great treasure that God has entrusted to us. Therefore, we should study it and seek to obey it as the only wise way to live.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones applies this point this way (ibid., p. 171): “So the point, therefore, at which you and I start is this: we say, ‘This is no ordinary book, this is the Word of God.’ Do we show that we realize that and what a privilege it is, by reading it, studying it, delving into it, spending our time praying over it?” He continues by saying that we should not just quickly read over a few verses as a matter of custom in the morning before rushing off to more important things. Rather, we should say, “Here God is speaking to me, …” He says that if we really believed that the Bible is God’s direct word to us, we would not spend more time each day reading the newspaper and other things than we do seeking to understand and apply “the oracles of God.”

John Wesley, the great 18th century evangelist, wrote about the Bible (cited by James Boice, Romans: Justification by Faith [Baker], pp. 279-280):

I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God and returning to God, just hovering over the great gulf ’till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing—the way to heaven, how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. For this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God!

If God has entrusted us with His very word, then surely it must be the foundation of our life and the light for our path in this dark world! Do not neglect your Bible!

3. If you are fighting against God, you are fighting a losing battle. The only way to win is to give up and submit to Him.

There are many things in God’s Word that are difficult to understand, such as the doctrine of God’s sovereign election. There are things that are difficult to rejoice in, such as the doctrine of eternal punishment. There are matters that are hard to understand: Why does God allow little children to suffer terrible things? Why does He allow many to live and die with no gospel witness? Why doesn’t God tear down the satanic strongholds of false religions that deceive millions? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t wrestle with these hard issues and try to think them through more carefully.

But, there are two ways to approach these hard matters. You can come as a submissive child, asking the Father to give you more light, so that you will know Him and His ways more accurately, so that you can obey Him more fully. Or, you can come as a critic, demanding that God give you answers, as if He owes it to you.

If you try to prove that you’re right and God is wrong, you’re on thin ice! Even though you may not understand God or His ways, you have no right to contend against Him or accuse Him of wrong. The Book of Job shows that even the most righteous man on the face of the earth has no grounds to contend with God and demand answers, even if he feels that he is suffering unjustly. Learn from Job to slap your hand over your mouth, admit your own insignificance in God’s presence, and repent in dust and ashes (Job 40:4; 42:6). If you fight against God, you lose. If you submit to Him, you win. So wrestle with your questions in a spirit of submission, not defiance.

4. Be careful not to use your questions and objections as an excuse for not repenting of your sin and trusting in Christ.

It’s easier to rationalize sin rather than to repent of it. It’s easy to latch on to some objection about God or the Bible, use that objection to dodge the clear truth of the Bible about Jesus Christ, and then justify your own sin. The Lord Jesus Christ is the centerpiece of God’s Word. If He is true, then every objection against Him is a lie. God will prevail when He judges all sin. Make sure that you have repented of your sin and taken refuge in the Lamb who was slain for sinners! Jesus Christ and Him crucified is God’s final answer to every objection!

Application Questions

  1. Why is it important to approach difficult spiritual questions with a submissive attitude? Does this mean setting aside your reason or logic? Why/why not?
  2. What spiritual privileges has God given to you? How have you responded? Do you need a course correction? How?
  3. When you’re sharing Christ with a person raising objections, how can you know whether he is trying to dodge his sin or whether he is sincere? How should you respond in either case?
  4. Was there any basis for the criticism that Paul taught, “Let us do evil that good may come”? See Rom. 6:1. Does a proper view of God’s grace perhaps open one up to that criticism?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 15: All Under Sin (Romans 3:9-18)

The late well-known preacher Harry Ironside once asked a man after a gospel meeting, “Are you saved, sir?”

“No, I really can’t say I am, but I would like to be.”

“Why would you? Do you realize you are a lost sinner?”

“Oh, of course, we’re all sinners.”

“Ah! But that often means little or nothing. Are you a sinner yourself?”

“Well, I suppose I am, but I’m not what you could call a bad sinner. I am, I think, rather a good one. I always try to do the best I know.”

Ironside went on to tell the man that there was little use in showing him the way of salvation. Good sinners are like honest liars and upright thieves: they are far from ready to admit that they are vile, hell-deserving sinners who need God’s grace to be saved (Illustrations of Bible Truth, H. A. Ironside [Moody Press], p. 71).

Most people view themselves as “good” sinners. They would say, “I know I’m not perfect. I’ve got my share of faults. But I’m not a murderer or terrorist or child molester. I’m a decent person. So, yes, I’m a sinner, but I’m a good sinner.”

“Good” sinners, especially religious ones, are the most difficult to reach with the gospel. They faithfully attend church. They give money to the church. (The stained glass window has a plaque commemorating their generous gift!) They serve on the church board. Their family has been a mainstay in the church for many generations. “Who do you think you are, preacher, to call me a sinner? I’ll get you fired if you keep talking like that!”

But Paul, like Jesus before him (see Matthew 23), talked like that to the most religious people he knew, the Jews. Paul knew that if the Jews trusted in their religiosity and good works, they would not see their need to trust in Jesus as their Savior. If they did not feel the condemnation of their true moral guilt before the holy God, they would not sense their need to be rescued from the coming judgment. Even if they professed to trust in Christ, but thought that He had forgiven them just a little, they would only love Him a little (Luke 7:47).

So as Paul comes to the conclusion of this section showing why everyone needs the gospel, namely, because everyone is under God’s just condemnation, he strings together a number of Old Testament texts to show the Jews (who professed to believe those Scriptures) that he wasn’t making this up. Through machine-gun fire repetition, Paul shows that…

Since all people are under sin, they all need the good news that God has provided a Savior from sin.

First (3:9), he summarizes the charge which he has leveled (1:18-3:8), “that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin.” Then (rallel, Ps. 53:1-3). Scripture also shows that all of us are guilty of sins of speech (3:13-14). Verse 13 quotes from Psalms 5:9 and 140:3. Verse 14 comes from Psalm 10:7. Also, we all have committed sins that destroy harmonious relationships (3:15-17). These verses cite Isaiah 59:7-8. The root cause of our sinful behavior comes back to our relationship with God (3:18): “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (citing Psalm 36:1). The quotations are not in every case verbatim from the LXX, which may mean that Paul was either citing from memory or translating from the Hebrew into Greek. But this rapid-fire string of quotations shows that the Bible clearly establishes that everyone is under sin.

But some may think, “Now wait a minute! I’ve got my faults, but I’m not nearly as bad as this description! I’ve bent the truth at times, but verses 13 & 14 do not describe my speech. And I’ve never murdered anyone as verse 15 alleges. Unlike verse 17, I’m a peaceable man.”

But like the list of sins in 1:29-32, Paul isn’t saying that every sinner does all of these sins all the time. Rather, he is saying that the seeds for all of these sins are planted deeply in every fallen human heart. Through His common grace, God prevents sinners from being as terrible as they would be if He didn’t restrain them. But if you can read this description of human nature and think, “Thank God I’m not like that,” then God has not opened your eyes to the true condition of your heart. As Jesus pointed out, if you have ever been angry with another person, in God’s sight you are a murderer. If you’ve ever lusted, you’re an adulterer. By nature, your heart is “under sin.” If you had been reared in less favorable circumstances and had not met Christ, there is no limit to the sins to which you would be enslaved (see Eph. 4:17-19).

If we don’t understand how bad the disease is, we won’t seek the cure, whether for ourselves or to share with those who outwardly seem to be “good” folks. So let’s examine Paul’s penetrating analysis of sin.

1. All human beings, with no exceptions, are under sin.

Paul begins by summarizing his charge (a legal term; 3:9), “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin.”

Scholars debate how to translate the first three phrases. Without getting into all of the technical arguments, I think that the way the NASB translates it is probably the best: “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all….” But, you still have to determine, who is “we” and who are “they”? Again, without delving into the various arguments, I think it’s best to understand “we” as “we Jews” and “they” as the Gentiles. But, that seems to make Paul contradict in verse 9 what he said in verse 1, that the Jews have many advantages over the Gentiles. But he is considering two different issues. In verse 1 he is saying that there are many spiritual advantages to being born a Jew, if the Jew will take them. But in verse 9 he is coming back to what he argued in 2:17-29, that the Jews are just as much under sin and in need of God’s salvation as the Gentiles are.

And so in verse 9 he restates his charge that the entire human race (“Jews and Greeks”) is under sin. This is the first occurrence of sin in Romans. Paul goes on to use that word nearly 50 times from here through chapter 8. He is charging that both religious people and raw pagans are under sin. Relatively “good” people and rotten scoundrels are under sin. As an ancient Chinese proverb observed, “There are two good men—one is dead and the other is not yet born” (cited by S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. “Studies in Romans: Part IX: The Universality of Sin,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 131:522:164).

Then, to show that he didn’t make up this charge, Paul cites Scripture. Verse 10b, “There is none righteous, not even one.” is not verbatim from Psalm 14:1, which reads, “There is no one who does good” (or, LXX, lit., “kindness”). Paul may be blending Ecclesiastes 7:20, “Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins” with Psalm 14:1.

But whatever the source, verses 10-12 drive home the fact that every human being, without exception, is under sin: “As it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.’”

Paul hammers the lid with so many nails that you cannot pry it open: none righteous; not even one; none who understands, none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one! Paul does not let anyone slip under the radar! We all have sinned.

To be righteous means to be blameless with regard to God and to our fellow man, to live in perfect conformity to God’s law (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: The Righteous Judgment of God [Zondervan], pp. 197-198). So Paul means “that there is not a single person who, apart from God’s justifying grace, can stand as ‘right’ before God” (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 203).

When Paul says (3:9) that all are “under sin,” he means that everyone is under the guilt of sin. This is not to say that everyone feels guilty. A mafia hit man may not feel the slightest twinge of guilt after shooting a man in the face. Afterwards, he goes to dinner with his friends and jokes about the look of horror on the victim’s face just before he blew him away. But although he doesn’t feel guilty, he is truly guilty of murder in God’s sight. To be “under sin” means that we are truly guilty of violating God’s holy law. We will be condemned when we stand before Him for judgment, unless our sins are atoned for through Christ’s blood.

Also, to be “under sin” means that outside of Christ, we are under the power of sin. It dominates our lives so that we obey its lusts. Paul refers to this as being slaves of sin (Rom. 6:6, 16-22). Again, this does not mean that unbelievers are as wicked as they possibly could be. Nor does it mean that they are incapable of being kind or doing good deeds. Rather, in God’s sight and by His perfect standard of righteousness, even their good deeds are as filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). They do them ultimately to exalt self, not to glorify God.

Also, note that being “under sin” means that sin, like a disease, affects their entire being. Acts of sin are the symptoms of the underlying disease. Their understanding or mind is darkened (3:11; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 4:18). Their motivation is warped, so that they do not seek God or fear Him (3:11, 18). Their speech, which comes out of their heart (Matt. 12:34), is corrupt (3:13-14). Their behavior is selfish and destructive (3:15-17). Their entire way of life (“path”) is misdirected (3:16, 17). So all human beings and all parts of all human beings are under sin.

2. Sin negatively affects our relationships with God and with other people.

The two greatest commandments are to love God with all our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-39). Sin sabotages both relationships.

A. Sin negatively affects our relationship with God.

God warned Adam and Eve that in the day they sinned, they would die (Gen. 2:17). This referred to the curse of physical death, but also to spiritual death, being cut off from the life of God in their souls. Since their original sin, the entire human race is born in sin, alienated from the life of God. Hence, no one is born righteous, not even one. No one, apart from God’s saving grace, is able to seek or attain righteousness in God’s sight, because we all sin often in many ways. The assessment of Genesis 6:5 is not limited to the human race just prior to the flood, but is true of all who are outside of Christ: “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

When Paul says (3:11a), “there is none who understands,” he is referring to moral and spiritual understanding (see 1:31; Matt. 13:14, 15, 19, 23, 51). Outside of Christ, our minds are darkened with regard to spiritual truth, as we’ve seen. As Paul explains (1 Cor. 2:14), “But the natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.”

“There is none who seeks for God” (3:11b) means that, apart from God’s drawing the sinner to Himself (John 6:44, 65), none could or would seek for Him. As Jesus said (John 3:19, 20), “Men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.”

Furthermore (3:12a), “All have turned aside.” As Isaiah 53:6 puts it, “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way….” We deliberately tossed aside God’s roadmap to heaven and took what we thought would be a shortcut. But it got us hopelessly lost.

Also (3:12b), “Together they have become useless.” The word useless is used of sour milk or of rotten fruit. Our lives are useless to God because of our sin. Then (3:12c, d) Paul repeats verse 10 with a slight variation, “There is none who does good, there is not even one.” Since “good” in God’s sight means to do what we do for His glory, no one outside of Christ does good. Everything we do before we come to Christ is tainted by the disease of sin.

At the end of this section (3:18), Paul comes back to another sin issue that negatively affects our relationship with God, “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” This is the root problem. Since “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10), the one who does not fear God is a fool. He hasn’t even entered the kindergarten of wise living, because he does not revere God. He does not bow in awe before God’s sovereignty, majesty, and glory. He does not fear God’s judgment on his sins.

Since the fear of God is not “before his eyes,” it means that God is not at the center of his thoughts. The sinner does not live with the awareness that he is accountable to God and dependent on God for all things. He does not think about the fact that God could easily say (Luke 12:20), “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?” Sin negatively affects our relationship with God.

B. Sin negatively affects our relationships with others.

Sin prevents us from obeying the second great commandment, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We’ll look at these destructive behaviors more in just a moment, but here I just want to point out the obvious, that people who use deception and abusive speech (3:13-14) do not have harmonious relationships. People who use anger and threats of violence are on the path of destruction and misery, not on “the path of peace” (3:15-17) They shred harmonious relationships.

3. Sin always has destructive results.

Again, I am stating the obvious, but it needs to be stated. Why do we fall into sin? Because we wrongly think that it will bring us the happiness and satisfaction that we long for. True joy and lasting pleasure is found only in God. As David wrote (Ps. 16:11), “You will make known to me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever.”

But maybe you aren’t experiencing God’s joy and the pleasures of His presence. Maybe you’re in a difficult marriage. You know that you ought to obey God by being faithful to your mate and by loving her as God has commanded. But it’s not easy. Along comes a seductive woman at work who shows an interest in you. She seems as if she will give you the happiness that your wife is not providing. So you give in to temptation, fall into adultery, get a divorce, and marry the new “Ms. Right.” Will you be happy?

Not for long, because sin is like buying stuff on credit. For a short while, you can live like a king. Travel wherever you want, stay in five star hotels, and eat in the finest restaurants. What a great life! But then the bills start coming due, and life isn’t so great anymore! Sin provides short term pleasure, but long term pain. Obedience is often difficult in the short term, but it yields pleasures forever at God’s right hand.

Also, note how sin destroys relationships. Paul (3:13a) describes the throat of sinners as an open grave. The idea is that the stench of a corpse belches out. The person who gets near such a place will be defiled. Also (3:13b), the tongues of the wicked “keep deceiving.” They use smooth speech to beguile you, but all the while they are trying to use you for their own evil advantage. “The poison of asps is under their lips” (3:13c) just waiting to strike and kill their victim. Their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness (3:14). They not only take the Lord’s name in vain, but they use curses to get power over their enemies. They are bitter, unforgiving people. They seek to destroy others, and the result is misery and no peace (3:16-17).

In some cases, sin destroys the sinner himself by driving him to suicide. His sin has alienated him from God and from all human relationships to the point that he loses all hope. He has no peace with God, no peace with others, and no peace in his own soul. In despair, he destroys himself. Sin always has destructive results.

So Paul’s picture of the human race, fallen in sin, is pretty grim. First, he allows no exceptions: all people, even so-called “good” people, are under sin. Second, their sin negatively affects their relationships with God and others. Third, sin always has destructive results. It never gets us where we hope it will take us. It leaves a trail of destruction and misery.

If I stayed strictly with our text, I’d end the message here and say, “Have a great week!” There isn’t much hope in these verses. And, he’s not quite done. Next time, we’ll look at verses 19 & 20, which close his case. But Paul knows that unless you feel the despair of the awful disease of sin, you won’t take the cure. But rather than end on a downer, let’s briefly look at verses 21 and following, where Paul gives us the cure:

4. All people need to hear the good news that God has provided a Savior from sin.

Paul breaks in with one of the great “buts” of Scripture (3:21, 22): “But now apart from the Law [which we could never keep perfectly] the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe.” He is going back to 1:16-17, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’” Or, as we saw, the last phrase may be translated, “But the righteous man by faith shall live.”

The greatest news in the world is that although we all are under sin’s condemnation, by faith in Jesus Christ, who paid the penalty we deserved, we can receive God’s gift of eternal life. As Paul says (Rom. 3:24), “being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” Have you received that gift?

Conclusion

There are modern preachers, some with huge, “successful” churches, who would never preach the message of Romans 3:9-18. It’s too negative. It puts people down. It tears down their self esteem. It makes them feel terrible about themselves. It sounds harsh, not loving.

But Paul knew that the most loving doctor will tell you the truth about your disease. If he knows that you’re terminally ill and he has the cure, but he just hugs you and tells you that you’re wonderful and sends you out the door, he doesn’t love you. Or, if he doesn’t tell you the bad news that you’re terminal, he knows that you would not take the chemotherapy that could cure you. If you don’t think you’re sick, you won’t take the medicine.

In love, God (through Paul) tells you the grim truth: you’re terminal under sin. You’re headed for eternal condemnation. But then He gives you the good news: God will justify the guilty sinner who puts his trust in Jesus Christ and the redemption He secured on the cross. It’s not a dreadful cure, like chemo. It’s a wonderful cure! Believe in Him today and you will be freed from the curse of sin and death!

Application Questions

  1. Why are “good” sinners the most difficult to reach with the gospel? What is their root sin?
  2. If no one can seek for God unless God first seeks him, is it futile to exhort sinners to seek the Lord? Why/why not?
  3. Some professing Christians argue that fearing God is an Old Testament concept, but that the New Testament emphasizes His love. What Scriptures would you use to refute this?
  4. How would you answer someone who claims that his sin (immorality, drugs, lying, etc.) has brought him happiness that he lacked when he tried to obey God?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 16: Why God Gave the Law (Romans 3:19-20)

Have you ever noticed how prone you are to excuse yourself and blame others? This especially comes out when I’m driving. The driver who whizzed past me is a maniac. The granny in front of me holding up traffic by her slow driving is a road hazard. But me? Hey, I drive just right!

The guy who spends less than I do is a tightwad. The guy who spends more is irresponsible. But me? I’m a careful manager of what the Lord gives me.

We chuckle at these examples, but if we go through life justifying ourselves and blaming others, the day will come when we won’t be laughing. We’ll be standing before God, all of our excuses will evaporate, our mouths will be closed, and we will hear the Sovereign Judge pronounce, “Guilty as charged!” At that point, it will be too late to plead for mercy.

As we’ve seen in recent messages, the most difficult people to reach with the gospel are relatively “good” people, especially religious “good” people. They go to church. They are outwardly moral. They take pride in their good deeds. They think, “Sure, I’ve got my faults. Who doesn’t? But, God knows that I’m a basically good person. Criminals and terrorists may deserve hell, but I’m not like they are.” Filled with self-righteousness, they trust in their good works to justify them on judgment day. They don’t see their need for a Savior from sin. And so they never repent of their sins and trust in Jesus Christ.

Paul is like a prosecuting attorney, summing up his case. He’s still aiming at the self-righteous Jews. In Romans 3:9, he sums up his case, “for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin.” Then, to cinch his case with the Jews, he cites from their own Scriptures to prove that there is none righteous, not even one (3:10-18).

But he’s not quite done. Paul realizes that religious, “good” sinners are very difficult to convince of their sin. He knows that they still may be thinking, “The passages you just quoted, Paul, refer only to wicked Jews or to the Gentiles. But I’m a good, law-keeping Jew. Those verses don’t describe me!”

So Paul shows (“we know” appeals to something that is common knowledge, which even the religious Jews would agree with) that the Law speaks to all who are under it. Yes, God’s Law condemns the Gentiles, too, so that “the whole world may become accountable to God.” But the Law speaks to those who are “in the Law” (literal translation), namely, to the Jews. He is showing that their own Law, in which they boasted, condemns them. They will not be justified by the Law unless they have kept it perfectly, which no one has. We can’t expect to be justified by a law that we have only kept occasionally and have broken often. That is his closing argument before resting his case.

But this raises a question: Then why did God give the Law? Paul shows,

God gave the Law to reveal His standard of absolute righteousness to convict us all of our true guilt before Him, so that we would see our need for the gospel.

We all need to understand and apply this text personally, so that we abandon any attempt to justify ourselves. We need to trust in Christ alone. Also, we need to understand these verses so that we can use them to dislodge the propensity of others toward self-righteousness, so that they will see why they need to believe in the gospel. This is by far the most common problem that you will encounter when you talk to others about their need for the Savior. They’re blind towards their own sin. They wrongly think, “God will let me into heaven because I’m a good person.” They can’t imagine how a loving God could damn them eternally for their “few” faults. These verses show God’s standard of absolute righteousness and how that standard will convict everyone who trusts in his own righteousness. To be acquitted, we need the perfect righteousness of the Savior credited to our account (3:21-28).

1. God gave the Law to reveal His standard of absolute righteousness.

When you tell people that they have sinned against the holy God, you will often hear, “God knows that I’ve done the best that I could. I believe in the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. I try to live by the Sermon on the Mount.” They seem to think that if you try to do your best, even if you fail thousands of times, God will let you off on judgment day. He will reward your effort, not penalize your failures. Besides, if He demanded perfection, no one could be saved! Precisely!

But James 2:10 points out, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” We don’t like to admit this, but if you think about it, you have to admit it. If a man stole your credit card and used it to buy thousands of dollars of purchases, he is guilty of stealing. What would you think if, when he came to trial, he argued, “But judge, I didn’t commit adultery with his wife”? “I didn’t steal his car or burn down his house. I didn’t lie to him. I didn’t molest his children. And, besides, I try to live by the Golden Rule. I do the best that I can.” All of that is irrelevant to the main issue: “Did you steal his credit card and use it to buy thousands of dollars of goods?” If so, he is guilty in spite of all the other bad things he didn’t do and in spite of all the good things that he may be doing. He’s a law-breaker.

Let’s look for a moment at the absolute righteousness of God’s Law (Paul means the whole Old Testament), which gives us “the knowledge of sin” (3:20).

A. The two great commandments sum up God’s absolute standard.

Jesus said (Matt. 22:37-40) that the entire Law rests on the two great commandments: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

Who can possibly claim even to have come close to keeping the first great commandment? Have you, from your earliest memory, always loved God completely, with all your heart, soul, and mind, every day all day long? This would mean that you have always obeyed Him, because if you don’t obey Him, you don’t love Him. It would mean that He always has been the center of your waking thoughts. His will has been at the center of every decision that you have made. His glory has been your supreme desire and aim in whatever you think, say or do. You begin every day by worshiping Him. You love His Word more than food and meditate on it day and night. Who in his right mind can say, “You’ve just described me”?

We don’t fare any better on the second great commandment, to love our neighbor just as much as we in fact love ourselves. Did you always gladly share your toys as a toddler? In school, did you always put others ahead of yourself? Have you given generously and sacrificially to help the needy? Have you always put your mate’s needs ahead of your own? Have you always treated your children with love and kindness, even when they were disobedient? At work, did you rejoice when your co-worker got the promotion that you thought you deserved? Again, who in his right mind can say, “You’ve just described me”? What about the Ten Commandments?

B. The Ten Commandments elaborate on the two great commandments.

Surveys have shown that even though many people say that they try to live by the Ten Commandments, few can name them all. So it’s hard to imagine how anyone can keep commandments that he doesn’t even know! The Ten Commandments are found in Exodus 20:1-17 (also, Deut. 5:6-21). The first four commandments elaborate on our love for God. (1) “You shall have no other gods before Me.” (2) “You shall not make for yourself an idol….” (3) “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain….” (4) Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy….”

There is a debate about whether Christians under the New Covenant are under the Ten Commandments and especially about how the sabbath command applies to believers in Christ. But all of the Ten Commandments, except for the sabbath command, can be found in the New Testament. So even if we say that you are free to watch a football game on Sunday afternoon, have you perfectly kept the first three commandments? “Yes, I’ve never had any other gods before the Lord, or made or worshiped any idols.” Really? You’ve never usurped God’s rightful lordship over your life? You’ve never put your money or possessions or some pastime ahead of the place that belongs to God alone? And, you didn’t mention the third command. Have you never carelessly said, “Oh, my God”? Or, “Oh, Jeez”? Most of us have said far worse in a moment of anger!

Skipping how you have violated the Lord’s Day, let’s move on to the other six, which focus on your love for others: (5) “Honor your father and mother.” (6) “You shall not murder.” (7) “You shall not commit adultery.” (8) “You shall not steal.” (9) You shall not bear false witness….” (10) “You shall not covet….”

None of us have made it through childhood by always honoring our parents. As for murder and adultery, let’s wait until we come to the Sermon on the Mount. But, what about stealing? Have you never taken what does not belong to you? Have you always claimed all of your income on your tax forms and never fudged on a deduction? What about lying? Have you always told the truth, even if it made you look bad? And have you never coveted something that belongs to someone else?

“But I’m a Christian. I try to follow Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.” Really? You just jumped from the frying pan into the fire!

C. The Sermon on the Mount reveals that God judges us on the heart level, not just on external obedience.

As I just alluded to, Jesus brought up the command about murder. While the self-righteous Pharisees were congratulating themselves that they had never killed anyone, Jesus nailed them (and us!) by saying that if you’ve ever been angry with your brother, you’re guilty of murder in God’s sight and deserving of “the fiery hell” (Matt. 5:21-22). He did the same thing regarding the seventh commandment against adultery. He said that if you’ve ever lusted in your heart after a woman, you’re guilty of adultery (Matt. 5:27-30). He sums up the requirement (Matt. 5:48): “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” How can anyone claim, “I keep the Sermon on the Mount”?

The so-called Golden Rule is a part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:12), “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Again, it’s a noble goal, but who can claim that they’ve done it perfectly? If you say that you have, you just broke the commandment about lying!

So Paul’s point is that God’s Law reveals His standard of absolute righteousness. As a result,

2. God’s Law convicts us all of our true moral guilt before Him.

This is Paul’s point when he says (3:19b-20), “so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.”

These verses re-emphasize the universality of sin, which verses 10-12 established so forcefully. Paul makes three points:

A. The Law closes every mouth.

The picture is of an accused person standing before the judge to present his case. But in this case, the judge is the Sovereign, holy God, creator of heaven and earth! Here comes the proud atheist, who wrote books arguing that God is not great or that He is a delusion. What will he say when he stands before the blinding glory of the holy God? Nothing! His mouth will be stopped. He has no more arguments.

Or, here is the person who often complained about how unfair God is. If He were a God of love and power, He would not allow all of the suffering that we see in this world. If He would just run the universe differently (as I would!), it would be a much happier place. Now he stands before the Almighty. What does he say? Nothing! He has no defense.

Even godly men have had their down times, when they questioned God. God allowed Satan to attack the righteous Job by taking his possessions, killing his ten children, and then covering his body with painful boils. Job wanted to argue his case before God that he was being dealt with unfairly. But when God appeared and gave Job a glimpse of His power and wisdom, Job’s response was to slap his hand over his mouth, to be silent, and to repent in dust and ashes (Job 40:4-5; 42:6). Isaiah (Isa. 6:1-5), Habakkuk (Hab. 3:16), and the apostle John (Rev. 1:17) were also silenced when they got a glimpse of the glory of the Lord. The point is, when you stand for judgment before God on His throne, you won’t have anything to say. Every mouth will be closed.

I read about a woman who got a traffic ticket. She was guilty, but she thought that she had some excuses that might get the charges dropped, so she arranged to argue her case before the judge. In her mind, she imagined how the judge would ask if she was guilty. She would say, “Yes, but I want to explain why.” She would proceed to convince the judge that what she did could hardly be avoided and so the ticket should be excused. She had her argument ready.

“But,” she said, “when I came into that court and stood up there all alone, and the judge was on the bench, dressed in his black robe, and he looked over his glasses at me and said, ‘Guilty or not guilty,’ all my arguments faded.” Her mouth was stopped.

If that happened in a traffic court with a human judge, how much more will we be silenced when we stand before the Sovereign of the universe! Martyn Lloyd-Jones observed (Romans: Atonement and Justification [Zondervan], p. 19), “You are not a Christian unless you have been made speechless! How do you know whether you are a Christian or not? It is that you ‘stop talking.’”

B. The Law makes us all accountable to God.

“Accountable” is a legal term that occurs only here in the New Testament. It means that we are guilty and liable for punishment. It’s not that we are accountable in a human court, but to God Himself! He knows every evil thought that we’ve entertained. He knows every secret sin that we’ve committed. All things are open and laid bare before Him (Heb. 4:13). We’ve all broken His holy Law, not just a few times, but thousands and thousands of times. How could we possibly hope that all charges will be dropped?

But, you may wonder, how can the whole world be accountable to God through the Law, since it was only given to the Jews? Paul has already pointed out that even the Gentiles, who did not have the Law, had the work of the Law written in their hearts and consciences (2:15). But here, Paul does not seem to be referring to that, but to the Law that God gave in written form to the Jews. He is arguing from the greater to the lesser: If the Jews, who were God’s covenantal people, could not even keep His Law, then it follows that no one else could keep it either. The failure of the Gentiles is obvious (1:18-32), but here Paul is indicting the self-righteous Jews. If they are guilty, then the whole world is also accountable to God. None will escape His judgment.

C. Keeping the Law cannot be the way to justification.

Back in 2:13, Paul said, “It is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.” As I explained when we studied that verse, some understand it in a hypothetical sense, that if anyone can keep the Law, he will be justified, but none can. Others (and I lean this way) say that in the context there, Paul was not speaking of hypothetical perfect obedience, but rather to the general obedience that some, by God’s saving grace, are able to perform. He was not looking at the front end of how one attains justification, but at the pattern of life of those who have been justified by faith.

But here Paul is looking at how one attains justification in the first place. It is not earned by keeping the Law, because no one can keep it perfectly. If we could earn right standing with God by our perfect obedience to God’s Law, salvation would not be by grace alone and we then could boast. Nothing that we do by way of obedience (here called, “the works of the Law”) will ever be good enough, because we all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (3:23). As we’ve seen, God gave the Law to reveal His standard of absolute righteousness, not to be the way of salvation. J. B. Phillips (The New Testament in Modern English [Geoffrey Bles], p. 314) paraphrases the last clause of verse 20, “it is the straight-edge of the Law that shows us how crooked we are.” Thus,

3. Our utter failure to keep God’s Law should drive us to the gospel for salvation.

Paul has been laying the foundation for this point from 1:18 through 3:20. We will study it in 3:21-28, but briefly notice (3:21-22): “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe.” As he goes on to say (3:24), we are “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” That’s the greatest news in the world: Even though we are all guilty of breaking God’s Law, He offers a pardon to all that trust in Jesus and His substitutionary death on the cross!

Conclusion

Years ago, Donald Grey Barnhouse, the pastor for many years of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, used to ask those with whom he shared the gospel, “When you die and God asks, ‘What right do you have to come into my heaven?’ what will your answer be?” He was trying to get people to understand that their only right to heaven had to be that they were trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ and His death on the cross to pay for their sins.

On one occasion, an Arthur Murray dance instructor had been out late on a Saturday night. In the early hours of the morning, he stumbled back to his hotel room and fell into bed. The next morning, he was jolted awake by his clock radio, where the speaker asked, “If in the next few moments some great disaster should happen and you should be killed and if you should find yourself before God and he should ask you, ‘What right do you have to come into my heaven?’ what would you say?”

The question amazed and confounded the dance instructor. He had never heard such a question before. He realized that he didn’t have an answer. His mouth was stopped. He sat silently on the edge of his bed while the speaker, Dr. Barnhouse, explained the answer. The dance instructor put his trust in Jesus Christ that day in his hotel room.

His name was D. James Kennedy. He went on to become the pastor for many years of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He also developed the Evangelism Explosion program that has led thousands to Christ by asking that question: “If you were to die today and God asked you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ what would you say?” (This story related by James Boice, Romans [Baker], 1:326-327.)

“Lord, I’ve tried to be a good person; I’ve done my best to keep the Golden Rule,” won’t cut it. “Lord, I’m a guilty sinner, but I put my trust in Your Son Jesus who died to pay my penalty,” is the only answer that will be accepted. Make sure that your trust is in Christ alone!

Application Questions

  1. Someone asks you, “Is God fair to punish sincere, relatively “good” people forever in hell?” How would you answer?
  2. Is it enough to explain in general terms that we all have sinned? How can we properly use God’s Law to show lost people their true guilt before God?
  3. Can a person be saved by believing in Christ as one who will give them a better life, without realizing his guilt? Or, must he be convicted of sin before he can trust in Christ as Savior?
  4. An atheist tells you, “I don’t believe in God and so I don’t believe that I will face Him in judgment.” How would you answer him?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 17: How Can I Be Right With God? (Romans 3:21-24)

Marla and I spent the infamous Y2K, when the calendar turned to January 1, 2000, in a remote village in the Czech Republic, ministering to a group of college students. One day during a break, we were walking around the village when we met a friendly local man, who took us on a nice hike and showed us around town. We told him what we were doing there.

The next day, I was in the middle of a question and answer time with the students when someone ushered in this man. He raised his hand and asked, “What is the difference between Christianity and the other religions of the world?” I thought, “What an opportunity! I get to share the gospel with this man, plus all of these students can listen as I do it!”

I then explained that all religions, including some Christian ones, such as Roman Catholicism (the Czech Republic used to be mainly Catholic, but now is largely atheist), believe that the way a person gets right with God is through good works. Every religion is man’s effort to be reconciled to God by earning His favor. But biblical Christianity is God’s reconciling sinful man to Himself apart from our good works. God sent His eternal Son to pay the penalty that we deserve so that we can be right with Him through grace alone by trusting in Jesus Christ.

I don’t know whether God used my words to open that man’s heart to the truth or not. His English was broken enough that I was not able to follow through with him via email. But his question was a vital one that leads to what is the most important question that any person can ever ask: How can I be right with God? Or, more specifically: How can a sinner such as I be right with God, who is absolutely righteous?

This is the question that Paul finally answers in our text and the following verses. I say finally because from Romans 1:18-3:20, Paul forcefully drives home the point that all people, whether the pagan Gentiles or the religious Jews, are under sin. He spent so long on that subject, especially hitting the religious Jews with their self-righteousness, because he knew that unless we feel the weight of our own sin and condemnation, we will not appreciate our need for the gospel. We need to understand the bad news before we will welcome the good news.

Paul had referred to the gospel in Romans 1:16-17, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’” Now, he comes back to that theme, mentioning “the righteousness of God” being “manifested,” that there is “no distinction” (between Jew and Greek), and the need for everyone to come to faith in Jesus Christ.

Coming after the inescapable condemnation of 1:18-3:20, “But now” is one of the greatest contrasts in the Bible. He uses the same phrase later when he contrasts our past as slaves of sin, headed for death (ving been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.” He is fond of making this same dramatic contrast in other places, also (1 Cor. 15:20; Eph. 2:4, 13; Col. 1:22). Martyn Lloyd-Jones points out (Romans: Atonement and Justification [Zondervan], pp. 24-25), “No man can be a Christian without realizing his utter hopelessness.” He goes on to say (p. 26) that the answer to whether you are a Christian or not hinges on your answer to this question, “Is there a ‘But now’ in your experience?”

In our text, Paul answers the age-old question asked several times in the Book of Job (4:17; 9:2; 25:4), “How can a person be right with God?” This is such a profound text that Leon Morris (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 173) calls verses 21-26, “possibly the most important single paragraph ever written.” Alva McClain (Romans: The Gospel of God’s Grace [BMH Books], p. 101) says that if he could only have six verses out of the entire Bible, it would be Romans 3:21-26. Lloyd-Jones (p. 31) says, “It is no exaggeration to say of this section that it is one of the greatest and most important sections in the whole of Scripture.” These and other similar comments make me feel wholly inadequate to preach on it! We desperately need the help of the Holy Spirit to understand and apply these crucial verses!

Paul shows here that if salvation depends on our works, we face two impossible barriers: the righteousness and glory of God. How can we who have sinned be reconciled to the righteous God of all glory? How can we who have dishonored Him enter His holy presence? The great news is:

Sinners can be right with God through faith in Jesus Christ and His gracious sacrifice to redeem us.

It is crucial to understand three main things in our text:

1. We all need to be right with God because we all have sinned and fall short of His glory.

After spending two and a half chapters hammering home this point, why does Paul bring it up again? He writes (3:22b-23), “for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” He says it again because he knows how prone we all are, especially those of us from religious backgrounds, to minimize our sin and to justify ourselves by our good deeds. But …

A. The main issue that we all must face is how to be right with a righteous God.

When we present the gospel, we’re apt to talk about God’s love and mercy. But Paul is mainly concerned here to talk about God’s righteousness and our sin, or lack of righteousness. He mentions righteousness in verses 21, 22, 25, and 26, plus “justify” in 24 and 26, and “just” in v. 26. In Greek, all of these words come from the same word root. God’s righteousness refers to His absolute holiness or separateness from all sin and all that is wrong. But in this context, Paul is especially referring to how sinners may be justified or declared righteous in God’s sight (3:20).

“But now” (3:21) certainly must be applied personally as Dr. Lloyd-Jones brought out, but in the context, it refers to the contrast in salvation history between the era of the Law of Moses and the grace that comes through Jesus Christ. As we saw in our last study, God’s Law is not able to justify us. Rather, it condemns us by pointing out the many ways in which we have violated God’s holy standard. Since we’re all guilty of breaking God’s Law, we all must face the crucial question, “How can I get right with the righteous God in view of my many sins?”

B. Both pagans and the religious have sinned and need to be right with God.

When Paul says (3:22b) “for there is no distinction,” he means, “no distinction between Jew and Gentile.” The religious Jews would have agreed wholeheartedly with Paul that the Gentiles are under sin, but he has labored through chapters 2 and 3 to show that even the carefully religious Jew is guilty of not keeping God’s holy Law. When Paul says, “all have sinned,” he uses the Greek aorist tense. This leads some commentators to argue that he is referring to our identification with Adam in his original sin (in 5:12 he uses the same tense), which may be true. But the aorist tense may also be used to look at the fact or reality of the action itself (“constative” aorist). So Paul means, “Look around, look at yourself, and you will see that all without exception have sinned.” “Fall short” is in the present tense, meaning, we are consistently sinning and falling short of (or, lacking) God’s glory.

C. The essence of sin is to fall short of God’s glory.

What does this mean? John Piper (The Pleasures of God [Multnomah Publishers], revised and expanded edition, p. 158, note 1) explains that we were created to reflect God’s glory. He says, “We reflect his glory as we cherish it and keep it ever before us and make it the treasure and the goal of our lives.” Then he refers to Romans 1:23, where Paul says that sinners “exchanged the glory” of God for idols. He continues,

Thus we have traded treasures. We prefer other things in life to the delights of seeing and knowing the God of glory. This is the sense in which we “lack” the glory of God. We lack it as the treasure of our lives. We lack it as our passion and goal. We lack it as our all-satisfying vision. This is the essence of sin: preferring other things to the glory of God.

Of course, this is bad news, as we’ve seen. We “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But, there is a hint of good news even in Paul’s stating this bad news. If God’s Law condemns us all as sinners, how can we possibly get around it and get right with God?

2. Sinners can be right with God apart from the Law.

“But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets” (3:21). As we’ve seen, the Law cannot put anyone in a right relationship with God. Rather, the Law reveals God’s holy standard, which convicts and condemns us for our sin.

But this new way of gaining right standing with God is apart from the Law. He means, it is apart from keeping the Law perfectly as an attempt to be right with Him. It is a completely different approach. But then, is it in opposition to the Law? No, it is “witnessed by the Law and the Prophets” (which means, the whole Old Testament). Paul adds this phrase to show his Jewish readers that he is not overthrowing the Scriptures. He reinforces this in 3:31 when he says, “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.”

He goes on to illustrate this in chapter 4 with the example of Abraham, who was justified by faith, not by his works. He backs this up with Psalm 32, where David exults in “the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works” (4:6). So we would be mistaken if we thought that the Old Testament taught that sinners get right with God by keeping the Law, whereas the New Testament overthrows that and says that we get right with God by faith. In the Old Testament, God credited His righteousness to sinners who by faith looked ahead to the promised Savior. In the New Testament, that Savior has been revealed and has given Himself as the sacrifice for sinners.

To paraphrase Paul’s flow of thought here (3:20-24), “Trying to keep God’s Law will not get anyone into right standing with Him. Rather, the Law just shows us how sinful we are. So now, apart from the Law, but in line with what both the Law and the Prophets pointed to, God declares sinners righteous when they believe in His final sacrifice for sins, Jesus Christ.” That leads to…

3. All sinners can be right with God through His free grace by trusting in Jesus Christ and the redemption in Him.

Since “all have sinned,” it would be pointless for Paul to write about a way of being right with God that did not apply to all sinners. But, ironically, it is those who do not see themselves as sinners who miss God’s way of righteousness. If you don’t think you’re sick, you won’t go to the doctor or take the medicine. We have to accept the diagnosis that we’re sinners before we will welcome the cure of God’s free grace in Christ.

To understand this good news is both simple and yet profound. It’s easy enough for a child to grasp and yet deep enough to evoke thousands of pages of deep theology. In these and the following verses Paul uses some important theological words. In verses 21-24, we need to understand four terms: justification; free grace; redemption; and, faith.

A. To be justified means that God declares us to be righteous.

To justify does not mean to make someone righteous, but to declare him to be righteous. It is a forensic or legal term that means to obtain the verdict of acquittal. Charles Hodge defined it (Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 102), “Justification is pronouncing one to be just, and treating him accordingly, on the ground that the demands of the law have been satisfied concerning him.” For example, Deuteronomy 25:1 talks about judges deciding a case where “they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked.” They pronounced the verdict, “not guilty,” on the righteous and “guilty” on the wicked. They did not make the accused righteous or wicked. Rather, they pronounced them to be such.

In Romans 3:24, the verb is passive. It is something that God does to us, not something that we do for ourselves. It is not a process, but a judicial action. The process of becoming righteous in character and behavior follows the judicial act of God declaring us to be righteous.

B. God justifies sinners freely by His grace.

Note (3:24), “being justified as a gift by His grace ….” The single Greek word translated “as a gift” means, “freely.” Jesus used it to say (John 15:25), “They hated Me without a cause.” Read that sense into Romans 3:24, “being justified without a cause.” Paul uses the word to say that he did not eat anyone’s food “without paying for it” (2 Thess. 3:8). Again, we can say that we are justified “without paying for it.” It is used in Revelation 22:17, where the thirsty soul is encouraged to “take the water of life without cost.” We are justified “without cost.” It’s completely free!

As if that word alone were not enough to convey this astounding news, Paul adds one of his favorite words (which should be your favorite word, also!), “by His grace.” Grace is God’s favor shown to those who deserved His wrath. It is completely unmerited. You can see this by looking at Romans 4:4, “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due.” The word translated “favor” is the Greek word, “grace.” When you work, you don’t get grace; you get wages. Your boss owes it to you and he must pay you or you can file legal charges against him. But grace is the opposite of working and receiving what you’re owed. With grace, you get undeserved favor. You deserved to get fired because you messed up, but your boss gave you a huge bonus instead. That’s grace. God justifies sinners who deserve His wrath freely by His grace. The bonus is eternal life!

That’s terrific news if you are the guilty sinner who is declared innocent freely because of grace. But, frankly, it doesn’t seem right! If an earthly judge declares a guilty murderer “not guilty” and in addition awards him a healthy judgment and then says, “I wanted to give him what he did not deserve,” we would say, “That’s unjust!” So how can God be just when He declares guilty sinners to be justified when they don’t deserve it?

C. God justifies sinners through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.

“Redemption” means to buy something back by the payment of a price, or to release someone by the payment of a ransom (see Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross [Eerdmans], for an in depth study of redemption, justification, and other biblical terms for salvation). In Paul’s day it referred to freeing prisoners of war and slaves by paying the required price (Morris, pp. 12-13). Jesus used the word “ransom” (which is the root for the word “redemption”) in Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Through His death, Jesus paid the price or penalty that God righteously imposed for our sins. Thus God’s justice was satisfied. Jesus was our substitute, paying what we should have paid, so that we go free at His great expense. Thus, justification is completely free for us, but it was costly to Jesus who redeemed us with His own blood.

In the Old Testament, the chief picture of redemption was Israel’s being freed from slavery in Egypt. To avoid the deaths of their firstborn sons, the Jews had to kill a lamb and place its blood on the doorposts and lintel of their houses. God saw the blood and passed over those homes. Jesus is our Passover lamb, slain to redeem us from our slavery to sin. He paid the price that God required. In that way, God can be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26). That leads to the last word, “faith” (or “believe”). This word is the key to the question, “How can I be right with God?”

D. God justifies sinners through faith in Jesus Christ.

Paul says (3:22a), “even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” (The KJV adds the phrase “and on all”; but most commentators agree that it is not original.) Scholars debate whether the Greek phrase, which is literally, “through faith of Jesus Christ,” refers to Jesus’ faithfulness or to our faith in Him (the Greek grammar can be taken either way). I agree with those who argue that it means “faith in Jesus Christ” (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 224-225; Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], pp. 181-186). He is the object of our faith. It is not enough to have a general faith in God. You must specifically put your trust in Jesus Christ and what He did for you on the cross.

But then is Paul being redundant when he adds, “for all those who believe”? Paul knows that our fallen human tendency to want to be justified by our own supposed righteousness is so strong that he repeats it to make sure we don’t miss it. The righteousness of God comes through faith in Jesus Christ and it is for all who believe. The first phrase, “through faith,” shows that faith is not something that merits salvation, but rather it is the hand that receives the gift. The last phrase, “for all those who believe,” underscores the universal offer of God’s grace. No sinner needs to despair that he is too far gone. All who believe are justified by God’s free grace.

Conclusion

So how can you and I as sinners be right with a God who is absolutely holy? It’s impossible to be right with God by striving to be a good person or by attempting to keep God’s Law. As we saw last week, the Law only reveals how far we fall short of God’s glory. To be right with God by our good deeds would be like lining up at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and trying to jump across to the North Rim. An Olympic broad jumper might get 25-30 feet from the edge before he went down. I’d get maybe 8-10 feet before I would go down. A person with infirmities would only step off the edge and plummet to his death. But no one could leap the ten miles to the other side. It’s impossible!

On judgment day, the question will not be, how far did you jump before you went down? The only question will be, did you get to the other side? You either will be lost by trying to get to heaven by your good deeds, or justified by trusting in the sacrifice of Jesus on your behalf. The great news is that although we all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, freely by His grace He declares righteous all who put their faith in Jesus Christ and His sacrifice to redeem us. To be right with God, make sure that your trust is totally in Jesus Christ! If you have put your trust in Christ alone to carry you across the chasm between you and God, you know that there is a huge “but now” in your life!

Application Questions

  1. Why are we all so prone to try to get right with God by our own good works? What sin is at the root of this?
  2. The Roman Catholic view is, “Faith + Works = Justification.” The Protestant view is, “Faith = Justification + Works.” Why is this distinction crucial? How would you defend it biblically?
  3. What practical blessings result from the biblical view that justification is God’s judicial action, not a lifelong process?
  4. Someone argues, “It’s not just for God to declare the guilty as innocent with no promise or effort to change on their part.” How would you answer him from Scripture?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 18: God the Just and the Justifier (Romans 3:25-26)

Jonathan Edwards preached a powerful sermon on the phrase in Romans 3:19, “that every mouth may be stopped,” titled, “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners.” He forcefully shows since God is infinitely lovely and holy, to sin against Him is an infinitely heinous crime, deserving infinite punishment. Thus God is just to punish sinners with eternal punishment.

As far as I know, Edwards did not follow up that sermon with another on Romans 3:25-26 on, “The Justice of God in the Salvation of Sinners.” But that is the question that Paul answers in our text: How can a holy God be just and yet justify sinners? How can He forgive our sins and still be a God of justice?

Admittedly, that question probably doesn’t keep you awake at night! Probably, you’ve never been asked that question when you shared Christ with someone. It’s more likely that you’ve been asked, “Why can’t God just forgive everyone? When someone offends me, I just forgive him. So why can’t God do that? Why did Jesus have to shed His blood?”

The answer to those questions is, “You can forgive like that because God is absolutely holy and you’re not. God must maintain His absolute justice by punishing all sin. An unjust ‘God’ would not be God at all.” There’s the rub: If God must punish all sin to maintain His absolute justice, then how can He forgive sinners? If a human judge started “showing love” by pardoning murderers and terrorists and rapists, we’d say, “Wait a minute! This is horrible! He’s not upholding justice.” So the question that Paul is grappling with here is, “How can a holy God be just if He pardons guilty sinners?” How can He be a God of love who shows mercy and yet be a righteous God of justice? His answer is:

Jesus’ sacrificial death satisfied God’s wrath and displays His justice in justifying sinners who have faith in Jesus.

As with our text last week, this week’s text is simple on one level and yet difficult and deep on another level. The easy-to-understand message is: When He died on the cross Jesus bore the penalty for sin for all who will trust in Him. Thus if I trust in Him, God can justly forgive my sin.

But, as with last week’s text, there are some difficult theological terms here that have generated thousands of pages of commentary and debate among scholars—propitiation; blood; righteousness; justify; and faith. We need to understand these terms and the flow of thought to apply this Scripture correctly. And, it’s a vital Scripture to apply properly, since it deals with our eternal destiny! And, of course, because it is such a vital text on a vital topic, the enemy has been relentless in attacking its truth. There are several current attacks on the doctrine of the atonement.

1. Jesus’ sacrificial death satisfied God’s wrath against us.

A. The basic meaning of propitiation is to satisfy God’s wrath against our sin.

Propitiation is not a word that we use in common conversation. It comes from the ancient religious world, where people offered sacrifices to appease the anger of the gods. Because of that imagery, some liberal scholars have tried to eliminate the idea of God’s anger by changing the word to expiation, which refers to the removal of guilt. But Leon Morris (The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross [Eerdmans, third ed.], pp. 144-213) and other scholars have shown that the idea of satisfying God’s wrath against sin is inherent in propitiation. Paul is saying here that Christ’s sacrificial death is the means by which God’s just wrath is turned away from sinners.

But we need to understand several things that distinguish biblical propitiation from the pagan expressions of it. In pagan religions, the person who is experiencing some difficulty assumes that he has offended the gods in some way, but he often doesn’t know how. The gods are unpredictable, but something apparently got them upset! And, he’s not quite sure which sacrifice will work to calm down the gods so that he or his family can get relief from their troubles. But the shamans have more experience with these sorts of things. So the troubled man pays them their fee, offers the prescribed sacrifice, and hopes that the deities will be happy for a while. His sacrifice is an attempt to propitiate the gods.

But biblical propitiation is much different. In the first place, God’s wrath against sin is not capricious or mysterious. Rather, it is His settled holy opposition to evil, expressed in both temporal and eternal judgments. We see the temporal consequences of God’s wrath in both the Old and New Testaments. God cast Adam and Eve out of the garden and pronounced curses on them, on the earth, and on the serpent because of their sin. He sent the flood to destroy everyone on earth in the days of Noah. He rained fire and brimstone on the decadent people of Sodom and Gomorrah. However you interpret the Book of Revelation, it’s clear that God’s temporal judgments were not limited to the Old Testament. He pours out His wrath on rebellious people right up to the time of Christ’s return. That same book shows what Jesus often taught, that God’s temporal wrath will turn into horrible, eternal wrath at the final judgment.

We’ve already seen the concept of God’s wrath in Romans. In 1:18, Paul wrote, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” We saw that a large part of God’s presently revealed wrath against sin is to let us suffer the consequences of sin, as described in 1:24-32. In 2:5, Paul refers to God’s wrath as it pertains to eternal judgment: “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” Again in 3:5, he mentions “the God who inflicts wrath.” So the concept of propitiation as the satisfying of God’s wrath is not foreign to the Bible or to Romans.

But there is another major difference between the pagan concept of pacifying the anger of the gods and the biblical concept of propitiation. In the pagan religions, people take the initiative by offering sacrifices in an attempt to placate the gods. But in the Bible, God takes the initiative by providing the specific means of averting His wrath on sin. First, God always spells out what sin is, so that no one should accidentally do something to make God angry. He warned Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and He spelled out the consequences that would follow if they disobeyed: they would die. The same is true in the Law of Moses. God spells out what Israel should do or not do, along with the consequences for disobedience.

Also, in mercy God provides the way to satisfy His wrath and be reconciled to Him. He slaughtered an animal and provided their skins to clothe Adam and Eve. He told Noah to build the ark to preserve his family and him from the flood. He provided the ram, so that Abraham did not have to sacrifice Isaac. He gave detailed instructions to Moses about the sacrificial system. And, finally and supremely, by sending His own Son to die in our place on the cross, God satisfied His own wrath against our sin. Jesus paid the debt that we owed, so that God can show His grace and love to all that trust in Jesus Christ.

Paul makes this clear by the phrase, “whom God displayed publicly.” Other versions read, “set forth” (New KJV), “presented” (NIV, Holman CSB), and “put forward” (ESV). The verb that Paul uses can also mean to purpose or plan beforehand (Rom. 1:13; Eph. 1:9; the noun is used in Rom. 8:28; 9:11; Eph. 1:11; 3:11) and some scholars argue for that meaning here. It would then mean that God planned beforehand to provide Jesus as the propitiation for our sins. But it also can mean to display or set forth publicly. In this view, God’s setting forth or displaying Jesus as a propitiation would refer to His public death on the cross or to the apostolic preaching of the cross. Whichever view is correct, they both point to the fact that God took the initiative in providing the sacrifice that we need to satisfy His wrath.

Evangelical scholars debate one other thing about the Greek word that is translated propitiation. Some (Morris, Godet, and Lloyd-Jones) argue that it should be translated propitiation or propitiatory sacrifice. But others (Thomas Schreiner, Douglas Moo, and James Boice) point out that this word was used many times in the Old Testament to refer to the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant in the holy of holies, where the high priest sprinkled the blood of atonement once a year. While perhaps we should not translate the word as mercy seat, it is easy to think that Paul could have had this in mind when he used the word here. The mercy seat was the place where atonement took place. God’s wrath was averted by the sprinkling of the blood of an innocent substitute on that mercy seat. While that yearly ritual was hidden from public view, it pointed ahead to Jesus, whom God publicly displayed (the veil is torn) as the final and complete sacrifice for our sins.

B. Christ’s blood is the means by which God’s wrath is propitiated or satisfied.

Again, liberals do not like the emphasis on Christ’s blood as the means of propitiation. This seems crude and primitive. We may wonder why the New Testament puts such an emphasis on Christ’s blood. Why doesn’t it just refer to His death, which is clearly what His blood symbolizes (John Stott, The Cross of Christ [IVP], p. 180, citing Alan Stibbs’ Meaning of the Word ‘Blood’ in Scripture)? Why does Paul say that God displayed Christ as “a propitiation in His blood”? He did so to connect what Christ did with the Old Testament sacrificial system (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Atonement and Justification [Zondervan], p. 83).

But why did God require blood sacrifices in the Old Testament? The Lord explains to Moses (Lev. 17:11), “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.” God told Adam and Eve that the punishment for their sins was death. This referred both to physical death and to spiritual death, or separation from God. When God killed an animal, perhaps a lamb, and clothed them with its skin, He was indicating that the way of reconciliation with Him was through shedding the blood of an acceptable substitute.

In the Old Testament sacrificial system, God provided a temporary way for sinners to have their sins atoned for so that they could be reconciled to Him. He required that they kill a male firstborn lamb or goat without blemish and use its blood as the propitiation or atoning sacrifice for their sins. It pictured the substitutionary death of the victim in place of the sinner. It pointed ahead to Jesus, the Lamb of God, the ultimate and all-sufficient sacrifice for our sins. Thus Jesus, just before going to the cross, as He celebrated the Passover with His disciples, took the cup and said (1 Cor. 11:25), “This cup is the new covenant in My blood.”

So Paul’s point when he says that God publicly displayed Christ “as a propitiation in His blood,” is that Jesus’ sacrificial death satisfied God’s wrath against sin. All of this is foundational to understand the issue that Paul goes on to address: How can God be just when He forgives our sins?

2. Jesus’ sacrificial death displays God’s justice in passing over sins before the cross and in justifying sinners after the cross who have faith in Jesus.

A. Jesus’ sacrificial death displays God’s justice in patiently passing over the sins committed before the cross (3:25b).

“This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed.” Paul is answering the charge that if atonement and forgiveness come only through Christ’s death on the cross, then God was either unjust or terribly sloppy about sin to let go all of the sins committed before the cross. As Hebrews (9:9; 10:1-4) makes clear, those Old Testament sacrifices of animals could never make perfect or cleanse the consciences of the worshipers who offered them. The fact that people in the Old Testament era could be forgiven without the full satisfaction of Christ’s death implies that God is unjust or not righteous.

But Paul, like the author of Hebrews, argues that God’s forbearance in passing over sins in that era did not undermine His righteousness because that sacrificial system would find its fulfillment in the death of Jesus. Douglas Moo explains (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 240)

This does not mean that God failed to punish or “overlooked” sins committed before Christ; nor does it mean that God did not really “forgive” sins under the Old Covenant. Paul’s meaning is rather that God “postponed” the full penalty due sins in the Old Covenant, allowing sinners to stand before him without their having provided an adequate “satisfaction” of the demands of his holy justice (cf. Heb. 10:4).

It’s as if the Old Testament saints who offered animal sacrifices in obedience to the Law were in heaven on credit. The payment of the bill was promised, but it had not yet been paid. Hebrews 9:15 explains, “For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.” God’s righteousness in passing over the sins of those before Christ was vindicated because Jesus paid the debt in full for those sins when He died. He made full atonement.

B. Jesus’ sacrificial death displays God’s justice after the cross when He justifies the one who has faith in Jesus (3:26).

Verse 25 deals with the question of God’s justice in justifying sinners before the cross. Verse 26 focuses on His justice in justifying sinners after the cross: “for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” As we saw last week, to justify is to declare the accused to be righteous. But if the accused is actually guilty and the judge declares him to be righteous, isn’t the judge unjust?

Paul answers, “No, the cross where Jesus shed His blood to satisfy God’s wrath against our sin actually displays God’s righteousness.” Here righteousness does not refer to God’s declaring sinners righteous (as it does in 3:21-22), but rather to God’s justice. The death of Jesus demonstrates that justice has been served. God didn’t just shrug off our sin. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Jesus, who was innocent of all sin, paid the penalty that we deserved. He bore the awful wrath of God when He cried out on the cross (Matt. 27:46), “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

On the cross, God’s justice was satisfied so that His mercy could flow to every sinner who trusts in Jesus. The propitiation that God set forth in Jesus’ blood means that “He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Paul uses the name Jesus alone to emphasize His identification with us as a man. Because He was fully human, His death may be applied to the sins of humans. Because He is the eternal Son of God, His death has infinite merit. Jesus’ death vindicates God against any charge of injustice or unrighteousness.

But, note carefully that the benefits of Jesus’ death do not apply to everyone. God only justifies “the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26). Paul emphasizes faith in verses 21-31. It’s in verses 22, 25, 26, 27, 28, 30 (twice), and 31, plus believe is in verse 22. Faith is not a work on our part that contributes toward our salvation. It is a gift from God and not something that we originate, or we would boast in our faith (Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29). Faith is the hand that receives the gift of justification that God provides through the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ.

Some versions (in 3:25) read, “faith in His blood.” We put our faith in His blood in the sense that we trust in His death on the cross as our only means of being right with God. But technically, we trust in Jesus Himself. We trust the biblical witness concerning who He is. We trust the apostolic witness about the significance of His death in our place. It is the faith that realizes, “I’m spiritually terminal and I can’t heal myself. But Jesus can. His death paid the awful penalty that my sin deserves. Abandoning all efforts to save myself by my own good deeds, I cast myself totally upon Jesus and His shed blood.”

So thankfully, God is “the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” But don’t miss that He also is just. If you do not have faith in Jesus, you will face God’s inescapable justice brought against all your sins. Either Jesus met God’s justice on your behalf, or you will face God’s wrath on judgment day.

Conclusion

I conclude with some practical applications:

First, these verses show us that God takes sin very seriously. His grace does not mean that He is sloppy about sin. God does not just shrug and say, “Oh well, let’s not worry about your sins. After all, everyone makes mistakes.” No, His grace is grounded in His justice. God takes sin so seriously that He made Jesus, who knew no sin, to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21). Either you trust in Christ as your sin-bearer, or you’ll face God’s wrath throughout eternity.

Second, because God takes sin so seriously, so should we. It was our sin that put Jesus on the cross. That means that we should hate our sin and fight to kill it every day, especially on the thought level. C. H. Spurgeon said (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 53:225), “Shall I spare the sins, then, that nailed my Savior to the tree? O Christian, how you ought to hate the very thought of sin! We are very severe upon the sins of others, sometimes; how much more severe ought we to be upon our own!”

Finally, if Christ offered Himself as the satisfaction of God’s wrath against sinners, then any sinner can come to Him and find mercy. William Cowper was an 18th century English poet who suffered greatly from depression. His mother died when he was six and he was sent to a boarding school where the older boys mercilessly bullied and beat him. In his late twenties, he tried to commit suicide and was finally admitted to an insane asylum. Cowper struggled with his guilt and often cried out, “My sin! My sin! Oh, for some fountain open for my cleansing!” The main doctor there was a committed Christian, who gently guided Cowper to the only fountain that can wash away our sin and guilt.

One day Cowper opened a Bible and saw Romans 3:24-25: “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God has set forth to be a propitiation, through faith in his blood, to manifest his righteousness.” Cowper said, “Immediately I received strength to believe, and the full beams of the Sun of Righteousness shone on me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement he had made, my pardon in his blood, and the fullness and completeness of his justification. In a moment I believed and received the gospel.” (I took this account from James Boice, Romans [Baker], pp. 371-372. For more, see John Piper, The Hidden Smile of God [Crossway], pp. 81-119).

Cowper struggled with severe depression for the rest of his life, but God used him to write many beloved hymns, including “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins, and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.”

Cowper’s experience of knowing that his sins were forgiven the instant that he believed in the shed blood of Jesus can be your experience. Trust in Jesus and God’s wrath is satisfied. He declares you not guilty both now and forever.

Application Questions

  1. How would you answer the person who asked, “Why can’t God just forgive everyone’s sins? Why did Jesus have to die? Why do we have to believe in Him?”
  2. Why is the concept of God’s wrath against sin essential to the gospel? Why do we not hear more of it in supposedly evangelistic messages?
  3. Some have argued that Old Testament saints were not truly forgiven. Why is this an error? What does Heb. 10:1-4 mean?
  4. How would you explain to an unbeliever what it means to have faith in Jesus? What analogies can you use?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 19: Faith Versus Pride (Romans 3:27-31)

If I were to ask all of you to write down the sin that causes you the most trouble, I would probably get many responses listing anger, lust, lying, and greed (or, materialism). I might get a few entries for jealousy, hatred, gossip, and laziness. Maybe I’d get one or two for gluttony. But I wonder how many would list pride as the most difficult sin that they battle every day?

It ought to be at the top of our lists, because it is the root of virtually every other sin. If you get angry, it’s because you want your way and you didn’t get your way. The truth is, you don’t like how God is dealing with you and you think you could do it better. The root of such anger is pride! If you lust, it’s because you imagine that you are so sexy that this woman would want to give herself to satisfy your desires, apart from a committed, loving relationship. You want to use her, not love her. Pride is at the root of such lust.

In Mere Christianity [Macmillan], C. S. Lewis refers to pride as “The Great Sin” (pp. 108ff.). After mentioning that pride led to the devil’s downfall, he says (p. 109), “Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.” He contends that pride is a sin that we are very much aware of and dislike when we see it in others, but most of us are blind to it in ourselves. Regarding spiritual pride, he offers this test (p. 111):

Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good—above all, that we are better than someone else—I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.

I bring up pride because Paul does (3:27): “Where then is boasting?” But that leads to some questions: Why does he bring up boasting here? Why does he ask this string of other questions? Why didn’t he just end the discussion of justification by faith after 3:26?

Before I address these questions, let me give a brief overview of verses 27-31. Most commentators understand Paul to be addressing three issues here: (1) Justification by faith alone excludes all boasting (3:27-28); (2) The fact that there is one God means that there is one way of salvation (justification by faith) for all people (3:29-30); (3) Justification by faith does not nullify the Law, but rather, establishes it (3:31). I’m going to differ slightly from the majority and suggest that the second point is really a continuation of the subject of boasting, aimed at the religiously proud Jew, so that Paul is saying two main things about justification by faith:

Justification by faith alone takes away all grounds for boasting and is the only doctrine that truly establishes God’s Law.

In 3:27-28, Paul contends that justification by faith alone takes away all grounds of boasting about keeping the Law for salvation. In 3:29-30, he shows that justification by faith alone takes away any grounds of boasting about one’s religious rituals as a basis for salvation. In 3:31, he anticipates the question that a Jewish critic may raise, “Then doesn’t justification by faith nullify God’s Law?” He replies, “May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.”

But let’s come back to the question, why does Paul bring up boasting and these other issues here? First, we must understand that Paul is still aiming at religious Jews. Back in 2:17, after approaching them indirectly in 2:1-16, he took direct aim: “But if you bear the name ‘Jew’ and rely upon the Law and boast in God….” He goes on to hit them with their religious hypocrisy. In 2:23, he asks, “You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God?” And, he will go on to deal further with boasting in 4:2, where he states, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.”

So, why does Paul hammer on this theme? I suggest that it was because Paul knew, both from personal experience and from the Scriptures, how deeply embedded in our fallen hearts is the pride that wants to take some of the credit for being our own savior. Even if we acknowledge that God is the primary agent in our salvation, we’re still prone to claim that we had something to do with it, so that we can boast.

We’re like Stacey King, who played with the Chicago Bulls when Michael Jordan was at his peak. One night, Jordan scored 69 points and King scored one. He said later, “I’ll always remember this as the night that Michael Jordan and I combined to score 70 points” (Reader’s Digest [10/1991], p. 22). Of course, he was joking. But we’re often serious when we take some of the credit for our own salvation: “God must have seen something in me that caused Him to pick me out of the crowd!” We even can boast in our own faith, as if we were smart enough to believe. (See Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Atonement and Justification [Zondervan], pp. 110-114, for four other reasons that Paul raises these questions.)

So Paul follows up his argument that we are justified by faith as a gift by God’s grace (3:24) by underscoring these important implications of that crucial doctrine. If we understand this doctrine correctly, it deflates all our pride. And, it does not nullify God’s Law, but rather, establishes it.

1. Justification by faith alone takes away all grounds of boasting about keeping the Law for salvation (3:27-28).

“Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (3:27-28).

The Jews boasted in the Law (2:23), as we just saw. The Pharisees especially prided themselves in keeping the Law: They fasted, they prayed at the required times, they observed the Sabbath, they carefully washed themselves according to the prescribed rituals, and they even tithed their table spices (Matt. 23:23)! But Jesus confronted them with the defilement of their evil hearts (Mark 7:1-23).

Paul himself, before his conversion, took great pride in his Jewish religious credentials and good works. In Galatians 1:14, he says that he was advancing in Judaism more than many of his contemporaries. C. S. Lewis observes (ibid., pp. 109-110) that competition is the essence of pride. We glory in being better than others are. In Philippians 3:5-6, Paul rattles off the list that he once took great pride in: “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.”

But he goes on to say that when he met Jesus Christ, he counted all of these things to be rubbish so that he might gain Christ, adding (Phil. 3:9), “and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.”

That’s the same point that Paul is hammering home in our text: If we are justified by faith alone, apart from any human works, then we have no grounds for boasting. We can’t boast in our morality as the reason for why we are right with God, because even if we were outwardly moral before we met Christ, our hearts were corrupt (Rom. 3:10-12). Jesus’ words to the Pharisees apply to us all (Matt. 23:27): “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.” Even if we’re outwardly moral, it won’t put us right with God because He sees our corrupt hearts.

We can’t boast in our religious observance as a means of salvation, because the Bible is clear that God sees through such outward rituals and looks on our hearts. You can go to church every week, be baptized, and partake of communion, but none of these things earn points toward your salvation. None of these practices qualify you as a better candidate for salvation.

The same is true of spiritual knowledge. It’s helpful to study the Bible and understand its doctrines and moral precepts. It’s good to study the original languages in which the Bible was written so that your knowledge is more accurate. But none of these things will get you right with God apart from faith in Jesus Christ.

In fact, some even turn faith itself into a work and boast about their faith, as if they believed in Christ on their own, apart from His grace! If faith is something that fallen sinners can exercise on their own, apart from God’s granting it as a free gift, then those sinners will boast in their faith. After all, what makes me differ from unbelievers? I believed in Christ and they didn’t. But, why did I believe in Christ? If I claim any credit for that, I’m boasting in my faith. But, as Romans 3:11 states, “There is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God.” Jesus said (John 6:44, 65), “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; … no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” Saving faith isn’t something that we can produce and thus boast in. It’s a gracious, undeserved gift from God, so that we cannot boast (Eph. 2:8-9).

But, what does Paul mean when he says (3:27) that boasting is excluded by “a law of faith”? Some (e.g., Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 202; John Piper, “Justification by Faith is the End of Boasting,” on desiringGod.org) say that Paul means that “the law [of Moses] rightly understood is a law that teaches righteousness by faith.” This is further elaborated on in 4:3, where Paul cites Genesis 15:6 to show that “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

But, in the context (3:21-16, 28) Paul is contrasting the righteousness that comes through faith with the Mosaic Law. This leads to the natural question of 3:31, “Do we then nullify the Law through faith?” So, it is better to understand that Paul is making a play on words when he refers to “the law of faith.” He is saying, “It is not the Law of Moses, which required works, that excludes boasting. Rather, it is the new ‘law of faith,’ apart from works that excludes boasting” (I’m following Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 247-250).

In 3:28, Paul explains his point in 3:27, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” Right standing with God (“justification”) is not something that we earn by doing good works. Rather, it is something that we receive as a gift through faith in Jesus Christ and His shed blood. Instead of the words, “apart from works of the Law,” we can rightly say that we are justified by faith alone.

But, that raises another important question: Is Paul at odds with James 2:24, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone”? This issue was at the heart of the Protestant Reformation and it remains the major divide between the Protestant understanding of the gospel versus the Roman Catholic view. Bible-believing Protestants affirm with the Reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, that we are justified by faith alone, apart from works. The Roman Catholic Church contends that we are justified by faith plus our works, as James seems to affirm.

When we studied James, I spent two messages dealing with this crucial question. It is crucial because the way that we are saved hinges on it! (See, “Saving Faith: Genuine or False? June 26, 2005; and, “Are We Justified by Works?” July 3, 2005, on fcfonline.org.) So here I must be brief.

First, both James and Paul affirm that we are saved by grace through faith alone. But each man was addressing a different problem. James was looking at those who professed to have faith in Christ, but their lives were void of works. James claimed that that sort of faith was not genuine and it does not save anyone. Genuine saving faith always results in a life of good works. Paul would concur (Eph. 2:8-10; Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-8). No one is saved by a faith that is mere mental agreement. The faith that justifies is obedient faith (Rom. 1:5; 15:18; 16:26).

But Paul (in Romans and Galatians) was writing to those who taught that we must add our works to faith in Christ in order to be justified. The Judaizers claimed to believe in Christ, but they insisted that Gentiles who believe must also add circumcision and keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved. Paul called this a distorted “gospel” that damns (Gal. 1:6-9). He accused these false teachers of emphasizing these things so that they could boast in the flesh (Gal. 6:12-13). If you want to boast in anything, Paul said, “Boast … in the cross” (Gal. 6:14).

Before we leave this point, please make sure that you have applied it personally. Have you abandoned all attempts to earn right standing with God by your good works? Are you trusting in Jesus Christ alone, who shed His blood to pay the penalty that you deserved because of your sin? Is your boast completely in the Lord, who chose you and saved you in spite of yourself (1 Cor. 1:26-31)?

2. Justification by faith alone takes away any grounds of boasting about one’s religious rituals as a basis for salvation (3:29-30).

“Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one” (3:29-30).

Paul is still zeroing in on the Jews. He takes the creed that was central for all Jews (Deut. 6:4), “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” and argues, “If God is one, then He must be God not only of the Jews, but also of the Gentiles. And, if He is one, it is likely, isn’t it, that He would have only one means of salvation for all people? Since, as we’ve shown, we are justified by faith in Christ apart from the works of the Law, this must apply equally to both Jews and Gentiles. God justifies all people through faith alone.” Besides, the Old Testament clearly proclaimed that the God of Israel is the Lord of all the nations (e.g., Psalms 67, 96-98).

So Paul is arguing here that justification by faith means that there is only one way of salvation for all people. But, also, as I said, it seems to me that Paul is still confronting the tendency of the Jews to boast in their religion, especially in the rituals of their religion, the epitome of which was circumcision. As Paul will go on to show, God justified Abraham before he was circumcised, so justification cannot be based on compliance with that religious ritual. If God justified the yet-uncircumcised father of the Jewish nation by faith, then it follows that He also justifies the uncircumcised Gentiles by faith. You can’t take pride in any religious rituals.

Let’s apply this point: If you come from a religious background, don’t trust in church membership, baptism, or communion for salvation. You must trust in Christ alone. If you don’t come from a religious background, you don’t need to join the church, be baptized, partake of communion, or go through other religious rituals to get right with God. In fact, doing these things to earn right standing with God would only fill you with pride, which keeps you from God! Rather, laying aside all of your good works and all religious rituals, put your trust in Jesus Christ alone. God imputes the righteousness of Christ to all who believe (3:22).

But if “a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (3:28), and if a sinner can be justified by faith apart from any religious rituals, then aren’t we nullifying the Law? Paul anticipates and answers this question:

3. Justification by faith alone does not nullify the Law, but rather establishes it (3:31).

“Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law” (3:31; the NIV and ESV translate, “we uphold the Law.”)

This is a very difficult verse to interpret and every interpreter necessarily reads the verse through the lens of his own view of how the Law relates to believers in Christ. Having read many books and articles on this subject, I would say that it is one of the most difficult theological issues in the Bible to understand. It has to do with how much continuity versus discontinuity there is between the Old and New Covenants. There are verses that seemingly support the ongoing validity and benefit of the Law (Matt. 5:17-19; Rom. 3:31; 7:12; James 1:25) and other verses that say that we are not under the Law and speak negatively about it (Rom. 6:14; 10:4; 2 Cor. 3:6-18; Heb. 7:12, 22; 8:7, 13). So I do not claim infallibility here!

For sake of brevity and clarity, I’m not going to give you the various interpretations of how we establish the Law through faith. Rather, following several authors (mainly, James Boice, Romans [Baker], 1:421-425) I’m going to suggest three ways from the context that justification by faith establishes or upholds the Law.

First, justification by faith establishes the Law by showing that it is impossible to attain right standing with God by keeping the Law. This is Paul’s point in 3:20, “because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” The Law requires perfect obedience to every commandment, not only externally, but also on the heart level (Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28; Gal. 3:10; James 2:10). So if anyone is going to be saved, it can’t be by keeping the Law. The Law’s purpose is not to save us. Rather, the Law shows us our sin so that we will despair of being saved by works. In this way, the doctrine of justification by faith establishes or upholds the Law.

Second, justification by faith establishes the Law by showing that the punishment which the Law demanded has been fulfilled by Jesus Christ. That is Paul’s point in 3:25, where he refers to Christ Jesus as the one “whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.” By His death, if we trust in Him, Jesus satisfied God’s just penalty for our sin, which was death.

Third, justification by faith establishes the Law by showing that God imputes the righteousness of Christ to us so that we meet the Law’s righteous demand in Him. As we’ve seen, justification means that God declares us righteous. But He doesn’t just do this arbitrarily. Rather, Jesus fulfilled the righteous demands of the Law on our behalf. As Dr. Boice explains (p. 424), “By saving us through this righteousness, and not by any lesser standard, God establishes the law that defines this righteousness.” Thus God can now be “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26).

Conclusion

The doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone has always been under attack, including at the present time. How do we know whether it is the true gospel? One test of true doctrine is that it humbles our pride and it exalts God and His grace. Conversely, false doctrine always lifts up man and pulls down God, so that we don’t really need a Savior. Justification by faith alone excludes all boasting, except for boasting in Christ and Him crucified. It doesn’t allow me to say, “I teamed up with Jesus to score 70 points!” No, He scored all the points. God justifies sinners totally on the merits of Jesus Christ when they abandon their own works and trust in Him alone. This is the true gospel. Believe it, stand firm in it, and proclaim it to others!

Application Questions

  1. Some argue that if people are not capable of believing in Christ on their own, it is futile to tell them to believe. Your response?
  2. Think through the Ten Commandments and various lists of sins (Rom. 1:29-31; Gal. 5:19-21; 1 Tim. 1:9-10). How is pride at the root of all of these sins?
  3. A Roman Catholic takes you to James 2:24 to insist that we are justified by works, not by faith alone. How would you answer?
  4. How would you harmonize Matt. 5:17-19; Rom. 3:31; 7:12; & James 1:25 with Rom. 6:14; 10:4; 2 Cor. 3:6-18; Heb. 7:12, 22; 8:7, & 13?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 20: God Justifies the Ungodly (Romans 4:1-5)

A faithful Catholic nun spends her life working in a slum in a poor country, feeding the poor, ministering to the sick and dying, and caring for the orphans. As she nears death, you ask her why God should let her into heaven. She replies, “Because I have devoted my life to serving Him. I have denied myself for decades. I hope that I have added enough merits that God will accept me.” She dies and faces God’s eternal wrath because her faith was in her own good works, not in the shed blood of Jesus Christ alone.

Meanwhile, on death row a serial killer awaits execution. He mercilessly tortured, raped, and murdered many young women. Their families mourn the tragic loss of their daughters. A chaplain visits this killer and finds that he has been reading the Bible. God has convicted him of his terrible sins, so that he despairs about dying and facing God. He knows that he deserves eternal torment in hell. But the chaplain shares that if he will believe in Jesus Christ, who died for the ungodly, God will forgive all his sins and credit Christ’s righteousness to his account. He does believe, is filled with joy, and goes to his execution at peace with God. He spends eternity in the unspeakable joy of heaven.

Do these two stories grate on your soul? Do you want to scream, “Wait a minute! That’s not fair! That sweet, selfless old nun deserves to go to heaven! That evil, depraved murderer deserves to burn in hell!” If that’s your reaction, then you may not understand the crucial, bedrock message that Paul sets forth in our text, that…

God graciously justifies the ungodly sinner who does not work for salvation, but believes in Jesus Christ.

In Romans 4:5, Paul makes one of the most outrageous claims in all Scripture: “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” What a staggering verse! Surely, there must be a copier’s error in the text! Paul must have said, “God justifies the one who tries to do his best. God justifies the nice person who always meant well, who loved his family, devoted his time and money to help the needy, went to church, read his Bible, and prayed every day.” But Paul could not have meant, “God justifies the ungodly, could he? That’s unthinkable!”

In All of Grace [Ages Software], C. H. Spurgeon wrote about Romans 4:5,

I have heard that men that hate the doctrines of the cross bring it as a charge against God, that He saves wicked men and receives to Himself the vilest of the vile. See how this Scripture accepts the charge, and plainly states it! ... You thought, did you not, that salvation was for the good, that God’s grace was for the pure and holy, who are free from sin? It has fallen into your mind that, if you were excellent, then God would reward you; and you have thought that because you are not worthy, therefore there could be no way of your enjoying His favor. You must be somewhat surprised to read a text like this: “Him that justifieth the ungodly.” I do not wonder that you are surprised; for with all my familiarity with the great grace of God, I never cease to wonder at it.

My aim today is that all of you will understand this crucial doctrine that is at the core of the gospel and that you will join Spurgeon in worshipful wonder that God has justified you.

Paul is still hammering at the religious Jew (or any other religious person) who thinks that he qualifies for heaven because of his religion and good works. He brings up Abraham because the Jews revered him as the father of their nation and their faith. Many early Jewish writings put Abraham on a pedestal far higher than the way the Bible portrays him. For example, the Book of Jubilees (23:10), written about 100 B.C. states, “Abraham was perfect in all his deeds with the Lord, and well-pleasing in righteousness all the days of his life” (cited by Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 256). The Prayer of Manasseh (8), states that God did not appoint repentance for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “who were righteous and did not sin against Thee.” (What Bible were they reading?) Thus many Jews assumed that Abraham was right with God, at least in part, because of his life of obedience. It’s a short step from there to believing that any person who follows Abraham’s example of obeying God will be accepted by God.

But in Romans 4 Paul challenges that view head-on. The flow of thought in the chapter is as follows (from Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], pp. 210-211): In verses 1-8, Paul expands on and illustrates with Abraham and David the principle of 3:27-28, that we are justified by faith, not by our works, and thus we have no grounds for boasting. Verses 9-16 develop the theme of 3:29-30, that righteousness by faith applies equally to Jews and Gentiles. He proves this by showing that Abraham was justified before he was circumcised. Thus God can justify uncircumcised Gentiles who follow the faith of Abraham. Verses 17-22 explain the nature of Abraham’s faith. Finally (4:23-25), Paul applies the lessons of Abraham’s faith to his readers.

It’s absolutely essential for you to understand the doctrine that Paul sets forth in Romans 4:1-5, that we are justified (declared righteous) by faith alone, apart from any works. It was when Martin Luther finally understood this truth that he was saved. He called justification by faith “the chief article from which all our other doctrines have flowed.” He said, “If the article of justification is lost, all Christian doctrine is lost at the same time.” He argued, “It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God, and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour.” (James Boice, Romans: Justification by Faith [Zondervan], p. 126, citing from What Luther Says: An Anthology, compiled by Ewald Pass, [Concordia], 2:702-704.)

John Calvin called justification by faith “the main hinge on which religion turns” (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. by John McNeill [Westminster Press], 3:11:1). He explained (ibid.), “For unless you first of all grasp what your relationship to God is, and the nature of his judgment concerning you, you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God.” In other words, this truth is foundational for your entire Christian life.

Thus it is not by accident that it always has been under fire. The Catholic Church launched the counter-Reformation and published The Canons and Decrees of Trent in large part to attack justification by faith alone (see my “Justification by Faith Alone,” Aug. 11, 1996, on fcfonline.org). In our day, the unity movement has sought to break down any divisions between Protestants and Catholics by advocating that we come together where we agree and set aside the things that divide us, including this doctrine. In the 1990’s, many evangelicals signed a document, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” that would relegate justification by faith alone to the sidelines. The New Perspective on Paul also argues that the Reformers misinterpreted Paul regarding this doctrine.

But if the Reformers were right that this doctrine is the foundation of our salvation, then justification by faith plus works cannot be right. We cannot politely agree to disagree on the core of the gospel! Thus for your own salvation, for your being able to resist the winds of false doctrine blowing in our day, and for your being able to present the gospel clearly to those who are trusting in their good works to save them, you must be clear on this truth: God graciously justifies the ungodly sinner who believes in Jesus Christ. Paul first demonstrates this truth in the life of Abraham (4:1-3). Then he illustrates it negatively by a common example (4:4) and states it positively in rather shocking language (4:5).

1. God justified Abraham by faith alone, not by his works (4:1-3).

Paul goes back to the theme of boasting (3:27), to argue:

A. If Abraham had been justified by works, he would have grounds to boast (4:1-2).

“What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God” (4:1-2)

Some commentators argue that the phrase, “according to the flesh,” should not modify “forefather,” but rather, “has found.” Thus Paul would be asking whether Abraham found some way, according to the flesh apart from God’s grace, to be justified. Others argue that it should modify “forefather” (NASB & ESV). Paul is referring to Abraham as the Jewish forefather by lineage; but there may also be the hint that fleshly descent from Abraham is insufficient.

Verse 2 explains (“for”) verse 1, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.” Most commentators understand the last phrase to mean, “When God’s viewpoint is considered, Abraham has no right to boast at all” (Moo, p. 261). In other words, Paul does not mean that Abraham could have boasted before people, but not before God. Rather, he had no grounds for boasting at all.

But it seems to me that Paul could be conceding to his Jewish readers, “Okay, maybe Abraham has some grounds to boast before men. After all, he was a godly man. But when you bring God into the picture, Abraham’s boast vanishes.” It’s as if one bug was bragging to another bug, “I’m taller than you are!” just before a human comes along and squashes both of them. When you compare humans to humans, Abraham was a good guy. But when you compare humans to God, Abraham is just a bug along with everyone else.

Paul’s point in 4:1-2 is that if justification were by works rather than by faith alone, it would give us a ground for boasting. It would feed our pride. But such boasting is foolish, because we’re really just one bug boasting to another bug. What is the best of human righteousness when you compare it to God’s absolute righteousness? So Paul is attacking the popular Jewish views about Abraham in his day, saying, “He couldn’t have been justified by his works.” Then he supports his argument with Scripture:

B. Scripture clearly teaches that Abraham was justified by faith alone (4:3).

“For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’” (4:3, citing Gen. 15:6)

Genesis 15:6 is the first time that the word believe is used in the Bible and it is also the first time that the concept of God crediting righteousness to anyone (justification) is mentioned. So it’s a very important text to understand. Paul not only cites it here, but also in Galatians 3:6, where he argues against the Judaizers, who said that we must add our works to faith in order to be saved.

The passage in Genesis raises the question, “What did Abraham believe and why did God credit it to him for righteousness then?” We know that he had believed God previously, when he left Ur and set out for Canaan (Heb. 11:8). Thus Abraham was already what we would call “saved” before this experience. So why does Moses mention in Genesis 15:6 that Abraham believed God and that God reckoned it to him as righteousness?

Martin Luther said that Abraham was justified by faith long before this time, but that it is first recorded in this context in a connection where the Savior is definitely involved in order that none might venture to dissociate justification from the Savior (cited by H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis [Baker], 1:479). John Calvin thought that it is mentioned here, long after Abraham was first justified, to prove that justification does not just begin by faith, only to be perfected later by works. Rather, justification is by faith alone, apart from works, from start to finish (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], 1:408-409). So Genesis 15 ratifies Abraham’s earlier faith.

Derek Kidner (Genesis [IVP], p. 124) notes that Abraham’s faith was both personal (in the Lord) and propositional (the Lord’s promise concerning a son). Abraham knew that through his seed, blessing would come to all the families of the earth (12:3). In Galatians, Paul argues that seed is singular, not plural, thus pointing to Abraham’s one descendant, Christ (Gal. 3:16). So when Abraham believed in the Lord, he believed the specific promise that a Savior for all nations would come forth from his descendants.

How much did Abraham know about Jesus Christ, who would be born 2,000 years later? He knew more than we may assume! Jesus Himself said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). Paul said that God preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham when He promised, “All the nations shall be blessed in you” (Gal. 3:8). Though he didn’t know Jesus’ name and he had no evidence other than God’s promise, Abraham looked forward in faith to God’s Redeemer and thus God credited it to him as righteousness.

The word credited (Greek = logidzomai) is used 40 times in the New Testament, 34 times by Paul, 19 times in Romans, and 11 times in this chapter, so it is a key word. It’s an accounting term that means that God credited to Abraham a righteousness that did not inherently belong to him (Moo, p. 262). The word it does not refer to Abraham’s faith, as if God exchanged his faith for righteousness, in a sort of trade. That would give some sort of merit to faith, which cannot pay the debt of our sin. Rather, faith is the means by which we lay hold of God’s promise in Christ. Abraham believed God’s promise about the Savior who would come and God credited the work of the promised Savior to Abraham through his faith. Christ’s substitutionary death paid the just penalty for the sins of those who will trust in Him (3:25).

Having illustrated from Abraham’s experience as recorded in Scripture that God justifies by faith alone, not by works, Paul proceeds to apply it to every sinner who will believe in Christ:

2. God justifies any ungodly person who does not work for salvation, but believes in Jesus Christ (4:4-5).

“Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (4:4-5).

First (4:4) Paul gives a negative example from everyday life that we can easily understand. When you work and your boss pays you, he isn’t doing you a favor. (Favor is literally grace.) You don’t send him a thank you note, telling him how much you appreciated his kindness. No, he owes you the money. If he doesn’t pay, you can take him to court to make him pay. It’s a debt.

But the principle of grace is different (4:5). Under grace you do not work for justification. Rather, you believe God’s promise to declare righteous any sinner who trusts in Jesus and His shed blood as the propitiation for his sins (3:25). As the righteous Judge, God recognizes Jesus’ death as payment in full for all our sins. The instant we believe in Jesus, God bangs the gavel and declares, “Not guilty!” But He not only removes our sin and guilt. Also, He imputes the very righteousness of Jesus to our account.

Again, although Paul says here, “his faith is credited as righteousness,” in the context (3:24-26) he means that the guilty sinner’s faith has laid hold of Jesus Christ as the perfect and final sacrifice for sins. Faith is not a work that merits righteousness. If it were, verse 5 would be saying the opposite of what Paul is arguing! Faith does not merit God’s favor, or grace would not be undeserved. Rather, faith means not doing anything ourselves to earn salvation, but rather trusting what Christ did for us on the cross. God justifies us as a gift through faith (3:24). Faith is the hand that receives the free gift of right standing with God apart from our works.

Let me draw out four implications of this astounding truth:

A. To be justified, you must cease working for salvation.

Paul clearly spells it out, “to the one who does not work….” If you try to blend your works with God’s grace, you muddy the waters of pure grace. If you work to earn justification, then God owes you something. But God will not be a debtor to anyone.

If you feel bad about your sins and are trying to get them under control so that God will accept you, you have not ceased working. You do not understand God’s grace. If you think that maybe you should become a missionary or go live and work in a slum for years, depriving yourself of the normal comforts of life, so that God will overlook your sins on judgment day, you’re still working. You do not understand His grace. To be justified by God’s grace, you must stop working!

B. To be justified, you must see yourself as ungodly.

God justifies only one kind of person: the ungodly. There is debate among scholars as to whether Paul was referring specifically to Abraham or whether he meant to contrast a notoriously sinful person with the relatively good Abraham. While Abraham was relatively good when you compare humans with humans, in God’s sight we all have sinned and fall short of His glory. Abraham was as much in need of God’s perfect righteousness as were the wicked people of Sodom. In God’s sight (Rom. 3:10), “There is none righteous, not even one.” We’re all bugs!

So if you see yourself as a basically good person, you can’t be justified. If you see yourself as better than notorious sinners and thus somehow more deserving of salvation, you can’t be justified. To be justified, you must see yourself as ungodly and deserving of God’s righteous judgment.

C. To be justified, you must believe that God will justify you, the ungodly, through the propitiation of Christ’s blood.

Faith means taking God at His word when He promises to justify the one who has faith in Jesus (3:26). You acknowledge that the wages of your sin is death (Rom. 6:23), eternal separation from the holy God. But you trust God’s promise that “while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). Faith means taking the gift of Christ’s full payment for your sins, much as you would thankfully receive a check from a wealthy man who offered to pay a large fine that you couldn’t afford to pay. Faith means trusting Jesus to be your advocate in court, to plead His shed blood in your case before the bench of God’s justice.

D. To be justified means that God credits Christ’s righteousness to your account through your faith.

If justification were based on how righteous we were in actual conduct, then we could never be declared perfectly righteous in this life, because we always have some indwelling sin in us. We need Christ’s perfect righteousness credited to our account. We need our sin put on Christ’s account. That transaction takes place the instant that we believe in Jesus (2 Cor. 5:21).

Conclusion

Spurgeon ended that chapter in All of Grace by telling a story about an artist in the years before photography who painted a picture of a part of the city where he lived. For historic purposes, he wanted to include in his picture certain characters well known in the town. A street sweeper who was unkempt, ragged, and filthy was known to everyone and there was a suitable place in the picture for him. So the artist found the man and told him that he would pay him well if he would come down to the studio so that he could paint him.

He came to the studio the next day, but the artist sent him away because he had washed his face, combed his hair, and put on a suit of clean clothes. The artist needed him as a poor beggar and he was not invited in any other capacity.

Spurgeon applies it by saying that even so, God invites sinners to come at once for salvation, just as they are. Come in your disorder. Come with your confusion. Come with your despair. Come filthy, naked, and dirty. Come with all of your sin. Come to Jesus, crucified for sinners! If God justifies the ungodly and you’re ungodly, there’s hope for you! The best news in the world is, God graciously justifies the ungodly sinner who does not work for salvation, but rather believes in Jesus Christ!

Application Questions

  1. What is wrong with the idea that good people deserve salvation, while evil people deserve hell?
  2. Is it fair (just) for God to forgive an evil murderer who trusts in Christ, but to condemn a loving person who didn’t trust Christ? Why/why not?
  3. Is it right or wrong to join with Roman Catholics in proclaiming our common faith in Christ when we differ over justification by faith alone? Why/why not?
  4. Why must I see myself as ungodly before I can be justified? Doesn’t this damage one’s self-esteem?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

http://feeds.bible.org/steve_cole/romans/cole_romans_020.mp3
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Lesson 21: Forgiveness: The Supreme Blessing (Romans 4:6-8)

Carl Hoefler (Will Daylight Come? [C. C. S. Publishing, 1979]) tells the story of a little boy who was visiting his grandparents. He was given his first slingshot and was having fun playing with it in the woods, but he never hit anything he was aiming at. But on his way home, as he cut through the back yard, he saw Grandmother’s pet duck. He took aim and let the stone fly. To his horror, it went straight to the mark and the duck fell dead.

The boy panicked. He quickly hid the dead duck in the woodpile. Then he saw his smirking sister Sally standing by the corner of the house. She had seen the whole affair.

They went in for lunch. Sally said nothing. After lunch, Grandmother said, “Sally, let’s clear the table and wash the dishes.” Sally said, “Oh, Grandmother, Johnny said he wanted to help you in the kitchen today. Didn’t you, Johnny?” Then she whispered to him, “Remember the duck!” So Johnny did the dishes.

Later in the day Grandfather called the children to go fishing. Grandmother said, “I’m sorry, but Sally has to stay here to help me clean house and get dinner.” Sally smiled and said, “That’s all been taken care of. Johnny said he wanted to help today, didn’t you, Johnny?” Then she whispered, “Remember the duck!”

This went on for several days. Johnny did all the chores, both his and those assigned to Sally. Finally, he could stand it no longer, so he went to his grandmother and confessed all. His grandmother took him in her arms and said, “I know, Johnny. I was standing at the kitchen window and saw the whole thing. And because I love you, I forgave you. And knowing that I loved you and would always forgive you, I wondered just how long you would let Sally make a slave of you.”

Guilt makes slaves of us all. When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden, they tried in vain to hide from God. Guilt makes us want to hide from His holy presence. It also alienates us from one another. We’re afraid that if others find out what we have done, they will either reject us or use the information to hold us hostage. “Remember the duck!” Because we all have sinned and because God knows all of our sins, even our secret sins, what we all desperately need is the supreme blessing of God’s forgiveness.

In our last study, we saw how Abraham, the father of the Jewish faith, was justified by faith alone, not by his works. To be justified is to be declared righteous by God. It is to be acquitted of all our sins by God’s judicial decree. In explaining this wonderful truth, Paul states (Rom. 4:4-5), “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” We saw that God does not justify the pretty good guy who tries to do his best. He does not justify the one whose good works outweigh his bad works. Rather, He justifies the ungodly sinner who has faith in Jesus.

But maybe Paul was stretching things a bit. After all, the Jews knew that Abraham was a good man. Maybe God justified Abraham because of his good works. So Paul brings in another witness, King David. The Jews also recognized David as a great man. He was the best of Israel’s kings. But as everyone knew, he also sinned greatly. He committed adultery with Bathsheba and then tried to cover it up when she got pregnant by having her husband murdered. So Paul brings David in as a second witness to prove that God justifies sinners by faith apart from any good works.

Paul (4:7-8) cites David’s Psalm 32:1-2 (from the LXX): “Blessed are those who lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.” The common thread between Psalm 32:2 (Rom. 4:8) and Genesis 15:6 (Rom. 4:3) is the word “credited” or “take into account” (Greek = logidzomai). It is an accounting term, meaning to enter something into a ledger. In Abraham’s case, God entered into the asset column, “Righteousness.” In David’s case, God did not enter into the liabilities column, “Sin.” He didn’t credit David’s sins against him.

But Paul says that it amounts to the same thing (4:6), “just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.” And so in Psalm 32 David extols the supreme blessing of God’s gracious forgiveness of all our sins. Paul uses these verses to teach us that…

The supreme blessing of God forgiving all your sins comes through faith apart from any works.

As we saw in our last study, this doctrine of God justifying the ungodly by grace alone apart from any good works grates against our fallen human nature. We instinctively want good people to go to heaven because of their goodness. We want terrible sinners to pay for their sins. They shouldn’t get off scot-free. But if that were true, then we would have grounds to boast in our own goodness as the reason for our salvation. And, there would be no hope for really bad sinners. There would be no good news. So if Mother Teresa is in heaven, it is because she saw herself as an undeserving sinner and she fled to the cross for mercy. And if a mass murderer is in heaven, it is because he saw himself as an undeserving sinner and fled to the cross for mercy. God only justifies the ungodly.

Do you remember the parable that Jesus told in Matthew 20? A landowner went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for their day’s wages, so they went to work. Mid-morning, he went out again and hired others and agreed to give them whatever was right. He did the same thing at noon and at mid-afternoon. Then, an hour before sundown, he found others and sent them into his vineyard.

When it was time to pay the laborers, those who came an hour before dark received a denarius. When those who had been working all day came, they expected to get more, since they had put in a long day’s work. But they also got a denarius. They grumbled about how unfair it was, but the landowner said, “I gave you what we agreed on, so take what is yours and go. But am I not free to be generous to these last men with what is my own?” That’s how God’s grace works. It is not dispensed according to merit. He gives it freely to whom He chooses. As Paul says (Rom. 9:16), “It does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.”

The point that Paul drives home from 1:18-3:20 is that we all are under sin. The pagans who do not know God are obviously under sin. But so are the religious folks (the Jews), who think that they are better than the pagans. All deserve God’s judgment and so all desperately need His grace (unmerited favor). The good news of the gospel is that God freely justifies and pardons every sinner who does not work, but believes in Jesus as the propitiation for his sins.

So in our text, Paul is reinforcing that point from David’s Psalm 32. The emphasis is on the blessing of God’s gracious forgiveness. (He uses “blessing” or “blessed” in 4:6, 7, 8, and 9.)

1. The greatest blessing of all is to have God forgive all your sins.

To appreciate the blessing of forgiveness …

A. We must feel the heavy burden of our guilt.

A cartoon pictured a psychologist saying to a patient, “Mr. Figby, I think I can explain your feelings of guilt. You’re guilty!”

Ever since the fall, sinners have instinctively responded to their guilt by blaming others. When God confronted Adam, he blamed his wife and he even implicated God for giving him his wife (Gen. 3:12): “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.” In effect, he was saying, “It’s her fault or Your fault, but don’t blame me!”

But blaming others doesn’t alleviate the guilt. True, if a person keeps denying his sin and blaming others for it, eventually he may develop a seared conscience (1 Tim. 4:2), where he feels no guilt, even for horrific sins. I read that the Cambodian dictator, Pol Pot, felt no twinge of guilt for murdering over a million of his countrymen! But even if the sinner’s conscience is seared, it doesn’t remove the reality that he will answer to God for his many sins.

So a guilty conscience is a good thing. It’s like the pain sensors in our body, which alert us to a problem. A person with leprosy can’t feel pain, and so he can burn his finger off without knowing it. If we suppress our guilt, it often leads to other emotional, physical, and relational problems. But guilt should get our attention by shouting, “You’re not right with God!” David suppressed his guilt over his sin with Bathsheba for about a year until the prophet Nathan cornered him with a story and then directly said, “You are the man!” You’re guilty!

Puritan Robert Bolton, who at first resisted the gospel, but later came to Christ after deep conviction of his sins, wrote (Instructions for a Right Comforting Afflicted Consciences, cited by Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], p. 128):

A man must feel himself in misery, before he will go about to find a remedy; be sick before he will seek a physician; be in prison before he will seek for a pardon. A sinner … must be cast down, confounded, condemned, a cast away, and lost in himself, before he will look about for a Saviour.

J. C. Ryle (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], on John 4:7-26, pp. 204-205) put it,

Never does a soul value the Gospel medicine until it feels its disease. Never does a man see any beauty in Christ as a Saviour, until he discovers that he is himself a lost and ruined sinner.

Or, as C. H. Spurgeon put it when describing his own painful five years of conviction of sin before his conversion (C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography [Banner of Truth], 1:54):

Too many think lightly of sin, and therefore think lightly of the Saviour. He who has stood before his God, convicted and condemned, with the rope about his neck, is the man to weep for joy when he is pardoned, to hate the evil which has been forgiven him, and to live to the honour of the Redeemer by whose blood he has been cleansed.

So for God’s blessing of forgiving all your sins to be the supreme blessing, you must feel to some extent the heavy burden of your guilt before Him. Then,

B. Forgiveness is the greatest of all blessings.

The Greek word “blessed” means “happy,” especially in the sense of being the recipient of God’s favor (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, by Walter Bauer, translated by William Arndt and Wilbur Gingrich [University of Chicago Press], 2nd ed., p. 486). John Piper (“When the Lord Does not Take Account of Sin,” on DesiringGod.org) defines it as “a condition in which you are deeply secure and content and happy in God.”

We might think that those who are rich in this world’s goods are blessed, but as you know, many rich people are miserable because they lack close relationships with others. They often have to keep others at a distance because they’re afraid that they will take their money. Besides, this world’s riches can disappear in a moment with a stock market collapse or war or some other disaster. And everything that we accrue in this life is instantly taken the moment we die. So the only true and lasting blessing is to be right with God by knowing that He has forgiven all our sins. What a great feeling to know that the burden of guilt is gone forever!

We need to understand that when God forgives all our sins, it does not mean that He removes all temporal consequences for our sins. God forgave David, but He ordained some rather severe consequences on David and his family for the rest of his life (2 Sam. 12:10-15). Sometimes God graciously softens the consequences, but at other times He uses them to teach us to hate our sin The fact that we experience difficult trials does not mean that God has not forgiven us. In fact, it is one evidence that He has forgiven us (Heb. 12:8-10).

Also, although many Christian authors talk about the need to forgive yourself, you won’t find that concept anywhere in Scripture. If we have sinned, we must seek God’s forgiveness and we must ask forgiveness of those we have sinned against. And if others have wronged us, we must forgive them. But the Bible never talks about forgiving yourself. Your need is to receive God’s forgiveness.

Before we leave this point, let me ask: Have you experienced this greatest of all blessings? Do you know that God has forgiven all of your sins? Are you sure that He will not take them into account on that day when you stand before Him?

In the context Paul is still talking about the doctrine of justification by faith alone. But we might wonder, how does forgiveness fit in with justification?

2. Justification means that God credits Christ’s righteousness to the guilty sinner and forgives all his sins apart from any good works.

John Calvin (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. by John McNeill [Westminster Press], 3:11:3, p. 727) summed up his understanding of justification, “that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.”

A. Justification means that God credits Christ’s righteousness to the guilty sinner.

As we saw in verse 3 (citing Gen. 15:6), “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” To justify is not to make righteous or to infuse righteousness into the sinner, but rather, to declare the sinner righteous. It is a judicial act of God, based on the satisfaction of God’s righteous penalty by the shed blood of Jesus Christ (3:25). Because Christ paid the penalty that our sin deserved, God can be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26).

B. Justification means that God’s forgives all of the guilty sinner’s sins.

Positively, God declares the sinner righteous by crediting to his account the very righteousness of Jesus Christ. Negatively, God does not credit the sinner’s sins to his account. Paul uses three somewhat synonymous phrases to describe this blessing of forgiveness:

First (4:7a), “Blessed are those who lawless deeds have been forgiven.” The Greek word for forgive means “to send away.” It is sometimes used of divorce, which means a permanent sending away of one’s spouse. It was used of forgiving a debt. The books were wiped clean as the debt was removed from the debtor. In the Old Testament ritual for the Day of Atonement, two male goats were selected. The high priest laid his hands on the head of one goat (the scapegoat), confessing the sins of the people. That goat was then sent away into the wilderness, taking away the sins of the people. Forgiveness means that God has sent away all of our sins. They are removed from us.

Second (4:7b), blessed are those “whose sins have been covered.” The word covered is used only here in the New Testament, quoted from Psalm 32:1. It also referred to the Day of Atonement when the priest took the blood of the other goat and sprinkled it on the mercy seat (or covering) of the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark contained the Ten Commandments, which God’s people all have broken. The blood of an innocent victim covered the sins of the people. Those repeated animal sacrifices postponed judgment until Christ offered Himself as the perfect and final sacrifice to cover all our sins (Heb. 9:11-15; 10:1-14).

Third (4:8), “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.” This is the accounting term, used 11 times in this chapter (translated as “credited” in 4:3, 4, 5; “credits” in 6). God takes our debt of sin off the books. He wipes the slate clean. It means (Rom. 8:1), “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Also, since David was already a justified man when he sinned with Bathsheba and murdered her husband, Psalm 32 shows that God’s crediting of righteousness and forgiving of sins is not revoked by a believer’s sins (Everett Harrison, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 10:49). Although as I said, God disciplines us for our sins and does not remove all of the consequences of our sins, He does forgive them so that we do not incur His eternal wrath and judgment. We must submit to His discipline, but we do not need to fear His condemnation.

C. Justification means that God credits Christ’s righteousness to the guilty sinner and forgives all his sins apart from any good works.

Paul says (4:6) that “David speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.” If it’s apart from works, then how is it done? In verse 5 Paul says that the ungodly person’s faith (in Christ) is credited as righteousness. We must be clear that he does not mean that God views our faith as a work that merits righteousness. That would make verse 5 say the exact opposite of what Paul is saying! If faith somehow merited God’s favor, then grace would not be undeserved. Rather, faith lays hold of what Christ did for us on the cross (3:24-26). God justifies us as a gift (3:24), not as a reward or payment that our faith earns. Faith by definition looks away from oneself and to Christ. Faith is the hand that receives the gift of forgiveness through Jesus paying for our sins on the cross. Thus,

3. To obtain this blessing, we must cease from our own works and believe in God’s provision in Christ.

As we saw in verse 5, the only one God justifies is “the one who does not work.” In case we missed it, Paul repeats (4:6), “apart from works.” If you are trusting in any sense in your good works, you exclude yourself from God crediting Christ’s righteousness to your account. Paul plainly states (4:6), “God credits righteousness apart from works.” While you must repent of your sins, if you are trusting in your repentance, you exclude yourself from this blessing of forgiveness. And while you must believe in Christ, if you are trusting in your faith, you exclude yourself from God’s forgiveness. Your faith must not be in faith. Rather, your faith must be in Christ alone.

Conclusion

Some years ago, a 6-year-old Michigan boy could not be found. That night, 80 people frantically searched the woods near his home. By morning, more than 300 were looking for him. Then at about 10:30, he suddenly emerged from his bedroom. He had been hiding in a large drawer underneath his captain style bed.

It turned out that he hid himself in there because he was afraid. The evening before he disappeared, a policeman had asked him if he knew anything about a broken window across the street. He lied to the officer. A little later the officer turned on his flasher to stop a nearby motorist. The boy saw it and his imagination ran wild. He thought he would be locked up in jail. Fear and guilt drove him into hiding (from “Our Daily Bread,” Winter, 1980-81).

Guilt over your sins can cause you to keep your distance from others and to try to hide from God. If you are not in Christ, you have legitimate cause to fear His judgment. But God offers every sinner the supreme blessing: He will forgive all of your sins and credit the very righteousness of Christ to your account if you will cease from your own works and trust in what Christ did for you on the cross. Trust in Christ and you don’t have to “remember the duck.” The guilt will be gone and you will know the supreme blessing of having all of your lawless deeds forgiven.

Application Questions

  1. Should Christians feel guilty when they sin? What is the proper function of guilt? How can we recognize false guilt?
  2. How can we know whether our guilt is due to the Holy Spirit convicting us or Satan accusing us? What action should we take in either case?
  3. Some might argue that forgiveness by grace alone without penance on our part would lead to licentiousness. Your response?
  4. Genuine faith includes repentance, which includes “a broken and contrite heart” (Ps. 51:17). Some might argue that this then becomes a work that nullifies grace. Agree/disagree? Why?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 22: Religion Can’t Save You (Romans 4:9-15)

If you’ve been tracking with this series in Romans, you may be getting to the point where you’re thinking, “Why does Paul keep hammering on the truth that God’s righteousness is credited to us by faith alone?” How many times does he need to say it? He states it in Romans 3:22, “even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” He hits it again in 3:26, “so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (To be the justifier means to declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus.) He hammers it again in 3:28, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”

He keeps going in 4:3 (citing Gen. 15:6): “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness.” In case we missed it, he repeats it in 4:5: “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” If you still didn’t get it, he comes at it again in 4:6, “just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.” Not done yet, he says it again (4:8), “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account” (“credits” and “take into account” both come from the same Greek word).

But he still isn’t done! He anticipates the reaction of religious Jews who will still be thinking, “Yes, God credits righteousness by faith, but it is only for the circumcised who believe, not for uncircumcised Gentiles.” So in 4:9-12, he proves from the Old Testament that God credited righteousness to Abraham by faith while he was still uncircumcised. In proving this, he relentlessly beats the same drum. In 4:9, he cites again Genesis 15:6, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” In 4:10, he insists that it was credited to him while he was still uncircumcised. In 4:11, he repeats that the uncircumcised who believe will have righteousness credited to them. And in 4:12 he applies it to the circumcised Jews: They, too, must follow in the steps of the faith of Abraham which he had while he was still uncircumcised.

But Paul anticipates another objection from religious Jews: “Surely we become heirs of God’s promises to Abraham through the Law. Gentiles must keep the Law to come under these blessings.” This was the teaching of the Judaizers, who plagued Paul’s ministry (Acts 15:1, 5; Galatians). But Paul insists that the true heirs of the promises to Abraham are not those who are of the Law, but rather those who are of faith. He sums this up in 4:16 (which we will examine in more detail next time): “For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.”

So why does Paul keep hammering on this truth that God’s righteousness is credited to us by faith alone? I think it’s because he knows how deeply embedded in the fallen human heart is the idea that we can do something to commend ourselves to God. The last two millennia of human history prove him to be right. All religions, including the major ones that go under the label of “Christian,” are works oriented. They teach what Paul explicitly and repeatedly denies here, that at least in part, we are saved by keeping religious rituals and by our good deeds.

For example, at the Council of Trent (in 1547), the Roman Catholic Church responded to the Protestant Reformation, including the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The Canons and Decrees of Trent represent the official teaching of the Catholic Church to this day. The Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s declared these doctrines “irreformable.” The Council of Trent did not deny that we are saved by God’s grace through faith. But it added works to faith by combining justification (right standing with God) with sanctification (our growth in holiness subsequent to being justified) and by making justification a process that depends in part on our good works. To quote:

If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified, in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, ... let him be anathema. (Session 6, Canon 9, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom [Baker], 2:112.)

If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified: let him be anathema. (Session 6, Canon 12, in Schaff, 2:113.)

If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof: let him be anathema. (Session 6, Canon 24, in Schaff, 2:115.)

If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened [to him]: let him be anathema. (Session 6, Canon 30, in Schaff, 2:117.)

In other words, the Roman Catholic Church declares that we are justified before God by grace through faith, but not through faith alone. We must add our good works to that faith in order to obtain, preserve, and increase our right standing before God. This process is not completed at the initial point of faith in Christ, and not even in this life, but only, hopefully, in Purgatory. Thus the Catholic Church denies the sufficiency of the guilty sinner’s faith in Christ’s sacrifice as the means of right standing with God. (See Justification by Faith Alone [Soli Deo Gloria], ed. by Don Kistler, especially pp. 7-14, by John MacArthur, Jr.)

I do not point out these things to be unkind to Roman Catholics. Quite the contrary, I say it because I care deeply that Catholics come to understand what Paul teaches about this most crucial matter of how a person gets right with God. And, even if you are not from a Catholic background, because of the fall you are prone to trust in your religious activities and your good works as the basis of your standing before God. But Paul wants you to see that …

Salvation does not come through religious rituals or the Law, but through God crediting righteousness through faith alone.

“This blessing” (4:9) refers to the blessing of salvation, of God not counting our sins against us (4:7-8). First, Paul shows that Abraham was not justified after he was circumcised, but before:

1. The blessing of salvation does not come through keeping religious rituals, but through God crediting righteousness to us through faith alone (4:9-12).

We can apply this to any religious rituals, such as baptism, communion, going to mass, praying the rosary, or whatever. We can sum up Paul’s flow of thought under two headings:

A. God credits righteousness to the ungodly sinner who believes in Jesus Christ.

This is the shocking point that Paul makes in 4:5, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” As I said when we studied that verse, most people would assume that it should read, “But to the one who tries hard and believes in Him who justifies all good people, his faith is credited as righteousness.” But Paul specifically states that on the one hand, this person isn’t trying hard; he does not work. On the other hand, he isn’t described as a good person, but rather as ungodly. He isn’t a religious person who tries to obey God. He isn’t a person who devotes his life to serving the poor. He isn’t a person who never deliberately hurt anyone. He is ungodly. God justifies the ungodly sinner who believes in Jesus!

The Jews viewed Gentiles as ungodly, but they viewed themselves as godly people. Circumcision was the main religious ritual that distinguished them from the “Gentile dogs.” When Abraham was 99 years-old, God commanded him to circumcise himself and all the males in his household. He extended that command for all Jewish baby boys throughout all generations, that they be circumcised on the eighth day. It was the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham (Gen. 17:11-12).

But Paul here points out a simple fact of Old Testament chronology: God’s command to Abraham to be circumcised happened at least 14 years after the incident in Genesis 15:6 where God credited Abraham’s faith to him as righteousness. Thus Abraham was in effect still an uncircumcised Gentile! So Paul effectively turns the tables on the Jews who argued for circumcision as essential for salvation. He is saying that it is not for the Gentiles to enter through the gate of Jewish circumcision, but rather for the Jews to enter through the gate of Gentile faith apart from circumcision (Frederic Godet, Commentary on Romans [Kregel], p. 174)!

Or, to put it in more modern terms, you do not get saved (or justified) by being baptized (whether as an infant or an adult) or by taking communion. You do not get saved by going to church or by faithfully saying your prayers or by doing penance. Rather, you get saved when God credits the very righteousness of Christ to you the instant that you believe in Him. Salvation does not come through the performance of any religious rituals, but only through faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:25).

Well then, what is the role of religious rituals? Are they worthless? Should we just forget about them? No,

B. Religious rituals serve as signs and seals of the reality that comes through faith in Christ.

Paul (4:11) refers to circumcision as both a sign and a seal of the righteousness of the faith that Abraham had while uncircumcised. This makes him “the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them.”

A sign is not the real thing, but it points to it. A sign that says “Flagstaff, 10 miles” is not the actual city, but it points you to it. Circumcision was a physical sign in every Jewish man’s flesh that pointed to the fact that he belonged to God. He was in covenant with God and God’s people. He was separated to God through the shedding of blood. It was a sign of purification from the flesh, so that both Moses (Deut. 10:16) and the prophets (Jer. 4:4) exhorted Israel spiritually to circumcise their hearts.

As Christians, baptism is a sign that your sins have been washed away through faith in Christ (Acts 22:16). It pictures the truth that you have been identified completely (immersed) with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-4). The Lord’s Supper is a sign of the New Covenant (1 Cor. 11:25), showing that you are a partaker in Christ’s sacrificial death on your behalf. The sign is not the reality, but it points to the reality. The reality is God’s promise to forgive all our sins and impute Christ’s righteousness to our account by faith alone. The “ritual” is a sign of the reality. If you don’t have the reality, the ritual is worthless.

Also, Paul refers to circumcision as a seal. A seal authenticates or attests to the reality of something. A notary’s seal on a document attests that it is the real thing. Circumcision attested to the reality of Abraham’s previous faith that justified him and to God’s covenant with him. But it was the faith that justified, not the act of circumcision. In 4:12, Paul applies this to the Jews, but then narrows it by saying that it does not apply to all Jews, but only to those “who also follow in the steps of the faith” of Abraham. He almost twists the knife when he adds, “which he had while uncircumcised.” He is saying that whether you are a Gentile or a Jew, the key thing is to believe God’s promise to justify the ungodly. The rituals follow as signs and seals, but the reality is through faith alone.

What then is the benefit of religious “rituals,” such as baptism and communion? Should we do them at all? Yes, because Scripture commands us to do them. But they should only be done after you have put your trust in Christ as your righteousness. They then become a sign pointing to that reality and a seal that attests to your faith in Christ.

I can only briefly deal with the fact that those who argue for infant baptism point to Romans 4:11 as a key verse. They argue that although for Abraham circumcision pointed back to his previous faith, for Abraham’s descendants, it was done for them as infants and thus pointed ahead to the faith they later would exercise. They argue that baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign of the covenant. Thus we should baptize infants.

How do we answer this? (For a more thorough treatment, see my sermon, “Why We Do Not Baptize Infants,” 9/8/96, on fcfonline.org). But, briefly: First, there is no New Testament example or command to baptize infants. Rather, every mention of baptism in the New Testament shows that it is the appropriate response to saving faith, not the precursor of it. Also, while the New Testament shows some correspondence between circumcision and baptism (Col. 2:11-12), it explicitly mentions faith in that context. It is an argument from silence, but it is a loud silence when in the many New Testament discussions about circumcision, there is absolutely no reference to it now being replaced by baptism.

There are some significant differences between circumcision and baptism. But even if we grant the parallels, then just as circumcision was administered to the physical descendants of Abraham in the age of type, so baptism ought to be administered to the spiritual descendants of Abraham in the age of fulfillment, namely, to believers. Old Testament Israel consisted of the physical descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob, and thus the sign was given to show that the males were children of the covenant. But the New Testament church consists of those who are the spiritual children of Abraham through faith in Christ (Gal. 3:7). Thus baptism should only be administered to those who give a clear profession of faith in Christ.

I should also point out that while some denominations (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran) teach that baptism imparts regeneration to infants, others that practice infant baptism (Presbyterians, the Reformed Church, and Methodists) do not. But I argue that even if a church denies that it imparts regeneration, to baptize infants is potentially damaging in that it later gives them false assurance that they are right with God through a ritual. But we are right with God through faith in Christ alone. (See also, John Piper, “How do Circumcision and Baptism Correspond?” on DesiringGod.org.)

But Paul anticipates that his Jewish readers will bring up the Law. Surely Paul wouldn’t throw out God’s Law! Don’t the Gentiles have to keep the Law in order to call Abraham their father?

2. The blessing of salvation does not come through keeping the Law, but through God crediting righteousness to us through faith alone (4:13-15).

The Jews would have not restricted the obedience which they thought necessary for salvation to circumcision, but would have expanded it to the whole Law (Acts 15:5). Paul could have countered their argument, as he does in Galatians 3:17, by showing that the Law, which came 430 years after the promise to Abraham, does not invalidate the previous covenant. But instead, he limits himself here to the argument of Galatians 3:18, that the concept of a covenant promise is fundamentally opposed to the concept of the Law.

He states the principle in 4:13: “For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith.” Then he explains (4:14), “For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified.” Thus he is saying,

A. If you seek to be justified by keeping the Law, you make faith void and you nullify God’s promises (4:14).

The principle of receiving a gift by faith is the opposite of receiving a reward that you work for (Rom. 3:24; 4:4). If you offer me a gift and I say, “Let me pay you back by working for it,” I have turned the gift into something that I owe you or you end up owing me. God promises to justify the ungodly person who does not deserve it, but who receives it freely by His grace. If you mix human works with God’s grace, then grace is no longer grace. The promise of salvation as a free gift received by faith has been nullified and turned into a debt for payment of services rendered.

B. If you seek to be justified by keeping the Law, rather than gaining the blessing of salvation you actually incur God’s wrath (4:15).

In 4:15, Paul explains why the attempt to gain salvation by the Law is doomed to fail: “for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there is no violation.” The Law brings wrath because no one can keep it perfectly. To gain acceptance with God by keeping the Law, you have to keep it perfectly (James 2:10). Any failure makes you liable for God’s judgment. The second phrase does not mean that there is no sin when there is no law. As Paul previously stated, the Gentile who did not know the explicit commands of God is guilty of violating his own conscience (Rom. 2:14-15). But the Jew who knows the Law and violates it is going against what he explicitly knows to be right. The Law shows us what sin is (Rom. 7:7). Thus to know the Law and violate it incurs God’s wrath to a greater degree than not to know the Law at all.

Also, note that there are two and only two possible eternal futures for every person: either you are an heir of the world as a true descendant of Abraham (4:13) or you are an heir of wrath as one who sought to be right with God by keeping the Law (4:15).

The phrase, “heir of the world,” does not occur in those exact words anywhere in God’s promises to Abraham. Rather, Paul is probably summing up God’s promises that Abraham would have a large number of descendants from many nations (Gen. 12:2; 13:16; 15:5; 17:4-6, 16-20; 22:17); that he would possess the land (Gen. 13:15-17; 15:12-21; 17:8); and that he would be the channel of blessing “all the peoples of the earth” (Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 274). Jesus Christ is the final “seed” (“descendant”) of Abraham (Gal. 3:16). If we are in Christ through faith, then we are fellow heirs with Him (Rom. 8:17; Eph. 3:6). As Paul puts it (Gal. 3:29), “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.”

Conclusion

In verse 9, as I said, “this blessing” refers to the blessing that Paul has enumerated from Psalm 32 (in Rom. 4:7-8), namely, the blessing of knowing that your lawless deeds have been forgiven, that your sins have been covered, and that God will not take your sins into account. Do you want that blessing?

You won’t get it by being born into a Christian home or by faithful attendance at a Christian church. You won’t get it by being baptized and partaking of communion. You won’t get the blessing of forgiveness by doing penance or devoting yourself to sacrificial service to the poor. In short, you won’t get the blessing of salvation through religious rituals or by keeping the Law. Rather, God forgives all our sins and credits Christ’s righteousness to us if we put our faith in Jesus and His shed blood. Religion can’t save you, but Jesus can. Trust in Him and instantly you become an heir of God’s promise of eternal life as His free gift!

Application Questions

  1. Some say that the doctrine of justification by faith alone should be set aside so that Protestants and Catholics can come together in the many areas where they agree. Your thoughts?
  2. Discuss: Do religious “rituals” convey grace to all who participate or only to those who participate in faith?
  3. Do you agree that infant baptism is potentially damaging? Why/why not?
  4. Why is the concept of approaching God by keeping the Law (or any good works) fundamentally opposed to “the righteousness of faith”?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 23: The Nature of Saving Faith (Romans 4:16-22)

In 1947 a rumor spread that the Ford Motor Company would give a Ford in exchange for every copper penny dated 1943. The rumor spread so fast that Ford offices throughout the country were jammed with thousands of requests for information. The U.S. mint also received a large volume of inquiries.

It all turned out to be a hoax. The statistics of the mint show that in 1943 there were over one billion pennies minted from steel-zinc, but due to a copper shortage, the number of copper pennies was exactly zero.

There has been a rumor abroad in the human race for centuries that entrance into heaven can be obtained by good works. But it’s not true. The fact is, there are no works made on earth that are acceptable in heaven. All of our works are tainted by sin. The only righteousness that gains entrance to heaven is the righteousness of Jesus Christ graciously imputed to sinners who believe in Him (I adapted this illustration from Donald Grey Barnhouse, Let Me Illustrate [Revell], p. 356).

Your eternal destiny depends on your understanding and personally believing the truth that Paul has been hammering on in Romans 4, that we are justified (declared righteous) by faith alone. We are not justified by works or by moral behavior, but rather by faith in the God who credits righteousness to the ungodly apart from works (Rom. 4:1-8). This blessing is not based on religious rituals (4:9-12) or on keeping the Law, which only serves to condemn us (4:13-15). Rather, as Paul now shows,

Saving faith is rooted in God’s grace, it rests on God’s promise, it revels in God’s glory, and it relies on God’s power.

Paul is arguing that Abraham, whom the Jews rightly extolled as the father of their faith, was justified by faith alone, not by being circumcised or by keeping the Law. And as such, Abraham is not only the father of believing Jews, but also of Gentiles who believe. So Paul now expounds on the nature of Abraham’s faith as an example for us all.

1. Saving faith is rooted in God’s grace, not in human performance.

After pointing out that the Law brings wrath, not salvation (4:15), Paul continues (4:16), “For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.”

This verse is a summary of 4:1-15. “It” refers to the promised inheritance to Abraham, which was not promised on the basis of obedience to the Law, but rather through the righteousness of faith (4:13). The reason that this promised inheritance is by faith is so that it may be in accordance with grace. Paul explained this back in 4:4-5, “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor [“favor” is the Greek word for “grace”], but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.”

The point is simple: if salvation comes to us as a wage that we deserve because of our good works, then it is not by grace, which is undeserved favor. God would owe it to us, and of course then we could boast in our own efforts which obtained it. Salvation would not be a gift, but a wage. But God only gives it as a free gift, so that no one can boast (Eph. 2:8-9; 1 Cor. 1:27-31).

When Paul mentions in verse 16, “those who are of the Law,” he is referring to believing Jews, not to all Jews. If he meant all Jews, he would be contradicting what he has just said (4:15), that the Law brings about wrath. So he means that since the promise of becoming an heir of righteousness is by faith, it is available to all who believe. Gentiles do not need to keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved. Rather, Jews and Gentiles alike must believe in Jesus to be saved.

Paul says that faith (as opposed to Law or human performance) guarantees this promise. If salvation were based on our good deeds, how could we ever know when we’ve done enough? As I pointed out in our last study, this is the problem with the Roman Catholic system of adding our works to faith in order to accumulate enough merit for heaven. When have you done enough service to the poor? When have you given enough money? When have you been honest enough? When have you demonstrated that your love for God is pure and fervent enough? When have you arrived at loving your neighbor as you in fact love yourself? If you base salvation on good works, you’ll always be plagued with doubts.

And so we must all come to God with “the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (4:16). This faith is rooted in God’s gracious promise to declare righteous all who believe in Jesus Christ, who paid the penalty for our sin. It is available to all people, without distinction. Perhaps, like the Jews in Paul’s day, you come from a religious background. God must open your eyes to see that you are a guilty sinner who cannot earn salvation by your own efforts. If you respond to God’s gracious promise by faith, He will credit the righteousness of Christ to your account.

Or, perhaps like the Gentiles, you come from a pagan background. You have lived to pursue pleasure through sin. But if God opens your eyes to see that you are a guilty sinner and that He offers a full pardon to those who believe in Jesus’ death as the payment for sin, He will credit Christ’s righteousness to you the instant you believe in Jesus. The faith of Abraham guarantees the promise to all.

Paul goes on to expound on Abraham’s faith:

2. Saving faith rests in God’s promise, no matter how unlikely it may seem.

As indicated in the NASB, the citation from Genesis 17:5 is parenthetical (4:17a): “(as it is written, ‘A father of many nations have I made you.’)” In Genesis 17, Abraham was 99 years old. Although God had promised to give him a son through Sarah almost 25 years before, they still had no son. Now, the human prospects of having a son seemed impossible. Abraham was almost 100 and Sarah was about 90. She had been barren all her life and now both of them were past the age of conceiving a child.

At this point, the Lord appeared to Abraham and promised to establish His covenant with him, which included making him the father of a multitude of nations (Gen. 17:4). In light of this, God gave Abram (his name up to this point, which means “exalted father”) a new name, Abraham, which means, “the father of a multitude.” Then (in Genesis) the citation that is in our text follows (from the LXX), “A father of many nations I have made you.”

As Abraham stood there before God, although the promise was outside of the realm of human possibility, Abraham believed in God, whom Paul here (4:17) describes as the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.” That faith was not without its struggles, as we will see. But the point is, Abraham believed God’s promise, even though the fulfillment of it was humanly impossible and seemed very unlikely.

To believe in God’s promise is the same as believing in God’s person. If I promise to do something for you, but you don’t believe my promise, in effect you’re calling me a liar. You’re saying that I won’t do what I’ve promised. If God promises something and we refuse to believe it, we’ve called God a liar!

Paul is emphasizing God’s promise (4:13, 14, 16, 20; the verb is in 4:21). Leon Morris writes (The Epistle to the Romans Apollos/Eerdmans], p. 212), “Abraham had nothing going for him except the promise of God. But for the man of faith that was enough.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts it (Romans: Atonement and Justification [Zondervan], p. 211), Abraham believed “the bare Word of God” and “nothing else whatsoever.” He adds, “Faith is content with the bare Word of God, because He is God.”

It’s easy to sit here and think, “Well, I’d believe God, too, if He appeared to me as He did to Abraham and promised me something.” But, would we? The promise flew in the face of every human consideration. First, Sarah, who had been barren all of her life, had now gone through menopause. And Abraham was 100. So when God told him that he would be the father of a multitude of nations and that Sarah would be the mother of nations, Abraham laughed and asked God that Ishmael might be the heir. But God insisted that the heir would come through Sarah (Gen. 17:15-19).

Then there was this embarrassing matter of changing his name. Abram was embarrassing enough. When people met him they would probably ask, “Abram, ‘exalted father,’ huh? How many children do you have?” Abram would look down, clear his throat and say, “One.” He’d probably not explain that the one son was not through his wife, but through her servant. Abram probably saw a lot of people roll their eyes as they thought, “Exalted father, and he’s 99 and only has one child? Yeah, sure!”

But now, after God appears to him, the next day Abram announces, “I have a new name. God gave it to me last night.” Everyone is waiting, thinking, “Maybe he’s finally going to take a name that reflects reality!” Then Abram says, “My new name is Abraham, father of a multitude!” Maybe some of his servants turned their backs quickly and put their hands over their mouths to suppress their laughter. They thought, “The old man is losing it!”

But Abraham believed God and His promise, even though it was humanly impossible ever to be fulfilled. We look back in history and can see how the promise was fulfilled literally through the many descendants of Isaac and Jacob, Ishmael and Esau, and through Abraham’s sons through Keturah (Gen. 25:1-4). But the promise has been fulfilled even more so through the spiritual descendants of the Seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ, with the gospel going around the world to every nation. But Abraham didn’t live to see any of this. He “died in faith, without receiving the promises” (Heb. 11:13).

John Calvin perceptively observes (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Rom. 1:20, p. 180):

All things around us are in opposition to the promises of God: He promises immortality; we are surrounded with mortality and corruption: He declares that he counts us just; we are covered with sins: He testifies that he is propitious and kind to us; outward judgments threaten his wrath. What then is to be done? We must with closed eyes pass by ourselves and all things connected with us, that nothing may hinder or prevent us from believing that God is true.

Before we leave this point, let’s apply it to God’s promise of salvation. He promises to justify and give eternal life to the ungodly person who believes in Jesus. Where do we learn about this promise? Our only source is the Word of God. You won’t learn how to have eternal life by studying nature. You won’t deduce it from philosophy or logic. You won’t learn it by studying human behavior. Rather, the only source is the written Word of God, conveyed to us by the apostles and prophets. Do you believe it? Have you put your trust for eternal life in God’s promise as recorded in His Word? If not, you’re calling God a liar!

Another application of this is: When you talk to people about the gospel, cite God’s Word and encourage people to read it, especially the Gospel of John. John tells us that he wrote his gospel (John 20:31), “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). The Word is powerful to save sinners (James 1:18).

3. Saving faith revels in God’s glory, not in human effort or will power.

Paul writes (4:20), “yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God.” Abraham’s faith was solidly God-centered. He didn’t believe in himself. He didn’t have faith in faith. He wasn’t an optimist who practiced positive thinking. He didn’t think, “If Sarah and I just visualize the goal and try again, we’ll succeed.” Rather, looking away from the circumstances and away from himself, he believed God and His promise, so that God got the glory. In Romans 1:21, we saw that the fundamental sin of the human race was, “even though they knew God, they did not glorify [lit.] Him as God or give thanks.” But here, by way of contrast, Abraham grew strong in faith and gave glory to God.

This teaches us that our faith should grow. Weak faith (or little faith) is still faith, but we should grow strong in faith. The Greek verb is passive, “was strengthened in faith.” Although some scholars take it in an active sense, I think that Paul could have used the active verb if he had meant to; but he used the passive. It implies that faith must come from God. It is His gift to us. And yet, like so many gifts of God, we have a responsibility to appropriate it and grow in it.

How do we grow in faith? The key is to grow in your knowledge of the object of our faith, namely, God. Faith is only as good as its object. You can have strong faith in a faulty bridge and it will collapse under you in spite of your strong faith. Or, you can have weak faith in a strong bridge and it will hold you up, along with a semi-truck that rumbles over it next to you. But your weak faith does not glorify the strong bridge for what it is. The right way to have strong faith that glorifies the bridge is to know that the engineer who built it is competent and the company that constructed it has a solid reputation of not cutting corners. Your knowledge of that bridge would increase your faith in it, even though it may go over a frightening chasm below. Your strong faith stems from your knowledge that this is a trustworthy bridge. The bridge, not your faith, gets the glory.

To grow in faith, study God’s attributes and His ways as revealed in His Word. See how He has been faithful to His Word in the past. See how He has kept His promises to His people, even in the face of staggering odds against them. Read how He has acted in the history of the Bible. Read the history of His saints who have trusted Him. In some cases, He delivered them miraculously. At other times, they were tortured, thrown in prison, stoned, sawn in two, and put to death by the sword (Heb. 11:37). But in no case did God ever abandon His people or act unfaithfully to His promises. Revelation 6:9-11 tells us that He has a precise number of martyrs who will be killed before He finally judges the wicked. But the evil deeds of the wicked do not threaten God’s sovereign power or plan. Study His attributes and His ways and you will grow in faith.

Then, put your faith into action. As you act in faith and see God work, your faith is strengthened to trust Him the next time. We need to be careful not to misapply His promises. John the Baptist in prison was confused because he thought that if he was the Messiah’s forerunner and Jesus was the Messiah, then he should not be in prison (Matt. 11:2-11). Jesus gently assured John that He was indeed the Messiah, but as you know, John did not get out of prison alive. But even if God’s will is our death, we can glorify Him by dying in faith as we look to His promise of eternal life. Faith does not glory in human effort or human will power, but rather in God alone. Salvation is totally from God and so saving faith properly gives Him all the glory.

Thus saving faith is rooted in God’s grace. It rests on God’s promise. It revels in God’s glory. Finally,

4. Saving faith relies on God’s power to keep His promise, in spite of human inability.

These verses contrast Abraham’s hopeless inability with God’s mighty power. Abraham and Sarah were past their human ability to conceive a child, and even when they were in their prime, Sarah could not conceive. But God waited until they were clearly past all ability to conceive, so that the greatness of the power would be in God, “who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist” (4:17).

Verse 19 says that Abraham “contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb.” The King James Version follows a textual variant that says that Abraham did not consider his own body, but the better reading (textually and contextually) says that he did consider it. In other words, he didn’t ignore reality. He didn’t close his eyes to the obvious and have blind faith.

Rather, he faced the reality of his and Sarah’s complete inability to conceive the promised son. When Paul says that Abraham did not waver in unbelief, he is looking at the overall pattern and final result, not at his momentary lapses in faith. He wavered in faith when he took Hagar, conceived Ishmael, and then asked God to make Ishmael the heir. The phrase, “in hope against hope” implies the struggle of faith that Abraham experienced and that everyone who walks by faith experiences. Circumstances often dash our hope, but against that, we fight back with hope. Our faith and hope are not in ourselves or our ability or in a positive attitude that everything turns out okay for good people in the end.

No, our faith and hope are in the God who gives life to the dead and who calls into being that which does not exist. He renewed Abraham’s and Sarah’s “dead” bodies to produce Isaac, the son of the promise. He said, “I have made you a father of many nations” before Abraham had Isaac. God’s word that said, “Let there be light, and there was light” (Gen. 1:3) is effectual. Paul applies this to our salvation when he says (2 Cor. 4:6), “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” Saving faith relies on God’s power to keep His promise, not on any human ability.

Verse 22 gives the cumulative result of Abraham’s faith: “Therefore it was also credited to him as righteousness.” Paul repeats that verse in 4:3, 5, 9, and now here. Plus, he alludes to it in 4:6, 8, 11, and 13. He has repeatedly mentioned “faith” or “believe,” often in deliberate contrast to human works (4:3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20). He wants us to see that we are justified (declared righteous) by faith alone in God’s promise, not by any works or merit added to it. Since God’s salvation is by grace through faith apart from works, we can join Abraham (in 4:21), “being fully assured that what God [has] promised, He [is] able also to perform.”

Conclusion

I’ve told you before about the granny who had never flown in an airplane, but she had to make a trip by air. Her kids and grandkids all tried to convince her that it was safer than riding in a car. Finally, with a lot of misgivings, she got on board.

When she returned safely, the family met her at the airport and asked, “How’d it go, Granny? Did the plane hold you up?” She reluctantly agreed, “Yeah.” But then she added, “But I never put my full weight down on it!”

Could your faith in Jesus Christ to save you be like that? You believe in Him, but you’re also keeping one foot in your good works to get you into heaven. Saving faith puts all its weight on Jesus Christ and His shed blood. It’s rooted in God’s grace, it rests on God’s promise, it revels in God’s glory, and it relies on His power. Make sure that your trust is in Christ alone.

Application Questions

  1. Some argue that if we are saved by grace through faith alone, it will lead to licentiousness. Your answer (with biblical support)?
  2. How can a person who struggles with doubt know if he has enough faith to save him?
  3. A skeptic asks, “If God is faithful, then why does He allow good Christians to be persecuted and martyred?” Your reply?
  4. Where is the balance between faith and using means? Are the two compatible? When do we cross the line?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

http://feeds.bible.org/steve_cole/romans/cole_romans_023.mp3
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Lesson 24: What is a Christian? (Romans 4:23-25)

A former secretary of mine told me about a doctor from Texas that she knew who owned a home in Mexico. He felt sorry for the poor people there, many of whom were often sick because they didn’t pasteurize their milk. So he bought them a pasteurizing machine. The villagers built a special shed to house the machine and had a big celebration when he brought it down and installed it.

A few months later when the doctor returned, the leading man of the village greeted him by saying, “Oh, doctor, good to see you! If we had known you were coming, we would have plugged in the pasteurizing machine.”

We chuckle at that story, and yet it describes the way that many Christians use their Bibles. They know that the truths of the Bible would be good for what ails them, but they only plug it in for special occasions, like when the pastor comes around. The rest of the time, it’s as useless as an unplugged pasteurizing machine.

D. A. Carson observed (Christianity Today [6/29/1979], p. 31):

The supreme irony is that most Christians hear best what the Spirit is saying to someone else. Speak to the fundamentalist about the truth, and he hears you, precisely because he doesn’t need to; it is the person with fuzzy notions about the eternality of the truth who will not hear. Speak to the genuinely broad-minded ecumenist about love, and he hears you, precisely because he doesn’t need to, but fundamentalists of a harsher variety will not. Speak to the Ephesian Christians about discipline, endurance, perseverance, and sound doctrine, and they will hear you—precisely because they don’t need to. But will they hear when you speak of lovelessness? The one who truly hears what the Spirit says to the churches will be the one who is receptive to the words of God that he least wishes to hear.

Paul has spent an entire chapter hammering home the truth that we are justified by faith in Christ alone, not by our good works, not by our religious rituals, and not by keeping the Law of Moses. He uses Abraham as the prime example of a man who believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness (4:3, 5, 9, 22). But now, as he wraps up this chapter, he wants us to plug it in personally. He doesn’t want us to cheer and say, “Brilliant argument, Paul! You really stuck it to those religious Jews! Nice going!” No, he wants each of us to apply it on the most fundamental level so that we, too, are sure that the righteousness of Jesus Christ has been credited to our account by faith. In applying this to us, Paul gives us a simple description of what a true Christian is:

A Christian personally believes in God who delivered over Jesus to pay for our sins and raised Him from the dead to confirm our justification.

1. A Christian personally applies the lesson of Abraham’s faith so that the righteousness of Christ is credited to him.

Paul writes (4:23-24), “Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” Note four things:

A. Our faith must be personal.

Verse 24 reads literally, “to whom it is about to be credited.” The verb, “is about to,” has a future reference from the standpoint of the Old Testament, looking ahead to God’s promise as fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus (Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 242). Schreiner paraphrases it (ibid.), “Genesis 15:6 was written for the sake of those who would in the future be reckoned righteous by faith.” In other words, Paul wants us to apply personally the truth of Abraham’s being justified by faith.

We can see this in the text by the fact that Paul uses the pro­noun “our” four times: “for our sake also”; “Jesus our Lord”; “our transgressions”; and, “our justification.” These truths must be ours personally. And as C. H. Spurgeon pointed out (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 48:560), “you can never truly say, ‘Our Lord,’ till you have first said, ‘My Lord.’” Is Jesus your Lord because you personally have trusted in Him for eternal life?

Paul’s point is that this chapter about Abraham and his faith is not just a quaint history lesson. We need to apply it personally. The Bible was written so that first we would understand it, but then so that we will apply it. The story of Abraham is for your sake also. Has the righteousness of Christ been credited to your account? Romans 4 won’t do you any good unless by faith you are a true son of Abraham, an heir according to God’s promise (Gal. 3:7, 29).

Also, Romans 4 shows the importance of understanding and applying the Old Testament. Paul built the entire chapter on the story of Abraham’s faith being credited to him as righteousness. If we do not understand the Old Testament, we will not properly understand the New Testament. Douglas Moo observes (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 287), “Paul’s conviction that the OT everywhere speaks to Christians is fundamental to his theology and preaching.” As Paul goes on to say (Rom. 15:4), “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (See, also, 1 Cor. 10:11.)

So before we leave this point I want to ask you two questions: First, do you regularly read and seek to understand and apply the Old Testament? Reading through the entire Bible in a year is a good plan. I try to read from the Psalms, the Old Testament, and the New Testament, each day. Don’t neglect the Old Testament.

Second, have you put your faith in Christ alone, trusting God to credit Christ’s righteousness to your account? If you have not done that, you are not a Christian in the most important sense of the word. A Christian personally believes in Jesus Christ.

B. Our faith must be like the faith of Abraham.

Paul’s emphasis here is on the continuity and similarity of Abraham’s faith with ours. As he said (4:12), we must “follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham.” And (4:16), we are to be “of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.”

Last week we saw the nature of Abraham’s faith, which is an example for our faith. Abraham believed God’s promise and so should we. In his case, it was God’s promise to give him an heir through Sarah, to give him the land, to make him the father of many nations, and to bless the nations through his “seed.” Those promises were ultimately fulfilled in Christ. But Abraham died in faith without receiving the promises (Heb. 11:13). In our case, we look back to God’s promise to justify sinners who believe in Christ.

Also, Abraham believed God’s promise in spite of circumstances that seemed to be to the contrary. He and Sarah were both beyond the years when they could physically conceive children. It required a miracle for God to fulfill His promise. But “in hope against hope he believed” (Rom. 4:18). As we look at our own hearts and realize how sinful we have been and how inclined toward sin we still are, it seems impossible for God to save us. But, like Abraham, we must believe God’s promise in spite of circumstances that seem to be contrary.

Abraham also believed that God is able to give “life to the dead” and to call “into being that which does not exist” (4:17). In Abraham’s case, it was his and Sarah’s “dead” bodies, which were incapable of conceiving a child. Later, Abraham’s faith focused on God raising Isaac from the dead after He commanded Abraham to sacrifice him (Heb. 11:19). In our case, we must believe that God raised Jesus bodily from the dead. And, we must believe that every time God saves a soul, He is giving life to the dead (Eph. 2:1-5) and calling into being that which did not exist (2 Cor. 4:6; 5:17). In other words, the new birth is a miraculous, life-giving event.

Also, Abraham’s faith grew strong and gave glory to God, being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able to perform (4:20-21). Even so, our faith in Christ must grow stronger as we study God’s Word and learn more of His attributes and His ways. We don’t glory in our strong faith, but rather in our strong God. Our faith should point others to Him, because He is faithful.

Note also that in 3:26, Paul talks about God justifying the one who has faith in Jesus, but here (4:24) he talks about believing “in Him who raised Jesus from the dead,” namely, God the Father. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: Atonement and Justification [Zondervan], p. 238) expresses his concern that some people speak only about Jesus, but never mention God the Father. Others put the emphasis on God, but don’t see their need for Jesus. And others put all their emphasis on the Holy Spirit, while some hardly mention the Spirit. Lloyd-Jones’ plea is that we maintain the balance of Scripture, where everything starts with God and ends with God. The work of Christ is designed to bring us to God and reconcile us to Him. The work of the Holy Spirit is to apply the work of Christ to us who believe. But it is all aimed at bringing us to glorify God.

Thus our faith must be personal. It must be like the faith of Abraham, although because of God’s promise being fulfilled in Christ, we have much more revelation than Abraham did.

C. Our faith must have specific content, namely, what Scripture reveals about God, sin, Christ, and salvation.

As we saw in our last study, Abraham didn’t have faith in himself or faith in faith itself or faith in positive thinking. Rather, he believed the specific promises of God. Even so, our faith must have the specific content of what the Bible teaches about God, who is holy, just, and loving. We must believe the biblical revel­ation about the pervasiveness of human sin, which renders us all incapable of seeking after God or pleasing Him. We must believe in the full deity and sinless humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ, who came to die as the substitute for sinners. And, we must believe that we are saved—rescued from God’s wrath—by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

It is important to say that our faith must have specific content because there are those who make the false distinction that our faith must be personal, but not propositional. They argue that we are to believe in Jesus, but not in specific doctrines about Jesus or about salvation. They contend that doctrine only divides us, so we should set it aside and just believe in Jesus without the doctrines. But clearly the apostle Paul didn’t spend an entire chapter arguing that we are justified by faith alone if that doctrine doesn’t matter for our salvation!

The Bible is filled not only with stories, but also with many doctrines that are vitally important to our salvation and our spiritual health. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons claim to believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord, but their doctrines contradict and deny the Jesus and the way of salvation set forth in the Bible. There are many Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Protestants who believe in the Jesus of the Bible (not in the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormon “Jesus”), but contrary to Scripture, they believe that we are saved at least in part by our good works. But Paul said that the Judaizers, who taught that to be saved we must believe in Jesus plus keep the Mosaic Law (especially circumcision), were damned (Gal. 1:6-9). So we must believe in sound doctrine, especially regarding doctrines related to salvation.

Of course, some doctrines in the Bible are more important than other doctrines are (Matt. 23:23; Rom. 14:17). We should not divide over minor doctrinal differences or even over more major doctrines (such as biblical prophecy) where godly men differ. So we need wisdom and discernment to major in the things that matter. We all need to be growing in our understanding of the content of the Bible so that we don’t minimize key doctrines or maximize minor ones.

D. Our faith must appropriate the righteousness of Christ as our own.

Paul keeps repeating the word “credited” (4:3, 5-6, 8, 9-11, 22, 23, 24) to hammer home the point that righteousness before God is a forensic matter. It is not a matter of God making us righteous or infusing righteousness into us, which is the process of sanctification. Rather, justification is God’s declaring us to be righteous based on Jesus taking all of our sins on Himself on the cross. God credits the perfect righteousness of Christ to every ungodly person who believes in Him (4:5).

I’ve said it before, but let me emphasize once more that God does not credit our faith as righteousness as if faith were a work on our part that God agrees to accept as payment for our sins. Our faith is not viewed as some sort of righteousness that is good enough to cover our sins. Rather, faith lays hold of Jesus Christ, who becomes the righteousness of God for us (1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21). By faith, God’s righteousness in Christ is applied to us (Rom. 3:22). So when Paul talks about faith being credited as righteousness (4:3, 5, 9, 22), it is the same thing as when he says that God credits righteousness to us apart from works (4:6, 11). The righteousness of faith (4:11, 13) is God’s righteousness that comes to us through faith in Jesus Christ.

John Piper devotes an entire message to explain this in far more detail than I can do here (“Faith and the Imputation of Righteousness,” on Rom. 4:22-25, on DesiringGod.org). He uses this illustration:

Suppose I say to Barnabas, my sixteen-year-old son, “Clean up your room before you go to school. You must have a clean room, or you won’t be able to go watch the game tonight.” Well, suppose he plans poorly and leaves for school without cleaning the room. And suppose I discover the messy room and clean it. His afternoon fills up and he gets home just before it’s time to leave for the game and realizes what he has done and feels terrible. He apologizes and humbly accepts the consequences.

To which I say, “Barnabas, I am going to credit your apology and submission as a clean room. I said, ‘You must have a clean room, or you won’t be able to go watch the game tonight.’ Your room is clean. So you can go to the game.” What I mean when I say, “I credit your apology as a clean room,” is not that the apology is the clean room. Nor that he really cleaned his room. I cleaned it. It was pure grace. All I mean is that, in my way of reckoning—in my grace—his apo­logy connects him with the promise given for a clean room. The clean room is his clean room. I credit it to him. Or, I credit his apology as a clean room. You can say it either way. And Paul said it both ways: “Faith is credited as righ­teousness,” and “God credits righteousness to us through faith.”

So when God says … to those who believe in Christ, “I credit your faith as righteousness,” he does not mean that your faith is righteousness. He means that your faith connects you to God’s righteousness.

Thus Paul is saying that a Christian personally applies the lesson of Abraham’s faith so that the righteousness of Christ is credited to him. Have you done that? It is essential!

2. A Christian believes that God delivered over Jesus to pay the penalty for our sins.

Here we are focusing on the phrase, “He who was delivered over because of our transgressions” (4:25). “Delivered over” is passive, meaning that God delivered Jesus over to death. There is a sense in which Jesus voluntarily gave Himself over to death (John 10:18), but there is another sense in which the Father delivered over the Son (Rom. 8:32). Romans 4:25 is not a quotation, but it relies in substance on Isaiah 53:12 (LXX), which states of Messiah, “his soul was delivered to death: and he was numbered among the transgressors; and he bore the sins of many and was delivered over because of their iniquities.” Or, as it says just a few verses earlier (Isa. 53:6), “The Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.” Or, again (Isa. 53:10), “But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, …” The last two phrases refer to the resurrection, which we will look at in a moment.

Peter mentions God’s delivering Jesus over to be crucified in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:23): “This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.” He goes on to affirm that God raised Him up again.

But the point is, our salvation, which includes at its center Jesus’ death on the cross, was not an unfortunate moment in history when evil men gained the upper hand. Although they were fully responsible for their sin, the crucifixion was God’s prede­termined plan to give His eternal Son to pay the penalty for our sins. A Christian believes that salvation is from the Lord so that it all is “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (Eph. 1:6). Finally,

3. A Christian believes that God raised Jesus bodily from the dead to confirm our justification.

Paul emphasizes Jesus’ resurrection from the dead twice here: “Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (4:24); and, Jesus “was raised because of our justification” (4:25). As Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is central to our faith and our forgiveness. And, it is based on solid, varied eyewitness testimony. He says there (1 Cor. 15:17), “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” In Romans 1:4, Paul says that Jesus “was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead.” The resurrection puts God’s stamp of approval on the death of Jesus as payment in full for the sins of all who believe.

The phrase, “Jesus our Lord,” emphasizes both His deity and His humanity. Jesus took on human flesh so that He could bear our sins, but He did not give up His deity. He is the Lord. But as I said, we must trust in Him as our Lord personally.

The phrase, “raised because of our justification,” is a bit difficult. It is parallel with the phrase, “delivered up because of our transgressions.” Perhaps the simplest way to understand it is that Jesus was delivered up to death as a consequence (“because”) of our sin; He was raised as a consequence (“because”) of our justification, which He achieved by His death (Rom. 5:9). In other words, when God raised Jesus, He put His seal of approval on Christ’s death as obtaining our justification (Murray J. Harris, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. by Colin Brown [Zondervan], 3:1184). So the resurrection confirms that our justification was valid and acceptable to the Father.

Conclusion

Note carefully that not everyone is justified. Jesus’ death only justifies “those who believe in Him who raised Jesus from the dead” (4:24). In other words, this truth that God delivered Jesus over to pay for our sins and raised Him from the dead to affirm our justification will save you only if you personally believe it. The pasteurizing machine only benefits you if you plug it in and actually use it to pasteurize your milk. This wonderful doctrine of justification by faith that Paul has spent an entire chapter hammering home was not written as a quaint history lesson about Abraham. It was written for your sake. God will credit the righteousness of Christ to your account the instant that you believe in Him. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead affirms that it is true!

So what is a Christian? A Christian is a person who personally believes in God who delivered over Jesus to pay for our sins and raised Him from the dead to confirm our justification. Make sure that you are a true Christian through faith in Jesus Christ!

Application Questions

  1. Much of the Old Testament is hard to read and understand. Why should we read it? How can we understand it better?
  2. Since it is possible to “believe in vain” (1 Cor. 15:2), how can we make sure that our faith is genuine?
  3. Why does doctrine matter? How can we hold to sound doctrine without being needlessly divisive? What guidelines exist?
  4. Is the substitutionary atonement essential for salvation? Why?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 25: The Blessings of Justification (Romans 5:1-2)

If you were to ask many Christians what words they associate with “doctrine,” you would probably hear, “boring,” or “irrelevant.” We tend to be pragmatists who view the doctrines of the Bible as something that interests theologians or seminary students, strange breed that they are. But we want something practical. We want to know how to deal with the problems we face every day. So we tend to skip the doctrine and move on to the how-to’s.

The apostle Paul would be baffled by that approach. He would view it as building a house without a foundation. In all of his letters, he first sets forth the doctrine and then draws the practical applications from it. In Romans, he spends 11 chapters laying the doctrinal foundation before he gets really practical. But even within the first 11 chapters, he can’t resist drawing out the practical implications of the doctrines that he sets forth. So in chapter 5, he gives us some wonderful blessings that flow from the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which he has laid down in 3:19-4:25.

Some scholars argue for a major break between chapters 4 & 5, so that chapters 5-8 form a unit that sets forth the hope and assurance of believers. Others understand chapter 5 as concluding the section that began at 3:19, dealing with justification by faith. Still others make the break at 5:12. I would not be dogmatic, but I am comfortable viewing chapter 5 as the conclusion of the earlier section dealing with salvation, with chapter 6 beginning to deal with sanctification. But however you outline it, the themes of hope and assurance certainly are prominent in chapters 5-8.

In 5:1-11, the word “exult” occurs three times: Paul exults in the hope of glory (5:2); he exults in his tribulations (5:3); and he exults in God (5:11). The theme of reconciliation with God (5:10-11) ties back in to the opening theme of peace with God (5:1). So we could view the entire section as “exulting in the blessings of justification.” Today we can only look at 5:1-2, where Paul sets forth three blessings that come from justification:

Justification by faith gives us peace with God, access to His grace, and the joyous confidence that we will share His glory.

1. Justification by faith gives us peace with God.

“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1). Before we go farther, I should mention that there is a textual variant consisting of a single letter in the Greek text which would make the verse read, “let us have peace with God.” It is an unusual situation in that the strongest manuscripts support “let us,” but almost all scholars argue on the basis of the flow of thought that Paul wrote, “we have peace with God.” There are no other exhortations in 5:1-11. Rather, Paul sets forth the wonderful blessings that flow from the fact of our justification. So it is almost certain that Paul wrote, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1).

Peace with God is the most wonderful gift that anyone can possess! This does not refer to the feeling of inner peace, but rather to the objective fact of peace. People may feel at peace with God when in fact they are in danger of His judgment (Jer. 6:14). Genuine peace with God means that we are truly reconciled with Him. We are no longer enemies with God, but friends with Him. We do not need to fear His judgment.

Because of the universality of sin, the human race is by nature at war against God. Many may feel at peace because they do not comprehend God’s absolute holiness or their own sinfulness. But because of sin, the wrath of God abides on all who do not believe in and obey Jesus Christ (John 3:36). As Paul wrote (Rom. 1:18), “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”

This means that unless people come to peace with God on His terms, when they die they will face His eternal judgment. They may be the world’s greatest philanthropists, who have given millions to help the poor. But philanthropy will not atone for their many sins. They may be the nicest, most loving people you could know. But all the niceness and love that anyone can show will not atone for the many sins that we all commit. They may be fastidious about their religious duties, but the most religious people in the world cannot gain an entrance to heaven by their religious observance. None of these things gain genuine peace with God. So, how do we get it?

A. To have peace with God, you must be justified by faith.

If you do not know what it means to be justified by faith, please go back to the previous seven messages from Romans 3:21-4:25, where we covered this in depth. It means that God declares an ungodly person to be righteous based on that person’s trusting Christ’s death as the payment for his or her sins. It is not something that we earn or deserve. It is a gift of grace alone (4:5).

Paul’s statement implies that we can know for certain that we have been justified by faith and that we now are at peace with God. If we’re justified by adding our good works to what Christ did on the cross, we can never know that we’ve done enough. When have you done enough penance to be justified? When have you served enough or given enough money to the church? When have you been good enough? The system of works keeps everyone uncertain about whether they are saved or not and it keeps them dependent on the church. But Paul implies here that we can know that we are justified by faith alone. We trust in Christ’s death on our behalf to pay for our sins. As a consequence, we do not need to fear God’s judgment. “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1). But note:

B. To have peace with God, you must have the Lord Jesus Christ as your Redeemer and Mediator.

“We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1). This means that peace with God is not due to any merits or efforts on our part, but rather through what the Lord Jesus Christ has done for us on the cross. Douglas Moo observes (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 300):

That all God has for us is to be found “in” or “through” Jesus Christ our Lord is a persistent motif in Rom. 5-8: peace with God comes “through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1); our boasting in God is “through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:11); grace reigns through righteousness, resulting in eternal life “through Jesus Christ our Lord” (5:21); the gift of God bringing eternal life is “in Christ Jesus our Lord” (6:23); thanks for deliverance are due to God “through Jesus Christ our Lord” (7:25); the love of God, from which nothing can ever separate the believer is “in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39). When we consider that these phrases occur in only one other verse in Romans (15:30), and that every chapter in this part of the letter concludes on this note, a very definite focus on this matter is evident here.

The full title, “our Lord Jesus Christ,” looks at all that He is for us. First, He is our Lord, which focuses on His deity and His sovereign authority. We are His subjects or slaves. When you become a Christian, there is no option to believe in Jesus as your Savior, but to wait before you submit to Him as your Lord. He is both Savior and Lord, which means that you begin the Christian life by submitting all of yourself that you are aware of to all of Christ that you know. As you grow in Him, you learn more of who He is and what He commands and you see more areas in your life that you need to submit to Him, including your thought life. Jesus is the only rightful Lord of everything.

As Jesus, He is fully human. He took on human flesh in the incarnation, yet apart from sin. He lived in perfect dependence on the Father, in perfect obedience to His will. He went to the cross to atone for our sins (Rom. 3:24-26).

As Christ, Jesus is God’s Anointed One, the promised Messiah (“Christ” is Greek and “Messiah” is Hebrew for “Anointed One”). As such, Jesus is God’s appointed prophet, priest, and king. As God’s anointed prophet, Jesus spoke the very words of God to us (John 8:16-17). As God’s high priest, Jesus offered Himself once for all to atone for our sins. Now He lives to make intercession for us (Heb. 7:24-28). As God’s anointed king, Jesus is the rightful Sovereign over our lives. He is coming again to rule the nations with a rod of iron and to tread the winepress of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty (Rev. 19:15).

This means that the only way to have peace with God is through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no other way of salvation (Acts 4:12).

2. Justification by faith gives us access to our standing in the riches of God’s grace.

Paul continues (5:2), “Through whom we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand.” Some early manuscripts omit “by faith,” but the context makes it clear that we receive all of God’s benefits through faith in Christ. Two things:

A. Our access to God comes through the Lord Jesus Christ.

“Through whom” refers to Christ. “Introduction” may point to our initial introduction into the sphere of God’s grace. The word is used in extra-biblical Greek for introducing someone to royalty (William Barclay, The Letter to the Romans [Westminster Press], rev. ed., p. 73). Other New Testament authors use the verb to refer to bringing someone into another person’s presence (Matt. 18:24; Luke 9:41; 1 Pet. 3:18). So it could refer to our initial introduction to God’s grace when we first believed.

Or it may refer to our ongoing access to the treasures of grace. Paul is the only author to use the noun and both of the other times, he uses it to refer to ongoing access. In Ephesians 2:18, he says, “for through Him we both [Jews and Gentiles] have our access in one Spirit to God the Father.” In Ephesians 3:12 he adds, “in whom [Christ Jesus our Lord] we have boldness and confident access through faith in Him.” I lean towards this idea here. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, we can come again and again into the presence of Almighty God to receive grace for every need!

This means that we do not need another way of access to God. Jesus is the only way (John 14:6). We do not need to pray to Mary or the saints or to go through a priest. Rather, we come directly to the Father in the name of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. That gains us access, any time and anywhere.

The late Donald Grey Barnhouse (Epistle to the Romans [Bible Study Hour], Part 19, p. 1007) told a story about Abraham Lincoln that illustrates this point. A Southern soldier who had been freed from a prison camp because he was too wounded to return to active duty was seeking access to the President to intercede for his brother in a prison camp who was the sole support of their mother. But the White House guards would not let him in to talk to President Lincoln. He had no access.

One day the President’s young son, Tad Lincoln, was walking near the White House and saw the wounded veteran crying as he sat on a bench. The boy went up and asked him what the matter was. The soldier explained that he wanted to get in to see Mr. Lincoln to tell him about his brother, but the guards would not let him in. The President’s son took the man by the hand, led him past the guards, who all saluted, and brought the man into the presence of his father.

Barnhouse says that the story may be apocryphal, but it illustrates what the Lord Jesus, the Son of God, has done for us. We were desolate and alone, wounded by our sin. We had no way to come into God’s holy presence. On the cross, Jesus tore the veil into the holy of holies. When we come in faith to Him, He clothes us with His righteousness.  Now He takes us by the hand and leads us again and again, at any time we have need, into the presence of His Father. What a wonderful blessing to have access to God!

B. Our access to God puts us in permanent standing in the riches of God’s grace.

Paul pictures God’s grace as a realm in which we stand. The verb tense of “have obtained” and “in which we stand” implies past action with ongoing results. In other words, we have gained entrance and now have ongoing standing in this realm of God’s grace. “Stand” implies a place of solid footing, or a place where we belong by right—not in ourselves, but by our union with Jesus Christ, the rightful heir.

In Ephesians 2:7, Paul says that in the ages to come God will “show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” In Ephesians 3:8 he describes it as “the unfathomable riches of Christ.” It will take all eternity for God to show us the various treasure rooms, loaded with all of the blessings that come to us by free grace through Jesus Christ! It’s as if we’ve been given unlimited blank checks to the bank account of a billionaire like Bill Gates and told, “Use it any time you have a need.”

Either you relate to God by trying to earn His favor by keeping the Law, which only brings His wrath when you disobey (4:15); or by receiving His undeserved favor through all that Christ did for you on the cross. It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? When you trust in Christ, He becomes your way of access into the presence of God, who now relates to you as a loving Father. Some of you may have had angry fathers who seemed to be against you and who always said “no.” But listen to how Paul describes the riches of God’s grace in which we stand (8:31b-35a):

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ?

Again, the way to gain access to permanent standing in God’s grace is by being justified by faith alone in Christ alone. Justification by faith gives us peace with God and access to the surpassing riches of His grace. Finally,

3. Justification by faith gives us the joyous confidence that we will share His glory.

Paul concludes these two packed verses (5:2), “and we exult in hope of the glory of God.” Note two things:

A. Sharing in God’s glory is our certain future.

Hope in the New Testament is not something uncertain, as when we say, “I hope it doesn’t snow tomorrow.” Rather, it is absolutely certain because it is based on the sure promises of God, who never fails. But we hope for it because we have not yet received the promise (8:24-25). It’s as if when you were a kid your dad promised, “For your birthday, I’ll give you a new bike.” You know that your dad does not lie or tease you on something like this. You know that he has plenty of money to keep his promise. It’s just that your birthday is still a month away. The bike is yours and it’s certain, but you don’t yet have it; so you hope for it.

What does Paul mean when he says that we hope in the glory of God? It means in part that he eagerly looked forward to seeing the glory of God. God’s glory is the radiant splendor of His being. It is the visible manifestation of all of His perfect attributes. It was what Moses asked to see, but God told Him that He would show him His back, because no man could see God’s face and live (Exod. 33:18-23). But in heaven, we will see God (Matt. 5:8). It will be the most beautiful, stupendous sight that we’ve ever seen!

Paul also means that he hopes to see the glory of Christ. In His high priestly prayer, Jesus asked that His disciples might see His glory (John 17:24). Peter, James, and John got a glimpse of Jesus’ glory on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:2; 2 Pet. 1:16-18). John saw it again in Revelation (1:13-17). Paul was blinded by the heavenly vision on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:3-6). He saw it again when he was caught up to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:1-6). But in heaven, we will see the glory of the risen Lamb who was slain (Rev. 7:9-17).

But beyond seeing the glory of the Father and the glory of our Lord Jesus, we are promised that we also will share in His glory! We lost that glory as a race when Adam sinned (Rom. 3:23), but when we see Jesus, we will be fully conformed to His image, free from all sin and from every shortcoming (Rom. 8:29; 1 John 3:2). And thus we will be glorified with Him (Rom. 8:17). It’s our certain future! But this isn’t just a truth to grasp with our intellects.

B. The confidence of sharing in God’s glory causes us joyous exultation right now.

“We exult in hope of the glory of God.” “Exult” is a favorite word with Paul that means literally, to boast or glory in. It contains the idea both of confidence and joy, so that it can be rendered, “we are joyfully confident of” (Moo, ibid., pp. 301-302). While it’s wrong to boast in man, it’s right to boast in God, because it brings Him the glory He deserves (1 Cor. 1:31; Gal. 6:14; Phil. 3:3).

But—and I admit that I fall far short here—to exult in hope of the glory of God is not just an intellectual truth to affirm. It’s also an emotional response that we should have even, as verse 3 shows, in the face of trials (see, also, 1 Pet. 4:13). In my case, as perhaps you will admit for yourself, I just don’t spend enough time meditating on the hope of seeing and sharing in the glory of God.

Dr. Barnhouse (ibid., Part 20, pp. 1037-1038) illustrated the joys of heaven by picturing a soldier in a cold foxhole, eating K-rations. He has to stay there day and night to hold his unit’s position against the enemy. Then one night he hears a voice call out his name and serial number. It’s another soldier telling him, “I have orders to replace you. You are to go out on the next Red Cross flight. An order has come for you to go home. You have to go back to your mother’s house. They’re going to give you a hot shower and clean clothes. You have to go home and eat your mother’s Southern fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy, with apple pie and ice cream for dessert.” And the soldier replies, “Oh! You don’t mean that I’m going to have to leave this nice foxhole and give up my K-rations, do you?”

Barnhouse says, “We smile at the absurdity of the idea, and yet there are some believers, perhaps some of you … who are unwilling to leave your foxhole in this life to go to the Heavenly home to sit down at the banquet table of our God and to fellowship with Him in [the] joys of Heaven ….”

Conclusion

So to conclude, I ask you three questions:

         Have you been justified by faith so that you enjoy peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ?

         Do you frequently utilize your access to God and the riches of His grace through our Lord Jesus Christ?

         Do you exult in your certain future of sharing God’s glory?

These are just a few of the blessings of being justified by faith in Jesus Christ!

Application Questions

  1. If peace with God is not primarily a feeling, but a fact, how can you know if you’ve got it?
  2. Why does justification by works (even in part) completely undermine the possibility of assurance of salvation?
  3. Some argue that if God’s grace is completely undeserved, it will lead to licentious living. How would you refute this?
  4. How can a Christian who does not exult in the hope of God’s glory grow in this area? Why should we?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 26: Exulting in Trials (Romans 5:3-5)

I always dread preaching about suffering, because as I have told you, preaching is a lot like throwing a boomerang. You aim it at the congregation, but it comes back and hits you first! And who wants to be hit with the thought of “exulting in trials”? I’d rather not have to practice what I preach on this topic!

But trials are a fact of living in this fallen world, so we all need to learn what God’s Word tells us about how to handle them. The problem is, the biblical approach to trials is just plain nuts! Paul says that he exults in his tribulations. Maybe we could explain him away as being a bit carried away, but then what do we do with Jesus? He tells us (Matt. 5:11-12), “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great.”

But it’s not just Paul and Jesus. James (1:2-3) says the same thing: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” Peter is of the same mind (1 Pet. 4:13-14): “But to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.”

When you trace the behavior of the apostles through the Book of Acts, you discover that they actually practiced this strange response to trials. When the Jewish Sanhedrin flogged the apostles, we read (Acts 5:41), “So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name.” When Paul and Silas were illegally beaten, imprisoned, and fastened into the stocks in Philippi, we read (Acts 16:25), “But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God.” Paul told the Corinthians (2 Cor. 12:9b-10), “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” And the author of Hebrews reminded his readers (Heb. 10:34), “For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one.”

So we can’t escape the fact that this strange response of exulting in trials is the uniform teaching of the New Testament. But if you’re like me, you’ll have to admit that it is not your standard response! Some of us may be able to say that we don’t complain about our trials. We grit our teeth and stoically endure them. A few may be able to say that you usually rejoice in spite of your trials. But how many of us can honestly say that we exult in our trials? So we all have something to learn here.

Paul is continuing to enumerate the blessings of being justified by faith (5:1-2), as seen by his words, “And not only this ….” Probably he is answering an unexpressed objection to his teaching in verses 1 & 2: “Paul, you say that you have peace with God and that you now stand in His grace. You exult in the future hope of the glory of God. But why doesn’t God protect you from trials right now? If you’re the object of His love and grace, shouldn’t you be enjoying a trouble-free life?” So Paul is showing why God brings trials into the lives of His saints: because through the trials, we grow in endurance, proven character, and hope. And our hope will not disappoint, because even now God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

By the way, note that Paul mentions the three persons of the Trinity in 5:1-5. We have peace with God [the Father] through the Lord Jesus Christ. God has given us the Holy Spirit. Each person of the Trinity plays a role in our salvation and preservation as God’s children. In our text, Paul is saying,

We can exult in trials if we develop God’s perspective and keep in mind that trials do not nullify His great love for us.

1. To exult in trials, develop and maintain God’s perspective: He is using trials to shape our character and prepare us for heaven.

Regarding exulting in our tribulations, Thomas Schreiner (Romans [Baker], p. 255) observes, “This is an astonishing statement since future glorification is prized precisely because afflictions are left behind.” To get a handle on what Paul means and how we can grow in this strange virtue, let’s explore four thoughts:

A. Exulting in trials is not an automatic response: It requires deliberate focus.

If exulting in trials were the automatic response, we’d see multitudes of people rejoicing, because nobody lacks trials. Instead, we often see multitudes complaining about their trials. Even among Christians, grumbling about trials is far more common than rejoicing or exulting in them (the word, literally, is boasting or glorying in). Whether it’s being caught in a traffic jam when we’re late for an appointment or something more major, like being diagnosed with cancer, our knee-jerk response is to grumble, not to exult.

We see this with the children of Israel after the exodus. God has brought them out of slavery in Egypt by inflicting the plagues on the Egyptians and then parting the Red Sea so that Israel could escape from Pharaoh’s army, which was drowned when they tried to pursue Israel. Israel celebrated God’s miraculous salvation with singing and dancing. Then we read that they went three days in the wilderness and found only bitter water. Did they rejoice and exult, saying, “Let’s see how the Lord will provide”? No, we read (Exod. 15:24), “So the people grumbled at Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” The Lord told Moses how to make the water drinkable.

But in the very next chapter, we read that the whole congregation grumbled again, saying that they should have stayed in Egypt, where they had plenty to eat (Exod. 16:2-3). So God graciously provided daily manna for them. But then as they traveled across the desert, in spite of God’s provision, they grumbled again about having no water (Exod. 17:3). Their history for those 40 years was that of constant complaining in spite of God’s gracious provision. Paul uses their story as a warning to us, so that we will not grumble in our trials, as they did (1 Cor. 10:6-11).

In Philippians 2:14-15, Paul exhorts us to follow the example he set when he was falsely accused, beaten, and wrongly imprisoned in Philippi: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world.” Isn’t that the truth! We live in a grumbling world. If we don’t grumble, but are cheerful and even exult in trials, whether the minor irritations at work or the major trials in our personal lives, we’re going to shine like lights in the darkness. But this doesn’t happen automatically. It requires deliberate focus.

B. Exulting in trials does not mean denying the pain.

The Bible does not encourage us to deny reality, put on a happy face, and pretend that we’re just praising the Lord, when in fact we’re hurting inside. Later in Romans (12:15), Paul says, “weep with those who weep.” He does not say, “Exhort those who weep to exult in their trials!”

I’ll never forget my 36th birthday. I had to conduct a funeral for a man in his late thirties who died of cancer. He left behind a wife who had already battled breast cancer. Two and a half years later I had to conduct her funeral as she succumbed to the disease. They had two young children. Before he died, Scott asked me to preach at his funeral on his favorite chapter, Isaiah 40.

After the service, as I was consoling the widow, who of course was weeping, her former pastor from another town bounced up with a silly grin on his face and said in an upbeat voice, “Praise the Lord! Scott’s in glory now!” I wanted to punch him in the mouth! I wanted to scream, “Let her weep and weep with her!” Exulting in trials does not mean denying the pain.

Paul acknowledges the tension when he describes himself (2 Cor. 6:10), “as sorrowful yet always rejoicing.” He goes on to describe how in his trials his emotions were all over the chart, but he had God’s comfort (2 Cor. 7:4b-6). Undergirding all of his trials was genuine joy in the Lord. The author of Hebrews recognizes the same tension when he says (12:11), “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” You see the same thing throughout the Psalms. The psalmist is in a situation where he despairs of life itself. His enemies are trying to kill him. Sometimes he even questions where God is or why God delays. He expresses his anguish and pain as he cries out to the Lord. But by the end of the psalm, even though he’s still in grave danger, he is filled with joy and praise to God.

So there’s nothing wrong with feeling sorrow or pain or grief in the midst of a difficult trial. We shouldn’t deny these feelings in an attempt to look more spiritual. But through our tears and pain, we should be sustained by our hope in the promises of God. We know that He is sovereign over all things and that He cares for us. Exulting in our tribulations does not mean denying the pain.

C. Exulting in trials is possible when we keep in mind that God is using the trials to shape our character.

After mentioning exulting in his tribulations, Paul continues (5:3b-4), “knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope.” Don’t miss the word, “knowing.” This is part of the deliberate focus that I just mentioned. Our mental focus must include some vital knowledge, namely, that God is using the trials to shape our character, if we submit joyfully to Him. Not everyone grows in the way that Paul describes here. We will grow only if we submit joyfully to God because we keep in mind that He is sovereign and that He is using these trials to make us more like Christ.

Note the chain of thought here: Tribulation (lit., “pressure”) brings about perseverance (endurance or steadfastness). Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Rom. 5:3, p. 190) points out that you don’t need endurance if you’re not feeling distressed and sorrowful. But, he adds, when you regard your trials as dispensed from a kind Father for your good, you feel great comfort. When you know that God is promoting your salvation, you have a reason for glorying.

So Paul’s point is, you don’t develop endurance unless you go through trials. You don’t have to endure when everything is going your way. It’s not difficult to trust the Lord when you’re experiencing nothing but blessings. But will you endure by faith when life is hard? Will you trust God and submit to His mighty hand when you lose your job or when you’re going through a hard time in your marriage or when you’re diagnosed with a serious disease?

Perseverance produces proven character. This is a single word in Greek that means something that has passed the test. It comes out approved. In the desert west of here, south of Kingman, there is a Ford proving ground. They put their vehicles through various tests to prove that they will hold up in extreme situations. Once their trucks pass the test, they can confidently say, “Ford trucks are built to last.” They’ve proven their character.

When you go through a trial trusting in God, your faith becomes proven. You’ve been through the test and passed. You know by experience that you can lean on His faithfulness. It proves that you’re not just a flash in the pan Christian, like the seed on the shallow soil, which faded quickly under the heat of trials. Perseverance works proven character.

Then Paul adds that proven character works hope. This brings us back full circle to verse 2, where we who have been justified by faith “exult in hope of the glory of God.” It’s the same hope, but now it’s stronger. It works like this (I’m following Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Assurance [Zondervan], p. 71): The initial hope comes from understanding the blessing of being justified by faith. We begin the Christian life full of faith and hope. Then we get hit by difficult trials. We cling to God like we’ve never had to cling before. We prove His faithfulness and He develops proven character in us as we endure. We come out the other side more certain of the hope of eternal glory with Him than we were before the trials. Our hope is stronger because it has been tempered in the flames of affliction. That leads to the last thought under this heading:

D. Exulting in trials requires developing and remembering the hope of heaven.

Our hope is not in a trouble-free life, but rather in a glorious, trouble-free eternity. To exult in our present trials, we have to keep our focus on the hope of the glory of God, which we will experience in heaven. Paul put it this way (2 Cor. 4:16-18): “Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” Paul could maintain hope and not lose heart in what he describes as “momentary, light affliction” (light!) because his focus was on the eternal hope of heaven.

Critics will say that Christianity is just “pie in the sky when you die.” The answer to that charge is, “Yes, you’re going to die. Would you like pie with that or no pie?” Your decaying outer man—graying and thinning hair, failing eyesight and hearing, and increasing aches and pains, are broadcasting a clear message to your brain, which can’t remember things any more: You’re going to die! Either you have the hope of heaven because you have trusted in Jesus Christ to forgive all your sins, or you have no hope. The only way to exult in trials is to develop and remember the sure hope of heaven. It is certain because it is based on Jesus’ resurrection and His promise to return and take us to be with Him (John 14:1-3).

Paul adds, “and hope does not disappoint.” Literally, “hope does not make us ashamed.” The phrase is rooted in the Old Testament. In Psalm 22:4-5, the psalmist in great distress cries out, “In You our fathers trusted; they trusted and You delivered them. To You they cried out and were delivered; in You they trusted and were not disappointed.” That last phrase is literally, “they were not put to shame.” In Psalm 25:3, David proclaims, “Indeed, none of those who wait for You will be ashamed.”

The idea is, if you trust in God and He fails, you’re going to be put to shame. Others will mock and say, “He trusted in God, but God didn’t come through! What a joke! There is no reality in trusting God!” (See Ps. 22:7-8.) Keep in mind that Psalm 22 is a picture of Christ on the cross. His murderers were gloating in His death. Sometimes God permits His children to go through terrible persecution and martyrdom. They are only vindicated in the final resurrection. So if heaven is not true, we will be put to eternal shame. We will be eternally disappointed. But if it is true—and the resurrection of Jesus guarantees it—then even if we suffer persecution and a martyr’s death, our hope will not disappoint or put us to shame. We will wear the victor’s crown in the glory of heaven throughout all eternity.

Thus, to exult in trials, develop and maintain God’s perspective: He is using trials to shape our character and prepare us for heaven.

“But,” a critic may ask, “what about God’s love? If God really loves you, wouldn’t He spare you all of these trials?”

2. To exult in trials, we must keep in mind that trials do not nullify God’s great love for us.

The reason that hope does not disappoint is (5:5b), “because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Paul is talking here about God’s love for us, as verses 6-8 plainly show. He did not see suffering as an indication that God does not love us. Quite the contrary, as he will show at the end of Romans 8, neither tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword can separate us from God’s great love. Keep your focus on God’s love and you can exult in trials.

Paul says that God’s love “has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” The tense of “poured out” indicates past action with continuing results, which especially points to God’s great love as we experience it at the time we are saved. “Given” points to the fact that the Holy Spirit is given to every believer at the moment of salvation. Because the Holy Spirit is God, it means that God Himself comes to dwell in our hearts. The Spirit makes us aware of God’s great love in sending His own Son to die for our sins. “Poured out” implies an abundant, continued supply of His love refreshing and sustaining us, especially in our trials.

This experience of God’s love comes to us as we meditate on the amazing truth of the gospel, that the Father gave His eternal Son, who willingly took the punishment we deserved so that God can be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. As Charles Wesley put it, “Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou my God shouldst die for me!” Don’t ever get over the wonder of it! Let the Spirit wash you daily in the amazing love of God!

In your trials, whether minor or great, remember Jesus’ words just before the cross (John 15:20-21): “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they keep My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.” Did Jesus’ trials even hint that the Father did not love Him? Of course not! Neither do yours. To exult in trials, drink deeply of God’s great love, poured out in your heart by the Holy Spirit whom He gave to you.

Conclusion

James Boice (Romans: Volume 2: The Reign of Grace [Baker], pp. 533-534) concludes his sermon on these verses by telling about how the church in China grew exponentially during the terrible persecution under the Communists. An American student was going to Hong Kong to study the Chinese church. Before he left the States, a friend had asked him, “If God loves the Chinese church so much, why did he allow so much suffering to come upon it?” The student had no answer.

But after he had traveled to China and had talked in depth with many Chinese Christians, he decided to go back to America and ask his friend this question: “If God loves the American church so much, why hasn’t he allowed us to suffer like the church in China?”

It is a good question because trials are not to harm us. Rather, God uses them to shape us into the image of Christ. He uses them to strengthen our hope of heaven. Trials are a part of the “all things” that He works “together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (8:28). Even as strange as it may seem, we can exult in them.

Application Questions

  1. How can a Christian who is a perpetual grumbler break this sinful habit? What steps would you advise?
  2. If we feel depressed and discouraged in our trials, should we just accept it or fight it? How would you fight it?
  3. If a Christian tells you that she doesn’t feel loved by God, how would you counsel her? Are her feelings important or should she just ignore them and “trust God in spite of them”?
  4. How can we know that our hope of heaven will not disappoint? What anchors our hope to make it sure?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 27: God’s Amazing Love (Romans 5:6-8)

In 1861, a wild gambler and drinker named Harry Moorhouse rushed into a revival meeting in Manchester, England, looking for a fight. But instead he got saved. Six years later, the famous evangelist, D. L. Moody, was preaching in Dublin when Moorhouse came up and told Moody he would like to come to America and preach the gospel. Moody guessed Moorhouse to be about 17 (although he was older). He didn’t know if Moorhouse could preach, so he brushed him off.

But after Moody got back to Chicago, he got a letter from Moorhouse saying that he had landed in New York and he would come and preach. Moody wrote a cold reply, saying that if he came west to call on him. A few days later, Moody got a letter saying that Moorhouse would be in Chicago the next Thursday. Moody didn’t know what to do with him, so he told his deacons, “There is a man coming from England who wants to preach. I’m going to be gone Thursday and Friday. If you let him preach those days, I’ll be back Saturday and take him off your hands.”

On Saturday Moody returned and asked his wife how the young Englishman had gotten along. Did the people like him? She said they liked him very much. “Did you like him?” “Yes,” she said, “very much. He preached two sermons from John 3:16. I think you’ll like him, but he preaches a little different than you do.”

“How is that?” Moody asked.

“Well, he tells sinners that God loves them,” she replied.

“Well,” Moody said, “he’s wrong.”

Moody went to hear him that night, determined that he would not like him. But that first night as Moorhouse preached again from John 3:16 on God’s great love for sinners, Moody’s heart began to thaw out and he could not hold back the tears. For seven nights, Moorhouse preached to a crowded church on John 3:16.

The final night Moorhouse concluded his sermon by saying, “My friends, for a whole week I have been trying to tell you how much God loves you, but I cannot do it with this poor stammering tongue. If I could borrow Jacob’s ladder, and climb up into Heaven, and ask Gabriel, who stands in the presence of the Almighty, if he could tell me how much love the Father has for the world, all he could say would be, ‘For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.’”

Those sermons changed D. L. Moody’s life. He said, “I have never forgotten those nights. I have preached a different gospel since, and I have had more power with God and man since then.” (I collated this story from A. P. Fitt, The Life of D. L. Moody [Moody Press], pp. 53-56, and Roger Steer, George Muller: Delighted in God [Harold Shaw], pp. 260-262.)

Romans 5:8 is the apostle Paul’s version of John 3:16: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Paul wants us to know and experience even more deeply the truth of verse 5, that “the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

In verses 6-8, Paul is explaining further (“for”) this life-changing truth of God’s great love for us as sinners. In doing so, he is showing why our hope of heaven will not disappoint us (5:5). This, as we saw in our last study, is a continuation of the blessings of being justified by faith (5:1), which include: peace with God (5:1); access into God’s grace (5:2); hope of the glory of God (5:2); and, joy in our trials, knowing that God is using them to develop perseverance, proven character and hope (5:3-4). The thing that anchors our hope is this abundant outpouring of God’s love within our hearts through the Holy Spirit. So now Paul shows us why God’s love is a sure thing and thus, our hope of heaven is sure:

Our hope of heaven is secure because it is based on God’s love that sent Christ to die for us while we were yet sinners.

In other words, God’s amazing love is not based on us getting our act together to deserve it. It is not based on our track record of performance to guarantee its continued flow. Rather, God’s love is based on the fact that God is love (1 John 4:7). He is gracious (Exod. 34:6). He extends His love and grace to sinners apart from and in spite of anything in them. This means:

1. Our hope of heaven is secure because it is not based on anything good in us.

Paul emphasizes this in our text with a series of synonyms: we were helpless (5:6); ungodly (5:6); sinners (5:8); and, enemies (5:10). Before we look at these terms, note:

A. To appreciate God’s great love, we must feel our own great need for the Savior.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones observed (God’s Way of Reconciliation [Ba­ker], Ephesians 2, p. 201), “In order to measure the love of God you have first to go down before you can go up. You do not start on the level and go up. We have to be brought up from a dungeon, from a horrible pit; and unless you know something of the measure of that depth you will only be measuring half the love of God.”

This is illustrated in the story in Luke 7:36-50, where Jesus went to dine at the house of Simon the Pharisee. Picture the scene: You have this very religious man, who took great pride in his religious observance. He never ate unclean food. He tithed meticulously. He kept the commandments of Moses. He kept his distance from notorious sinners. He wanted to find out if this upstart, uneducated rabbi from Galilee was legitimate or not.

As they reclined at dinner, a woman who was known to be a prostitute slipped in with an alabaster vial of perfume. Standing at Jesus’ feet weeping, she wetted His feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, and kissed and anointed them with the perfume. And Jesus seemed to be pleased with her actions! Simon was aghast! He was thinking (Luke 7:39), “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.”

Jesus knew what he was thinking, so He told him a story. A lender had two debtors. One owed him 500 denarii; the other owed him 50. When they were unable to repay, he forgave them both. Then Jesus asked (7:42), “So which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.”

Jesus said, “Correct.” Then He drew the lesson. The sinful woman, who had been forgiven much, loved much. But the one who is forgiven little loves little. His point was not that Simon had little to be forgiven of. In fact, Simon had not even shown Jesus common hospitality. He was rude and arrogant. Rather, the point was that Simon did not realize how much he needed God’s forgiveness, and so he did not love Jesus as much as this woman, who knew her great need for the Savior.

If, like me, you grew up in a Christian home and never got into much trouble growing up, you’re more prone to be like Simon than like the prostitute. If you want to know and experience the great love of God in Christ, you have to see more of the awful depths of sin that lurk in your own heart. Again, to cite Lloyd-Jones (Romans: Assurance [Zondervan], p. 114), “It is to the extent to which we realize our inability and incapacity that we realize the love of God.” Paul shows us our inability in these verses:

B. We greatly need the Savior because we were helpless, ungodly, sinners, and enemies of God.

(1). We were helpless.

“Helpless” in this context means, “incapable of working out any righteousness for ourselves” (The Epistle to the Romans, by William Sanday & Arthur Headlam [T. & T. Clark] 5th ed., p. 127). F. Godet (Commentary on Romans [Kregel], p. 191) says that it means “total incapacity for good, the want of all moral life such as is healthy and fruitful in good works.” Lloyd-Jones (ibid., p. 112) says that it means “total inability in a spiritual sense.” But so that you see that these men are not making this up, let’s see what the Bible says about our helpless spiritual condition outside of Christ:

We were spiritually dead, living in disobedience to God. “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked” (Eph. 2:1-2). We needed God to raise us from the dead.

We were not able to save ourselves. Jesus told the religious Nicodemus (John 3:3), “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was about as religious as you can get. But all that religion could not get him into the kingdom of God. He needed the new birth. And just as we could not produce our natural birth by our own efforts or will power, so it is spiritually. It must be an act of God. You can’t save yourself.

We were not able to see the light of the gospel to be saved. Paul said (2 Cor. 4:4) that “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

We were not able to understand spiritual truth. Paul explains (1 Cor. 2:14), “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” God has to open our eyes to understand the gospel.

We were not able to hear God’s truth. In John 8:43, Jesus asked the Jews who were challenging Him, “Why do you not understand what I am saying?” He answered His own question, “It is because you cannot hear My word.” They lacked the spiritual ears to hear (see, also, John 14:17).

We were not seeking God. We saw this in Paul’s indictment of the human race (Rom. 3:11), “There is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God.”

We were not able to submit to God’s law or to please Him. In Romans 8:7-8, Paul states, “the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

So when Paul says that “we were still helpless,” he means that we were totally unable and unwilling to do anything to bring about reconciliation with God. But he doesn’t stop there!

(2). We were ungodly.

“Christ died for the ungodly” (5:6). This word takes us back to his indictment of the human race (1:18), “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” To be ungodly is to be unlike God, who is holy and apart from all sin. It means that our ways are not God’s ways and our thoughts are not His thoughts (Isa. 55:8-9). There is a humanly uncrossable chasm between us and God.

(3). We were sinners.

Paul says (5:8): “while we were yet sinners ….” As we saw in Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” The essence of sin is to fall short of God’s glory. We did not live for His glory. We had no concern for His glory. Rather, we lived for ourselves and our own glory.

(4). We were God’s enemies.

I’m jumping ahead to verse 10, where Paul describes our past as being God’s enemies. We were hostile toward Him (8:7), alienated from Him and opposed to His lordship over our lives.

Maybe you’re thinking, “This is awfully depressing. It tears down my self-esteem. It doesn’t help me to feel good about myself.” But if you do not see the depths of sin from which God rescued you, you won’t appreciate His great love. Christ didn’t come to help you polish your self-esteem or to feel good about yourself. He came to die for your sins in order to reconcile you to God. If you don’t see yourself as a helpless, ungodly sinner at enmity against God, then you won’t see your need for the Savior. And, you’ll never have assurance about your hope of heaven, because you’ll base that hope on your own goodness or merit. Our hope of heaven can only be secure if it is not based on anything good in us.

2. Our hope of heaven is secure because it is based on God’s gracious love for us while we were yet sinners.

“God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8). Demonstrates means to show, prove, establish, or render conspicuous. Note briefly:

A. God’s gracious love took the initiative to save us from our helpless, ungodly condition.

These verses show that salvation is totally from God and His great love. There was nothing in us that was lovable or that motivated God to send the Savior. As God pictures Israel (Ezek. 16:3-6, 9-10), we were like an unwanted newborn infant, thrown into a field, squirming in our blood, a piece of garbage about to die. He took us, bathed us with water, anointed us with oil, and wrapped us in fine garments. Salvation stems from His great love.

B. God’s gracious love for us is far higher than any example of human love.

This is Paul’s point in verse 7: “For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die.” Some commentators argue that Paul is drawing a distinction between the righteous man, who keeps the law but is not very kind; and the good man, who is both righteous and kind. But I don’t see that as his point. The two terms are never distinguished like that in Scripture. Rather, Paul makes an initial statement and then qualifies it by granting that in some cases, a person may die for a good person. But who would offer to take the place of a scoundrel who deserves to die? Answer: Jesus would! In fact, He died for only one type of person: ungodly sinners! None of us deserved what Jesus in love did for us.

C. God’s gracious love for us sent none other than Christ.

Who is the One whom the Father sent to die for our sins? It was His beloved Son, in whom He was well-pleased (Matt. 3:17). He was the eternal Word, who was with God and who was God, who created all things (John 1:1-3). He is the One who “is the radiance of [God’s] glory and the exact representation of His nature, [who] upholds all things by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:3). He is the One whom the angels of God worship, whose throne is forever, who laid the foundation of the earth, and made the heavens, whose years will never come to an end (Heb. 1:6-12).

Paul says that God demonstrates His own love for us in that Christ died for us. But doesn’t that demonstrate Christ’s love for us? Yes, because Jesus and the Father are one (John 10:30). Leon Morris observes (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 224), “Unless there is a sense in which the Father and Christ are one, it is not the love of God that the cross shows. But because Christ is one with God, Paul can speak of the cross as a demonstration of the love of God.” On the cross, Christ didn’t die to persuade the angry God of the Old Testament to love us, as some mistakenly have pictured it. The Father and the Son were one in their love that devised the plan of salvation for guilty sinners. The fact that it required the death of the eternal Son of God should cause us to bow in love and wonder.

D. God’s gracious love sent Christ at the right time.

Leon Morris explains this phrase (p. 222): “Two ways of looking at the time of Christ’s death are combined here: he died at a time when we were still sinners, and at a time that fitted God’s purpose. This second way emphasizes that the atonement was no afterthought. This was the way God always intended to deal with sin; he did it when he chose.” So in the grand scheme of the ages, Christ’s death was right on schedule. As Paul explains (Gal. 4:4), “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law ….”

But on the personal level, He died for us at the right time in that we were perishing. We had no hope. We would have been doomed if God had not sent the Savior. You must come to the end of trusting in yourself and your good works so that you see your hopeless, helpless condition. As Spurgeon put it (C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography [Banner of Truth], 1:54), you’ve got to stand before God, convicted and condemned, with the rope around your neck, so that you will weep for joy when God at the right time sends Christ into your life as your Savior.

E. God’s gracious love sent Christ to die for us.

The word die is prominent in these verses: it occurs once in verse 6, twice in verse 7, and once again in verse 8. Since the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23), Christ had to die to pay the penalty for our sins. He was our substitute, bearing the punishment that we deserved. He died as “the Just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). While Jesus is our great example of how to live, His example did not save us. While He is our great teacher, His teaching did not save us. His death as our substitute bore the awful penalty of God’s justice. Jesus alone can save us and He does it through His death. “Christ died for the ungodly.” “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The bottom line is:

3. If we were helpless, ungodly sinners in need of Christ’s death to save us, then salvation cannot in any sense be due to human merit, works, or righteousness.

These verses do away with all works-based salvation. We were helpless, ungodly sinners, enemies with God. Christ did not come to help us save ourselves. He did not come to die because He saw a spark of potential in us. He didn’t come to die for us because we had some inherent worth in His sight. As Charles Hodge put it (Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 136-137), “Our salvation depends … not on our loveliness, but on the constancy of the love of God.”

This is tremendously good news! It means that our hope of heaven is secure because it doesn’t have anything to do with us. In fact, it’s in spite of us! It has everything to do with God’s gracious love for us while we were yet sinners. If you’re not saved, it’s because you have not received the free gift that God offers. Maybe you’re still trying to earn your way to heaven. But if heaven is based on your works, you’ll never be sure of it, because you can never do enough. Trust instead in God’s loving gift of eternal life through Jesus, who died for us when we were yet sinners.

Conclusion

Years ago, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth visited the United States. At a question and answer session, someone asked him, “Dr. Barth, what is the greatest thought that has ever gone through your mind?” The questioner probably expected some deep, incomprehensible answer, as if someone had asked Einstein to explain his theory of relativity. Barth thought about the question for a while and then replied, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so” (from James Boice, Romans: The Reign of God’s Grace [Baker], p. 539).

While Barth was off on some of his theology, he was right on that answer! The apostle Paul wants us not only to know intellectually, but also to feel experientially the great love of God as seen in the fact that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

Application Questions

  1. Why does the popular teaching on self-esteem and self-love militate against our experience of God’s great love?
  2. Some argue that while we were sinners before conversion, now we should not view ourselves as sinners, but only as saints. What Scriptures would you use to refute this?
  3. Is it right to lead off an evangelistic presentation by telling lost people that God loves them? Is there any biblical basis for this? What biblical guidelines apply here?
  4. How does any form of works salvation undermine a person’s experience of God’s amazing love in Christ?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 28: Saved for Sure! (Romans 5:9-11)

“Have you come to a place in your spiritual life where you can say you know for certain that if you were to die today you would go to heaven?” That is one of two questions that those who are trained in “Evangelism Explosion” ask as a prelude to presenting the gospel. The second question seeks to find out the basis for the person’s answer to the first question: “Suppose that you were to die today and stand before God and He were to say to you, ‘Why should I let you into My heaven?’ what would you say?” (D. James Kennedy, Evangelism Explosion [Tyndale House], p. 22.)

You can easily see the importance of answering those questions correctly. Some have complete assurance that they are going to heaven when they die, but they wrongly base that assurance on their belief that they are good enough to qualify for heaven. How horrible to die and find out that you were not good enough to make it into heaven! There won’t be any make-up exams or second chances! It’s crucial to know that your hope for heaven is sure.

But Christians are divided with regard to assurance of salvation. The Roman Catholic Church declared, “No one can know with a certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error, that he has obtained the grace of God” (Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom [Baker], 2:99, The Council of Trent, Session 6, Chapter 9). Among Protestants, those from the Arminian wing (Wesleyan, Holiness churches, the Nazarene Church, Pentecostal churches, etc.) argue that true believers through sin can lose their salvation and fall from grace. Some Arminians, inconsistent with their view of saving grace, hold that believers are eternally secure. Those who hold the Reformed view believe that those whom Christ has genuinely saved, He will keep unto eternity.

We cannot survey the many verses of Scripture that the various camps use to defend their views. While there are difficult texts, such as the warning passages in Hebrews (you can read my sermons on Hebrews on the church web site), I believe that the Reformed view makes the most sense of all of Scripture: Those whom Christ saves, He keeps for all eternity. “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).

Our text is one of the strongest arguments for assurance of salvation in the Bible. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote (Romans: Assurance [Zondervan], p. 128), “The argument of these two verses [9 & 10] is, I suggest, the most powerful argument with respect to assurance of salvation, or the finality of our salvation, that can be found anywhere in the whole of the Scripture.” He goes on to say that the only thing that goes beyond it is the immediate witness of the Holy Spirit, which Paul mentions in Romans 8:16. Since being assured of your salvation is an important part of the foundation for spiritual growth, it is vital that you understand and apply the verses that we are studying here.

Before we examine Paul’s argument, let me give you a brief overview of my understanding of the basis for assurance of salvation. There are three aspects to it: First and foremost, have you trusted in Jesus Christ alone and His death in your place to forgive all your sins and clothe you with His righteousness?

If you answer “yes,” then there is a secondary basis for assurance: What evidence of the new birth do you see in your life? While we never will be perfectly sanctified in this life, there should be some definite signs of the new birth: a growing love for God, a desire to know Him through His Word, a desire to please Him by keeping His commandments, a growing love for others, a growing hatred of sin, etc. The “tests” of First John fit into this category, along with the qualities of 2 Peter 1:5-11.

Third, there is the witness of the Spirit, who “testifies with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16). While this aspect of assurance is partly subjective and therefore subject to error, I understand it to be based on the objective promises of God. This inner witness of the Spirit is when He takes the promises of salvation in the Bible and testifies to your spirit, “Yes, these are true and by God’s grace I rest on them!” Or, the Holy Spirit assures you by reminding you of how He has worked the signs of new life in you.

Our text falls under the first basis for assurance, as Paul enumerates the blessings of being justified by faith (5:1). He takes these blessings a logical step farther by arguing from the greater to the lesser, as we can see by the twice repeated, “much more” (5:9, 10). He reasons, “If we were justified by Christ’s blood when we were yet sinners and if we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son while we were His enemies, then we can expect to be saved from God’s wrath by the risen Savior.” It is also an argument from the past to the future: If in the past God loved us and Christ died for us when we were sinners, then we can expect that in the future He will keep us from judgment as those who have been reconciled to Him. This, in turn, causes us to “exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have received the reconciliation” (5:11). Thus,

If as God’s enemies we were saved through the death of His Son then, praise God, as His friends the risen Savior will save us from future judgment.

I added “praise God” to that summary sentence to reflect Paul’s response in verse 11 to his arguments in verses 9 & 10. In other words, these aren’t just rational arguments that we hear and calmly conclude, “Yes, I agree.” The force of the arguments should cause us to exult in God! Verses 9 & 10 are essentially the same argument looked at from two slightly different perspectives.

1. If while we were sinners we were justified by Christ’s blood, then much more we shall be saved from God’s wrath through Him (5:9).

There are two parts to this:

A. While we were sinners, we were justified by Christ’s blood.

“Being justified” goes back to the entire argument of 3:24-4:25, summarized in edemption which is in Christ Jesus.” This shows us that justification is not something that we deserve, merit, or qualify for by our good deeds. Rather, it is the undeserved gift of God.

In 5:1 Paul shows that the means by which we receive God’s gracious gift of justification is faith. We saw this especially in 4:5, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” This does not mean that God counts faith itself as some sort of righteousness that qualifies the sinner to stand before Him as not guilty. If that were so, faith would be a work, which would undermine the very point of Romans 4:5! Rather, faith lays hold of the shed blood of Jesus Christ as the just payment for our sins, so that God credits the righteousness of Christ to the guilty sinner who has faith in Him. So faith is the means of receiving the gift of justification.

But in 5:9, Paul says that we have been justified “by His blood.” This looks at the ground or basis of our justification. The blood of Christ atones for our sin. As Paul stated (3:25), “God displayed [Christ] publicly as a propitiation in His blood … to demonstrate His righteousness.” Christ’s blood satisfied the righteousness of God, which declares (6:23), “the wages of sin is death.”

Also, our text makes it clear that justification is a completed action, a “done deal.” Paul uses the same verb form as in 5:1, “having been justified by faith.” Here (5:9), “having now been justified by His blood.” It’s a past completed action that the believer knows has taken place. When we trusted in Christ and His shed blood to save us, God banged the gavel and declared, “Not guilty! The penalty has been paid by My Son!” From this sure fact, Paul argues:

B. Much more we shall be saved from God’s wrath through Christ.

To wrath the translators have added for clarity “of God.” Literally, the text reads, “we shall be saved from the wrath through Him.” The wrath refers to the coming day of judgment, which Paul referred to (2:5), “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” There is a present manifestation of God’s wrath against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men in which God gives them over to the consequences of their sins (1:18). But that is nothing compared to the coming eternal wrath of God, where all who have not been justified by faith will be cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:11-15).

It is important to grasp Paul’s “much more” line of reasoning here. To send Christ to shed His blood was the big thing. It was the only way that God could maintain His righteousness and at the same time forgive sinners. Through the propitiation in Christ’s blood, God can now be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26). If God loved us enough to send Christ to die for our sins (the big thing), then how much more will He save us from the wrath to come?

I should point out that the Bible speaks of salvation in three tenses. Sometimes it looks at salvation in the past (Eph. 2:8), “For by grace you have been saved through faith ….” This happened the moment we truly trusted in Christ as our Savior. He delivered us from the penalty of our sins. At other times, the Bible looks at the present process of salvation (1 Cor. 1:18), “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” And, sometimes (as in 5:9), it looks at the future and final deliverance that will be ours on the day of judgment (also, 10:9, 13; 13:11). The verb “to be saved” is in the future tense in seven of its eight uses in Romans (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Apollos/Eerdmans], p. 225). Here Paul wants us to know how we can be sure that on that awful day, “we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.”

Then Paul repeats the same idea, but with a different slant:

2. If while we were God’s enemies we were reconciled to Him through the death of His Son, then much more we shall be saved by His life (5:10).

Again, there are two parts to consider:

A. While we were God’s enemies we were reconciled to Him through the death of His Son.

Justification looks at salvation from the legal standpoint, whereas reconciliation looks at it from the relational point of view. Bishop Moule looks at verses 9 & 10 as a progression from the law-aspect of salvation to the love-aspect and then (at the end of verse 10) to the life-aspect (The Epistle to the Romans [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 138). So verse 10 picks up on the theme of God’s love for us, demonstrated by sending Christ to die for us while we were yet sinners (5:8).

But here the focus is, “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son.” Referring to Jesus as “His Son” especially brings out the love of the Father, both for Jesus and for us. Jesus was God’s beloved Son in whom He was well-pleased (Matt. 3:17). The Father loved the Son with a perfect, unbroken love from all eternity (John 17:24-26), and yet He sent Him to die on the cross so that we, His enemies, could be reconciled to Him! “Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou my God, shouldst die for me!”

“Enemies” is the strongest of the string of synonyms that Paul has used to describe our condition before Christ saved us. We were helpless (5:6), which means that we were totally unable to do anything to save ourselves or to help out in the process. We were ungodly (5:6) because of our many sins. We were sinners (5:8), having violated God’s holy commandments. But worst of all, we were God’s enemies.

The word implies active hostility, both from our side toward God and from God’s side toward us. From our side, we did not want to submit to God’s rightful lordship over our lives. We wanted to block Him out of our lives so that we could do what we want to do. We viewed Him as the spoiler of all our fun. Paul describes our enmity toward God (8:7), “The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so.” True, many might protest and say, “I’m not hostile toward God; I don’t have anything against Him.” But they show their hostility by their indifference toward His love. They’re happy if He just stays out of their lives and lets them live as they please. In this sense, they are enemies of God.

But the greater hostility here, as seen by the word “wrath” (5:9), is God’s hostility toward unrepentant sinners (Morris, Romans, p. 225; his The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross [Eerdmans], third rev. ed., pp. 214-250, deals with this more extensively). From God’s side, He is opposed to all that is evil and to everyone who is in rebellion against Him. They are His enemies (Phil 3:18; Col. 1:21; James 4:4). He will eventually judge all who do not willingly bow before His Son (Ps. 2). When Jesus comes again, He is pictured as a powerful warrior, whose robe is dipped in blood, who strikes down all rebels with His sharp sword as He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty (Rev. 19:11-15). This is God’s hostility toward all who do not submit to Jesus Christ. He cannot have fellowship with those who walk in darkness (1 John 1:5-6).

But our text says, “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son.” Reconciliation is a wonderful word! One of the all-too-rare, but great joys of being a pastor is when I can have some part in seeing a couple who are hostile toward one another be reconciled. But it’s an even greater joy to see sinners reconciled to God through the death of Jesus, which removed the barrier of our sin. As Morris states (Romans, p. 225, note 33), “The death of Christ puts away our sin, which had aroused not our opposition but God’s.”

So the main idea here is not that we first ceased to be hostile toward God, but that through the death of His Son, He could cease to be hostile towards us whom He purposed to save. It was through the cross that God put to death the enmity, contained in the Law of commandments that we had violated, so that we now can be reconciled to Him (Eph. 2:15-16). So, while we were God’s enemies we were reconciled to Him through the death of His Son.

B. Much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.

Charles Hodge captures the logic (Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 138): “If Christ has died for his enemies, he will surely save his friends.” If God did the really hard thing by reconciling us to Himself through the death of His Son, it only follows that we shall be saved at the future judgment by (or, better, in) His life. “Shall be saved” points ahead to the day of judgment. Paul will develop the idea that we share “in His life” in 6:8-11. We are now completely identified with Christ in His death and resurrection life. Paul also explains this in Colossians 3:3-4, “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.” Because we are now united with Christ, as members of His body, sharing His life, we shall be saved from the final judgment.

When God raised Jesus from the dead, He gave to Him all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18). He exercises this authority for the salvation of His people (Eph. 1:22; see Hodge, p. 140). Furthermore, as Paul says (Rom. 8:33b-34), “God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.” Hebrews 7:25 says, “Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.” We can know that our salvation is secure because if God did the greater thing by reconciling us to Himself through the death of His Son, He will do the relatively easier thing by saving us from judgment because we are now partakers of His resurrection life. As Jesus promised (John 14:19), “because I live, you will live also.”

But Paul never set forth biblical truth as a dry, boring lecture and then said, “Class dismissed!” These glorious truths about our sure salvation evoked an emotional response:

3. The result of knowing that you are saved for sure because of God’s love and grace is to exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ (5:11).

“And not only this” means, “don’t stop there! Class isn’t dismissed yet!” If you understand this truth, you’ve got to exult in God! As we’ve seen, Paul exulted in hope of the glory of God (5:2). He exulted in his tribulations (5:3). But now he exults in God Himself. To exult means to glory in or boast in. It’s an emotional word. A young man who is in love exults in his fiancée: “She’s the most beautiful creature on earth!” An artist exults in a beautiful sunset: “Isn’t it spectacular! Look at those gorgeous colors!” A football fan exults in a touchdown run: “Did you see how he dodged all those tacklers?” And those who have been justified by Christ’s blood and reconciled to God through the death of His Son exult in God through the Lord Jesus Christ: “Isn’t God wonderful! There’s nothing to compare to His love, His grace, and His tender mercies! There is no love like the love of Christ for sinners! Praise God!”

The last phrase of verse 11, “through whom we have now received the reconciliation,” shows that reconciliation is a finished work that we receive as God’s gift. It is an objective, accomplished fact because of the cross. It also shows that all God’s blessings come to us through the Lord Jesus Christ. But you must receive this reconciliation by trusting in Jesus and His shed blood to cover all your sins.

Conclusion

Paul states it as a given that those who have received this reconciliation now exult in God. But do we? Have you spent any time this past week exulting in God because of all that He has freely given to you through the Lord Jesus Christ? I encourage you to make time each day to open God’s Word and pray, “Lord, show me today some of the unfathomable riches of Christ so that I may exult in You. Thank You that I have been justified by Christ’s blood! Thank You that while I was Your enemy, You reconciled me to You through the death of Your Son!” The fact that you are saved for sure—justified by Christ’s blood, saved from God’s wrath, reconciled to God although you once were His enemy—ought to cause your heart to exult in God.

The early church father, Chrysostom, wrote (cited by Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 314), “And so the fact of his saving us, and saving us too when we were in such plight, and doing it by means of his only-begotten, and not merely by his only-begotten, but by his blood, weaves for us endless crowns to glory in.”

Application Questions

  1. Why is it important that believers feel assured of their salvation? What practical benefits come from this assurance?
  2. Since false assurance is a real possibility, how can we guard ourselves from it? What is the basis for true assurance?
  3. Should we try to give assurance to a person who professes to know Christ, but who is living in disobedience? What are the biblical guidelines here?
  4. Since glorifying God (or, exulting in Him) is the chief end of man, how would you counsel a Christian who rarely does this?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 29: Death in Adam or Life in Christ? (Romans 5:12-19)

When most commentators say, as Thomas Schreiner does (Romans [Baker], p. 267), that our text “is one of the most difficult and controversial passages to interpret in all of Pauline literature,” I know I’m in trouble when I have to preach on these verses! Another commentator (Alva McClain, Romans [BMH Books], p. 131) suggests that perhaps it was this passage that Peter had in mind when he said that some of Paul’s writings are hard to understand (2 Pet. 3:16). After reading hundreds of pages of commentaries and sermons on these verses, I began to wonder if I should look for another line of work!

The difficulty with the text is not with the main idea, which is fairly clear, but with the many details. Just about every word or phrase generates pages of discussion and debate among the scholars. But rather than wading into several weeks of messages on that level of detail, I decided to give a single broad overview of verses 12-19. I won’t be able to explain every detail, but hopefully you will get the big picture.

Part of the debate is whether these verses summarize what came before or point ahead to what follows. It seems that they serve as a transition to do both. “Therefore” (5:12) looks back, especially to 5:1-11, to show more benefits of being justified by faith in Christ. Paul shows that the only way to escape the effects of the fall of the human race into sin is through the free gift of God’s grace that offers justification to all who will receive it. Practically, this gives even greater assurance and hope to believers. If we are in Christ, we are saved not because of our good deeds, but because of what Christ did for us on the cross. So these verses reinforce and cement what came before.

But they also point to what follows. In chapter 6, Paul moves from salvation to sanctification. Crucial to living a life of holiness and freedom from sin is understanding our new identity in Jesus Christ. So when Paul contrasts our old identity in Adam with our new identity in Christ, he looks ahead by laying a foundation for our sanctification. Also, the themes of grace, sin, and death as reigning powers will appear frequently in chapters 6-8 (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 315-316).

Identification, either with Adam or with Christ, is the key to understanding 5:12-21. Paul is saying that either you’re under condemnation because you are in Adam or you’re justified because you are in Jesus Christ. Also, he is showing that God’s gracious gift of righteousness in Christ is far greater than the devastation of sin that resulted from Adam’s disobedience. Twice (5:15, 17) he says, “much more.” He wants to encourage believers in Christ with the certainty of their glorious future in Him. To sum up:

If you are in Adam, you are under the reign of death, but if you are in Christ, you will reign in life, because Christ’s gift is greater than Adam’s sin.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: Assurance [Zondervan], p. 178) put it, “The whole story of the human race can be summed up in terms of what has happened because of Adam, and what has happened and will yet happen because of Jesus Christ.” First, Paul explains what happened to the human race through Adam:

1. If you are in Adam, you are under the reign of death (5:12-14).

Romans 5:12-14: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.”

A. Sin and death entered the world through Adam and “in Adam,” we all sinned (5:12).

In passing, note that Paul believed in the historicity of Adam and the story of the fall in the first three chapters of Genesis. Adam was not a mythical figure invented by the author of Genesis to explain how sin entered the human race. Rather, God created Adam and Eve as the first humans, placed them in the Garden of Eden, and gave them a strict commandment not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They disobeyed God, resulting in God banishing them from the garden and imposing the curse on the human race as a result of their sin.

Also, note in passing that although Eve was the first to sin, God held Adam accountable for plunging the human race into sin. Why? Because God appointed the man as the head of his wife in the garden before the fall. The main idea of headship is responsibility or accountability. Satan approached the woman to tempt and deceive her. Adam passively followed her lead into sin. But God charges Adam with introducing sin into the world, because as Eve’s head, Adam was responsible. This responsibility and accountability for husbands to lead their families spiritually is still in place (Eph. 5:23; 1 Cor.11:3). And men are responsible to provide godly leadership in the local church (1 Tim. 2:11-15; 3:2-7; Titus 1:5-9).

Paul says (5:12a), “through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin.” The one man is Adam (5:14). Paul is referring to the original sin when Adam disobeyed God’s explicit command and ate the forbidden fruit. God had warned Adam that in the day he ate of that fruit, he would die (Gen. 2:17). This referred both to physical death and to spiritual death, or separation from God. At the moment Adam and Eve ate the fruit, the effects of physical aging and death were set into motion. While the patriarchs lived extraordinarily long lives, the repeated refrain of Genesis 5 is, “and he died, … and he died.” Not only did people begin to die physically after the original sin, but also the entire creation began to experience death (Rom. 8:20-22).

But Paul has in mind not only physical death, but also the spiritual death that came through Adam’s fall. In Romans 5:21, Paul contrasts the death that came in through sin with eternal life. When Adam sinned, he experienced spiritual separation from God that, apart from the gift of eternal life, would have resulted in eternal separation from God, which the Bible describes as “the second death” (Rev. 20:6, 14). So both physical and spiritual death entered into this world through Adam’s original sin.

But the crucial (and most controversial) phrase in Romans 5:12 is, what does Paul mean when he says, “and so death spread to all men, because all sinned”? There have been four main views (plus a fifth, more recent view of Thomas Schreiner). Without explaining those views, I think the best view in light of the context is that Paul is saying, “When Adam sinned, we all sinned.” In other words, God appointed Adam as the representative head of the human race. His sin involved the entire human race in sin. His sin was imputed or charged to everyone born after him. Because of Adam’s sin, each of us was born guilty of sin before we ever committed our first willful sin. We are not sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners by virtue of our union with Adam.

The common reaction to this is, “That’s not fair!” But it’s always very dangerous to accuse the Almighty Sovereign of the universe of unfairness (Rom. 9:20-21)! If God determined to treat Adam as the representative head of the human race, it is certainly God’s prerogative to do so. Also, we live with this sort of representation every day. If our political leaders declare war against another country, we go to war and some of our soldiers will die because of the action of our leaders. Their decision was our decision because they represent us. A further response to the unfairness charge is, do you think that you would have done better than Adam? Do you think that you would have resisted temptation and lived a sinless life if you had been born without the effects and guilt of Adam’s sin? That’s not likely! And, finally, if it’s not fair that Adam represented you when he sinned, neither is it fair that Christ represented you when He died on the cross.

But since there are other views, how do we know that Paul is really saying, “When Adam sinned, we all sinned”?

B. The proof that Adam’s sin affected the entire human race is that death is universal (5:13-14).

Paul begins verse 12 with a comparison (“just as”), but then breaks off in mid-sentence to explain or prove (“for”) his comment, “because all sinned.” While the flow of thought is not easy to follow, Paul seems to be arguing that the fact of universal death from the time of Adam until Moses was not due to their individual sins, which were not imputed to them because they were not breaking the specific commands of the law, but rather due to their identification with Adam in his original sin.

But, what does Paul mean when he adds (5:14), “even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam”? Again, there is much debate, but it seems that Paul means that after the Law was given, sinners violated the specific commands of God, even as Adam did. But those who lived between Adam and Moses still sinned, even though their guilt was not imputed because they didn’t violate specific commands. So, if their guilt wasn’t imputed, why did they all die? Answer: they died because Adam’s sin was imputed to them. They sinned when he sinned. The proof of their sinning in Adam is that they all died.

But, why does Paul add at this point that Adam is “a type of Him who was to come,” namely, of Christ? Answer: Paul wants us to see the parallel. Adam’s descendants were all implicated in his sin and died, even though they didn’t violate specific commands as he did, because they are “in Adam.” When he sinned, they sinned. In like manner, all of Christ’s descendants, born spiritually through the new birth, are identified with Him and are counted as righteous not because of their individual deeds of righteousness, but because of Christ’s righteousness.

John Piper (“Adam, Christ, and Justification,” Part 2, on desiringgod.org.) explains and applies this:

That is the all-important parallel. The deepest reason why death reigns over all is not because of our individual sins, but because of Adam’s sin imputed to us. So the deepest reason eternal life reigns is not because of our individual deeds of righteousness, but because of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us by grace through faith.

O how much light this sheds on why Paul embarked on this paragraph at all! He did it for the sake of our faith and our assurance and our joy. He did it to underline the fact that our right standing with God and our freedom from condemnation is not based on our righteous acts but on Christ’s righteous acts.

One other thought before we look at the rest of our text: Outside of Christ, the human race is still under the reign of death. As George Bernard Shaw wryly observed, “The statistics on death are quite impressive: one out of one people die!” We try to put it out of our minds, but then it hits someone close to us and we realize, “I’m going to die someday, too.” We try to preserve our bodies through exercise and health food, and AARP magazine perpetuates the myth by showing us old geezers who compete in triathlons, as if they will live forever. But the fact is, those old geezers are going to die. Plastic surgery may allow us to leave a young looking corpse, but it’s still a corpse! And, contrary to popular mythology, death is not a natural part of the life cycle. Death is God’s penalty for Adam’s sin, imposed on all his posterity. Death reigns if you are still in Adam. How do we escape the curse?

2. If you are in Christ, you will reign in life because Christ’s gift is greater than Adam’s sin (5:15-17).

These are also very difficult verses, and I can only skim them. Paul is making a comparison between Adam and Christ, but even more, a contrast. He’s showing why Christ is far superior to Adam, as seen by his twice-repeated phrase, “much more” (5:15, 17). Adam’s sin resulted in condemnation and death to the human race, but Christ’s obedience unto death resulted in justification and life to those who receive it. Let’s look briefly at each verse:

A. The work of Christ is greater than Adam’s sin because it displays and dispenses the abundance of God’s grace (5:15).

Romans 5:15: “But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many.”

Paul contrasts the devastating effects of Adam’s transgression—the many died—with the glorious effects of God’s free gift and grace, which abounds to the many. “Many” is not viewing the affected groups numerically, but qualitatively. It has two different ranges here. In the first instance, it refers to the devastating effects of one man’s sin on many, which means, the entire human race. It’s like one little campfire left untended which starts a forest fire that destroys the entire forest. One man sinned, but many died. In the second instance, it cannot refer to the whole human race, but only to those who “receive the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness” (5:17). It would be wrong to interpret the second “many” to mean that salvation is offered to all, because in 5:16, the second group is actually justified. Rather, it refers to the many who actually receive the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ.

The “much more” refers to the superlative nature of salvation over judgment. Paul piles up words like “grace,” “gift,” and “abound” to emphasize how wonderful God’s gift of salvation is, provided freely to us at Christ’s expense. It is an undeserved gift and it abounds to us through the grace of God and through the grace of Christ, who are linked in this verse. How much sin have you piled up? God’s grace in Christ is more abundant! How great is your guilt and debt? God’s free gift and abounding grace is greater!

B. The work of Christ is greater than Adam’s sin because it overcame many sins to freely bestow justification (5:16).

Romans 5:16: “The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification.”

The main contrast here is that one sin resulted in condemnation of the entire human race, but the many sins of that fallen race resulted in justification for all who believe. The word believe is not here, but it’s implicit because from 3:24-5:1 Paul hammered home that justification is received by faith alone. Condemnation and justification are judicial terms. Christ’s work is greater than Adam’s sin because it overcame the great devastation that resulted from Adam’s sin. Adam lit the forest fire that devastated the human race, but Christ not only put it out, but planted a new forest, an eternal one, for all who will receive His gracious gift.

C. The work of Christ is greater than Adam’s sin because rather than bringing the reign of death, it causes those who receive it to reign in life (5:17).

Romans 5:17: “For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.”

How do we escape the awful reign of death? By receiving “the abundance of grace” and “the gift of righteousness” through Jesus Christ! Again Paul refers to the abundance of grace to let us know that there isn’t any chance that God’s supply will run dry on the sinner who is in line before you. The gift is righteousness, Christ’s righteousness credited to your account, which is the meaning of justification. God does not just forgive your sins; He also bestows the positive righteousness of Christ to you, so that you stand before God not in your own righteous deeds, but in the righteousness of your representative, Jesus Christ.

And, not only do you escape the reign of death. Also, you will reign in life through Jesus Christ. This begins now as you live in victory over sin (Romans 6). It also means that the sting and fear of death are removed, so that we are more than conquerors in Christ (Rom. 8:36-37; 1 Cor. 15:56-57; Heb. 2:14-15). But it also means that throughout eternity we will reign with Christ (Rev. 1:6; 3:21; 1 Cor. 6:2, 3). He is the King of kings. Who are the kings that He is King over? We are (Lloyd-Jones, p. 265)!

Then Paul sums up verses 12-17:

3. To sum up: Through Adam’s sin all were condemned as sinners, but through Christ’s righteousness all in Him are justified (5:18-19).

Romans 5:18-19: “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.”

Verse 18 completes the idea that Paul began, but broke off, in verse 12: One man’s sin brought death and condemnation to all, but One Man’s righteousness brought justification of life to all. Paul is not teaching universalism, that all people will be saved. That would contradict what he teaches elsewhere, that sinners will face judgment and eternal condemnation (2:5, 8, 9). Also, in 5:17 he has just stated that it is those who receive the gift of righteousness who will reign with Christ. Rather, the two “alls” relate to their representative heads. All who are in Adam are condemned. All who are in Christ are justified. The same limits apply to the “many” in verse 19: Through one man’s disobedience, the many (the entire race) were made sinners. Through One Man’s obedience at the cross, the many (believers) will be made righteous.

The word made means to appoint, but it must be interpreted here in light of the forensic context. Douglas Moo (p. 345) explains, “To be ‘righteous’ does not mean to be morally upright, but to be judged acquitted, cleared of all charges, in the heavenly judgment.”

So Paul is summing up 5:12-17 in verse 18 and repeating it in slightly different language in verse 19. The main point is: If you are in Adam, you’re under the reign of sin and death, headed for eternal condemnation. But if you are in Christ by faith in His sacrifice on the cross, you are free from sin and death and will reign in life through Him, because Christ’s gift is greater than Adam’s sin.

Conclusion

These difficult verses have required a lot of explanation, but let me wrap it up by restating some of the practical applications:

(1) Fathers, your behavior and choices greatly affect your children, so live prayerfully and carefully. Thankfully, our sins won’t affect the entire human race, as Adam’s sin did. But we never sin in isolation. Think about how your conduct will affect your children.

(2) Since the universal problem of the human race is sin, the universal solution is the gospel. From primitive tribes to educated professors, the need and the solution are the same. Don’t be intimidated by someone with a Ph.D. He is a sinner and he needs the Savior. You can point him to Christ.

(3) If the universal problem is guilt by identification with Adam’s sin, then salvation cannot be through adding our good works. This text is all about how sinners can be put right with God. We must be identified with Christ’s righteousness by faith. We must receive God’s gift through Christ.

(4) If we are in Christ, our salvation is secure not because of anything in us, but because we’re in Him. You won’t be saved by your performance, but rather by Christ’s obedience on the cross and the fact that you’re trusting in Him alone. Are you in Adam, under the reign of death? Or, by faith are you in Christ, reigning in life?

Application Questions

  1. Is the doctrine of our identification with Adam in his original sin unfair? Why/why not? Why is this doctrine important?
  2. Discuss the implications of the twice-repeated “death reigned” (5:14, 17). What does it mean with regard to unbelievers (Eph. 2:1-3)?
  3. Discuss what it means for believers to “reign in life” through Jesus Christ. How does this apply to daily life now?
  4. Discuss the four practical applications given in the conclusion. What other applications can you think of in this text?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 30: Super-Abundant Grace that Reigns (Romans 5:20-21)

In 2005, Christian Smith and Melinda Denton wrote Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers [Oxford University Press]. Based on interviews with about 3,000 teens, they described what they considered to be the common religious beliefs among American teenagers as “moralistic therapeutic deism.”

The authors summed up these beliefs as having five elements: (1) A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth. (2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. (3) The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. (4) God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. (5) Good people go to heaven when they die.

The authors believe that “a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradi­tion, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbe­gotten stepcousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” (Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moralistic_therapeutic_deism)

Sadly, I think the authors are largely on target: much of what goes under the banner of Christianity is moralistic in that it believes that good people will go to heaven (although often the standards for “good” are not in line with the Bible). It is therapeutic in that feeling good about yourself is the main reason to go to church and believe in Jesus. He can help you succeed in your goals. And it is deism in that you don’t really need a Savior from sin because you’re a good person. God is there when you need Him, but the rest of the time, just believe in yourself and pursue your dreams. God, His glory, and the cross are not at the center of this belief system.

I hope that you can see how far moralistic therapeutic deism is from the gospel that Paul sets forth in Romans. After stating the theme of Romans, that he is not ashamed of the gospel, which reveals the righteousness of God (1:16-17), Paul shows that every person has sinned and is under God’s condemnation (1:18-3:20). He then shows that by His death on the cross, Jesus Christ satisfied God’s righteous demand so that He can be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (I hope that you can see how far moralistic therapeutic deism is from the gospel that Paul sets forth in Romans. After stating the theme of Romans, that he is not ashamed of the gospel, which reveals the righteousness of God (1:16-17), Paul shows that every person has sinned and is under God’s condemnation (1:18-3:20). He then shows that by His death on the cross, Jesus Christ satisfied God’s righteous demand so that He can be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (3:21-4:25). Then Paul sets forth some of the blessings of being justified by faith in Christ (

Then (5:12-19) Paul re-emphasizes why we must be justified by faith: When Adam sinned, we all sinned in him. His sin was our sin; the fact of universal death proves it. But the last Adam, Jesus Christ, more than overcame the devastating effects of Adam’s sin. Adam’s sin resulted in death for all who are in him, but Jesus Christ’s obedience in going to the cross resulted in justification of life for all who are in Him. Adam’s sin was credited to all his descendants, but Christ’s righteousness is credited to all who are His descendants through faith in Him.

But, Paul anticipates a question that anyone familiar with the Old Testament would have: Why, then, was the Law given? What was its purpose? Didn’t God give the Law through Moses so that people could keep it and live? So in 5:20-21 Paul contrasts the Law and its result with God’s grace in Christ and its result. He is saying,

Through the Law, sin reigned in death, but through Christ super-abundant grace reigns in righteousness to eternal life.

Paul’s words in 5:20 would have been utterly shocking to his Jewish readers: “The Law came in so that the transgression would increase ….” The average Jew would have thought that the Law came in to restrain sin, not to cause its increase (Thomas Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment [Baker], p. 73). We’ll consider in a mo­ment what Paul meant by this statement, but for now just note that most Jews would do a double-take and say, “Did I read that correctly?” Paul’s assertion definitely would have gotten their attention! He is saying:

1. Outside of Christ, the Law causes sin to increase and to reign in death.

There are several things to consider here:

A. The Law does not restrain sin at the heart level.

There is a sense in which both civil law and God’s Law restrain sin externally. The speed laws cause us to slow down, especially when we see a police car. Laws against theft, murder and other things may restrain people who would otherwise do those things. But the law cannot restrain the evil desires of the fallen human heart. I still want to speed. Greed makes me want to steal. The law cannot bring my sinful heart into willing submission.

Jesus hit the Pharisees with their hypocrisy in these things. Outwardly, they practiced obedience to the Law so that others would think that they were righteous. But in their hearts, Jesus said that they were full of self-indulgence, uncleanness, and lawlessness (Matt. 23:25-28).

B. The Law actually increases sin.

“The Law came in so that the transgression would increase ….” Paul isn’t just describing what actually happened, but rather God’s intent or purpose for giving the Law. This was not God’s only purpose or ultimate purpose, in that the increase of sin under the Law magnified the splendor and power of God’s grace (Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 295). But, in the sense that I am going to explain, the Law actually increases sin. It didn’t make the human race as fallen in Adam better; it made it worse.

The verb translated came in (5:20) points to the Law’s subordinate role in God’s economy (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 347). The idea is that the Law came alongside the existence of human sin, not to provide salvation, but to increase sin in several ways:

(1). The Law increases sin by turning our imputed sin in Adam into actual sins of deliberate disobedience.

This is Paul’s main point, as seen by the words, the transgression. He has just used this word to describe Adam’s disobedience (5:15, 17, 18). Adam disobeyed an explicit commandment of God. By way of contrast, those living from Adam until Moses sinned, but not in the same way that Adam sinned, in that they did not have God’s explicit commandments (5:14). They violated their con­sciences (2:12, 15). But when God gave the Law, the transgression of Adam increased, in that now sinners violated God’s explicit commandments. And so the Law of Moses turned those it addresses into “their own Adam” (Moo, p. 348). Each sinner, like Adam, now broke an explicit law. As Paul says (3:20), “for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (also, 7:7).

Maybe you’ve had the experience of doing something that didn’t quite seem right, but you were not aware of any law against it. But then you learned that the law specifically forbids doing what you were doing. If you do it again, the law has caused your sin to increase, because you are now deliberately disobeying.

(2). The Law increases sin by imputing our guilt to our account.

In Romans 4:15, Paul said, “Where there is no law, there is no violation.” In 5:13 he added, “For until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law.” Sin existed before the Law, in that sinners instinctively knew that what they were doing was wrong. But that sin was not specifically charged to them unless God had expressly forbidden it. So when the Law came, the transgression increased by imputing guilt to every sinner.

(3). The Law increases sin by exposing the utter sinful­ness of sin and removing all excuses for disobed­ience.

Paul says (7:13) “that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.” It’s one thing to do something wrong when you are not aware of any law against it. But when the law is posted on the wall or it is verbally explained to you, and then you go out and break that law, you have no excuse. Your deliberate disobed­ience reveals your sin to be utterly sinful.

(4). The Law increases sin by stimulating our sinful flesh to disobey it.

This is not Paul’s primary meaning in 5:20, but in light of what he goes on to say (7:7-11), it cannot be completely absent from his thought. The Law, which is holy, combines with our rebellious flesh to entice us to sin. Paul says that when the Law said, “You shall not covet,” it produced in him coveting of every kind (7:7-8). It’s like the little old lady who told the preacher that she wished he would stop quoting the Ten Commandments every week, because he was putting wrong ideas into people’s heads! We’ve all had the same experience. I wouldn’t have thought about walking on the grass if that sign had not said, “Do not walk on the grass”!

So the Law does not restrain sin at the heart level. Rather, the Law actually increases sin. But this raises the question: By giving the Law, was God causing us to sin? I hope that the very question causes you to say, “God forbid!” God cannot tempt anyone to sin (James 1:13). Rather, sin comes from our own lusts (7:5, 11-14). But that leads to a third observation about how the Law operates:

C. The Law is necessary to expose our self-righteousness and to convict us of our sin.

Outside of Christ, the tendency of the proud human heart is to trust in our own goodness and good works. We think that by our own efforts, we can commend ourselves to God. But the problem is, like the Pharisees, we focus on the outside of the cup, but conveniently ignore that the inside of the cup is filthy. And so God graciously sends the Law to tear down our self-righteousness and convict us of our sin so that we will be driven to the Savior.

Jesus did this with the Pharisees in the Sermon on the Mount. They took pride in never having murdered anyone, but Jesus said that if they had ever been angry, they were guilty of murder. They prided themselves on their morality, but Jesus said that if they had lusted after a woman, they were guilty of adultery in God’s sight. Jesus did the same thing with the rich young ruler. He took pride in having kept all the commandments, or so he thought. But by telling him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, Jesus showed him that he had not kept the first commandment, to have no other gods before the living God. His money was his god.

Thus the Law comes in, not just to increase the transgression, but also to reveal to us how guilty we are of violating God’s holy standards. This is actually gracious on God’s part, because in our self-righteousness, we don’t see our need for a Savior. But when the Law exposes our self-righteousness and convicts us of our sin, it drives us to the cross where we find grace. But not only does the Law cause sin to increase; also …

D. The increased sin reigns in death.

We saw this last week: sin led to death and “death reigned from Adam to Moses” (5:14); “death reigned through the one” (5:17); but, he repeats it again (5:21): “as sin reigned in death.” Two brief thoughts:

(1). Sin reigns as an evil tyrant in those who are not under Christ’s lordship.

In other words, sin doesn’t just move in as a polite houseguest; it takes over. It’s like bringing home a pet tiger kitten. It’s so cute and playful at first. But pretty soon, it grows into a vicious predator that kills you. Sin does not come in to work with you to accomplish your cherished objectives. It does not cooperate with you to help you be happy. It comes in pleasantly enough at first. It seems like a nice little pet. But invariably, it grows into an evil tyrant that reigns in death. If you do not conquer it, it will conquer and kill you (Gen. 4:7).

(2). Sin does not lead to a better, happier life, but to temporal and ultimately eternal death.

Sin reigns in the sphere of death, which refers both to physical and finally to spiritual death, which is eternal separation from God in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14-15). At first, sin always puts on a positive look: “You will be like God.” The fruit is good for food and a delight to the eyes (Gen. 3:5-6). Why not give it a try? It will bring you what you’ve always wanted! But that’s how sin deceives us. It did not bring Eve what Satan promised. It led her and the entire human race into death. Her oldest son murdered his brother out of jealousy. Sin is always ugly and leads to death. Remember that the next time you are tempted!

It’s a bleak picture, isn’t it! Outside of Christ, God’s holy Law causes sin to increase, so that it reigns in death. But thankfully there is some very good news:

2. Through Jesus Christ our Lord super-abundant grace reigns through righteousness to eternal life.

Romans 5:21 stands in contrast to 5:12. In 5:12, there are Adam, sin and death; in 5:21, we see the new Adam, Jesus Christ our Lord, righteousness, and eternal life. The new factor that makes the difference is super-abounding grace (Alva McClain, Romans, the Gospel of God’s Grace [BMH Books], p. 139).

The backdrop of sin displays the glory of God’s grace all the more (Schreiner, The Law, 242). F. Godet (Commentary on Romans [Kregel], p. 228) points out that Golgotha, “where human sin displayed itself as nowhere else, was at the same time the place of the most extraordinary manifestation of divine grace.” I once read about a master gem salesman who watched a rookie salesman fail to make a sale. With the next customer, the master showed the rookie how to display the gem on a background of black velvet to bring out the beauty and luster of the diamond. Even so, the glory of God’s manifold grace shines even brighter against the blackness of human sin. Note three things here:

A. God’s response to increased sin is super-abundant grace.

The Greek verb translated “increase” and “increased” has the idea of numerical increase. But the root of the word translated “abounded” means “to overflow,” or “to have more than enough.” But then Paul adds the Greek word, hyper, so that it means, “abounded all the more.” So we can translate, “where sin added up, grace super-abounded.” Donald Grey Barnhouse paraphrased it, “Where sin reached a high-water mark, grace completely flooded the world” (cited by James Boice, Romans [Baker], 2:618).

James Boice develops two points regarding God’s super-abundant grace. First: Grace is not withheld because of sin. Second: God’s grace is never reduced because of sin (pp. 619, 621). He points out that we do not usually operate this way. If someone wrongs or offends us, we withdraw from that person and do not treat him graciously. But God is not like this. Sinners crucified His Son who came to save them. After the resurrection, Jesus easily could have instructed the disciples, “Get out of this evil city of Jerusalem. It does not deserve to hear the gospel.” But instead, He told them (Luke 24:47) “that repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations,” and then He added, “beginning from Jerusalem.”

John Bunyan, who titled his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, also wrote a little book called, The Jerusalem Sinner Saved (both in The Whole Works of John Bunyan [Baker], vol. 1). His point was that Jesus Christ would have mercy offered, in the first place, to the biggest sinners.

B. God’s grace reigns through righteousness to eternal life.

Paul does not just say that in contrast to sin reigning in death, now grace reigns in life. He adds that “grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life.” Righteousness here refers to “the gift of righteousness” (5:17), which is the justification that all sinners receive when God imputes the righteousness of Christ to them by faith. As sinners who have been declared righteous, we are not made perfectly righteous in actual conduct until we see Jesus and become like Him (1 John 1:8; 3:2-3). We grow in godly behavior, but when we do sin, we have “an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). So our sins do not cut us off from God because His super-abundant grace reigns through the righteous standing that we have before Him through Christ.

This grace reigns “to eternal life.” In 5:17, Paul says that grace causes us to reign in life, but here he says that God’s super-abundant grace reigns to eternal life. This means that God’s grace takes us beyond where Adam was before the fall. He did not possess eternal life before the fall. We do. He did not have permanent, perfect righteousness credited to his account. We do. This should give us solid assurance of salvation. What God began in us when He graciously credited Christ’s righteousness to us as ungodly sinners (4:5), He will complete unto eternal life.

John Piper (“The Triumph of Grace Through Righteousness,” on desiringgod.org) points out that Romans 5 begins and ends with two infinite realities: eternal life at the end, and the hope of the glory of God at the beginning (xistence needs to be eternal so that we can experience more and more of the infinite glory of God (Eph. 1:6, 18; 2:7; Rom. 9:23). This also insures us that heaven will not be boring, because God’s glory is infinitely beautiful and enjoyable. He puts it this way:

Any amount of time short of eternity would be inadequate for a finite creature to experience the glory of God. It will take forever for us to see all there is to see and admire all there is to admire and enjoy all there is to enjoy of the glory of God. Therefore God ordains that there be eternal life for us.

There is one last thought that I can only mention in passing:

C. God’s grace is mediated to us through our Lord Jesus Christ.

All blessings come to us as believers through Jesus Christ our Lord, who graciously came to this earth and bore the penalty that we deserved on the cross. He mediates God’s blessings to us. Since we deserve nothing from God except judgment, this is pure grace. Throughout this chapter, Paul has repeated this so we won’t miss it: “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1). “We shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him [Christ]” (5:9). “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (5:10). “We also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation” (5:11). “Much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (5:17). And here (5:21), grace reigns “through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

All spiritual blessings are to be found in Christ (Eph. 1:3). Do you have Him? If so, His super-abundant undeserved favor will keep flowing and flowing to you unto eternal life!

Conclusion

In the center of Bath, England, stands a stone marker in honor of the city’s medicinal waters that have blessed so many people. It reads: “These healing waters have flowed on from time immemorial. Their virtue is unimpaired, their heat undiminished, their volume unabated. They explain the origin, account for the progress, and demand the gratitude of the City of Bath.” (From “Our Daily Bread,” Aug., 1982.)

That’s like God’s super-abundant grace for sinners who have trusted in Jesus Christ! The gospel of God’s grace is decidedly not moralistic therapeutic deism! Rather, through the gospel God’s enemies are reconciled to Him through “the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness” (5:17). His super-abundant grace reigns in us through Christ’s righteousness unto eternal life! A godly pastor who was about to die said, “I’m gathering together all my prayers, all my sermons, all my good deeds, all my evil deeds; and I’m going to throw them all overboard and drift to glory on the plank of Free Grace” (ibid.). Amen!

Application Questions

1.      Is it necessary to experience deep conviction of sin before coming to saving faith? If so, how should this affect our pre­sentation of the gospel?

2.      Someone may reason, “If the Law causes sin to increase, why not just throw out God’s commandments?” Your response?

3.      Discuss: Self-righteousness is one of the biggest hindrances to a person’s reception of the gospel.

4.      Someone objects: “You say that sin reigns in death, but I’ve been much happier since I started yielding to my lusts.” How would you respond?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 31: Are You Dead to Sin? (Romans 6:1-4)

I’ve often chuckled at a cartoon (by Mary Chambers) that I saw years ago where two couples are talking and one woman says, “Well, I haven’t actually died to sin, but I did feel kind of faint once.”

That cartoon captures how many of us feel about Romans 6:2, where Paul says that we “died to sin.” We would have to admit, “I don’t feel very dead to sin!” Maybe there have been a few times when I’ve felt kind of faint towards it. But, dead? No way!

So when we come to Romans 6, where Paul doesn’t just say once (in 6:2) that we died to sin, but in some form he says it in 6:3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, and 13. So if it seems like I’m repeating myself over the next couple of weeks, it’s because Paul repeats himself. But he wants us to get it because apparently it is crucial when it comes to living a godly life. And yet it’s very difficult to understand because I don’t feel very dead to sin! In fact, I rarely feel kind of faint!

Although commentators differ, most agree that in Romans 6:1 Paul turns from the subject of justification (or salvation) to sanctification, or how we grow in holiness. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, whom I highly respect, vigorously differs with that analysis and James Boice, whom I also highly respect, follows Lloyd-Jones. So it’s difficult for me to disagree with such men, whose insight into Scripture far exceeds mine. They may be correct.

But even though this section obviously flows out of chapter 5 (as Lloyd-Jones argues from “then” in 6:1), it seems to me that Paul begins a new theme that he pursues through chapter 8: If we have been justified by faith, how do we grow in sanctification? Justification by faith dealt with the penalty of our sin. But how can we live a holy life in which sin’s power is broken?

Chapter 6 falls into two main sections: In 6:1-14, Paul addresses an objection that he knows will follow from what he has been teaching about God justifying sinners by grace alone through faith alone, apart from any merit. He is especially responding to what he has just said in 5:20, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” The anticipated response is, “If God’s response to increased sin is to pour out super-abundant grace, then maybe we should sin all the more so that God can be all the more gracious!” Paul brought up this same reaction to his teaching back in 3:8, where he acknowledged that some were accusing him of saying, “Let us do evil that good may come.” His response there was, “Their condemnation is just.” Here (6:2), his response is, “May it never be!” Then he launches into his extended discussion of our being united with Christ in His death and resurrection.

In the second main section (6:15-23), Paul responds to another anticipated response to his teaching (in 5:20) that the Law came in so that sin would increase, along with his comment that we are not under law but under grace (6:14). The objection is (6:15), “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” His response is the same as in 6:2, “May it never be!” Then he develops an analogy from slavery. In 6:1-4, his main idea is:

Our union with Christ in His death and resurrection is the foundation for separation from sin and walking in newness of life.

I’m going to work through the text verse by verse to try to get our minds around what Paul is saying under four headings:

1. There is a logical implication to reject: Since God’s response to increased sin is abundant grace, then we should sin more to get more grace (6:1-2a).

Romans 6:1-2a: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be!”

Verse 1 is a test of whether you have correctly understood Paul’s message up to this point. If you’ve been tracking with him, he knows that you will be thinking, “If God’s response to increased sin is abundant grace (5:20), then why not sin more?” Since God freely justifies not those who try hard, but rather those who do not work; and since He justifies not those who are good people, but rather the ungodly (4:5); then why work at being good? Or, another form of it is, “If God is gracious towards sinners, then I’ll just sin and ask for His grace.” Or, as poet W. H. Auden put it (cited by Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans Eerdmans], p. 356), “I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.”

But the point is, if salvation or justification is by faith plus our good works, the objection that Paul anticipates here never would have come up. Or, if we hedge in God’s grace or tone it down, no one would dare to think what Paul knows we will think if we heard him correctly. For example, the popular seminar leader, Bill Goth­ard, redefines “grace” to mean, “the desire and power to do God’s will” (Men’s Manual [Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts], p. 112). While God does give us the desire and power to do His will, that is not grace! God’s grace is His undeserved favor. If we understand and teach grace correctly, people will at least think what Paul here anticipates. And, significantly, Paul doesn’t modify his teaching that God justifies the ungodly apart from their works, or that increased sin leads to abounding grace. Neither should we!

2. There is a spiritual fact to know and believe: In Christ we died to sin, so we cannot still live in it (6:2b).

Romans 6:2b: “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” This is a rhetorical question, which expects the answer, “There is no way that those who died to sin can still live in it!” It should be obvious: Dead men can’t live in sin.

But this raises a lot of questions. If Christians are dead to sin, then why do they sin? Can we attain sinless perfection in this life? If so, doesn’t this statement imply that we attain this state of being dead to sin at the moment of conversion? If not, do we need to work at being dead to sin? So what does Paul mean when he says that we “died to sin”?

There are a number of views (Martyn Lloyd-Jones elaborates on them, Romans: The New Man [Zondervan], pp. 16-20). For sake of time, I’m not going to take you through them all. But let me tell you what it does not mean, and then what I think it does mean.

Clearly, Paul does not mean that believers cannot sin or that they are immune to temptation. Some teach that if you go into a morgue and try to tempt a corpse to commit some sin, you will not succeed because he is dead. Likewise, it is said, Christians are dead to sin. It can’t entice them.

But, apart from the obvious fact that there are no such Christians in existence and there never have been, such a view makes all of the moral commands in the Bible to be superfluous. Why command me not to lust if I can’t lust because I’m dead to it? Why command me not to steal if I’m dead to greed? Besides, there are many examples in the Bible of otherwise godly men falling into serious sin. Noah got drunk. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all lied. David committed adultery and murder after he wrote many of the Psalms. Peter denied the Lord and later acted in hypocrisy toward the Gentile believers in Antioch. And in Romans 7, Paul shares his own struggles with sin. So he does not mean that believers cannot sin or that they are immune to temptation.

What does he mean? We just saw (5:12-21) that all people are identified either with Adam under the reign of sin and death, or with Christ under the reign of grace through righteousness. There are no other categories: Either you are in Adam or in Christ. By virtue of our physical birth, we all enter this world in Adam. His sin was imputed to us. When Adam sinned, we sinned. But when we trust in Christ, we are transferred from Adam’s headship to Christ’s headship. Just as Adam’s one sin condemned us all, so Christ’s one act of obedience on the cross justified all who receive His gracious gift of eternal life.

So Paul means that if you are in Christ, when He died on the cross, you died in Him. It is not something that you feel, but rather a fact that is true of you because God declares it to be true. If Christ our Head died, we who are His body died with Him. This is our new status or position before God. Since Christ died to sin (6:10) and we are now in Him, we died to sin. We derive the benefits of His death because we are now in Him.

In the Bible, death is not primarily cessation, but rather separation. At physical death your soul is separated from your body. When we died with Christ, we were separated from the reign of death and put under Christ’s reign of righteousness. Its reign over us was broken. As a result, Paul implies (by his rhetorical question) that we cannot continue in sin or live in it. He is not talking about committing acts of sin, but rather about living in sin as a way of life.

I understand 1 John 3:9 to be saying the same thing from a slightly different perspective: “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” John is not saying that believers cannot sin at all, because in 1 John 1:8 he has said that if anyone claims that he has no sin is deceiving himself. And in 2:1 he says that if we sin, we have an Advocate with the Father. He means that those born of God cannot continue in their old way of life, which was characterized by sin. The new birth removes them from it.

So both John and Paul mean that those who are in Christ cannot continue in sin as a way of life. When we are saved by God’s grace, He places us in a new realm, under the reign of grace, where we now walk in the light as He is in the light (as John puts it). We now obey God and keep His commandments as our pattern or habit. So Paul says that we need to know this fact and believe it: In Christ we died to sin, so we cannot still live in it.

3. There is a spiritual analogy to help you understand: Your baptism pictures your union with Christ in His death (6:3-4a).

Romans 6:3-4a: “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, …”

Verse 3 generates a lot of controversy. Is Paul talking about water baptism or the baptism of the Holy Spirit? If he means water baptism, is he saying that the act of baptism itself conveys these benefits? Sparing you all of the debates, I think that Paul is referring to the spiritual reality that takes place at salvation, which water baptism symbolizes.

Keep in mind that the apostles all associated saving faith with water baptism to such an extent that the concept of an unbaptized believer would have been foreign to them. When people in that day professed faith in Jesus Christ, they expressed it by being baptized in water. Paul assumes that all of the Christians in Rome had been baptized. (“All of us who have been baptized” means, “all of us believers.”) Since at that time, baptism usually followed faith in Christ rather quickly (Acts 2:41; 8:36; 9:18), the thought of distinguishing between Spirit baptism (which happens at the moment of salvation) and water baptism would not have occurred to Paul (Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 307, note 6).

Also, not to be controversial, but there is no evidence in the New Testament that infant baptism was practiced, nor are there any verses to support such a practice. The entire argument for infant baptism rests on the assumption that it has replaced circumcision as the sign of the covenant. While Colossians 2:11-12 links some aspects of circumcision with baptism, those verses also specifically link faith in Christ with baptism. The clear pattern of the New Testament is that a person first believed in Christ and then expressed that faith in water baptism. In modern evangelicalism, we’ve wrongly replaced baptism with walking the aisle. But if you have believed in Christ as your Savior, you should be baptized in water to confess your faith.

What does baptism picture? The main thought is that of identification. The word clearly means, to immerse (as even Calvin admitted, The Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster Press], 4:15:14 & 4:15:19). It was used of people being drowned, or of ships being sunk (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Apollos/Eerdmans], p. 246). To be baptized into Christ’s death means to be totally identified with Christ in His death. When He paid the penalty of death for sin, we paid the penalty in Him. When He died to sin, conquering its power, we who believe in Him died to sin and its power.

Why does Paul emphasize not only Christ’s death, but also the fact that we were buried with Him through baptism? Scholars agree that burial is mentioned because it confirms that death has occurred (Schreiner, p. 308). Generally speaking, you don’t bury a living person. To say that we were buried with Christ means, we really died with Him. Baptism by immersion pictures this when a person goes under the water. If we held them under for a few minutes, they really would die physically! Immersion pictures the spiritual reality: When we believed in Christ, we became fully identified with Him in His death and burial. We are united with Him in that historic action (6:5).

While Paul does not specifically say (which means that scholars argue about it) that coming out of the water pictures being raised up with Christ in His resurrection, it is implied. As I understand him, he uses baptism as an illustration to help us understand our union with Christ. It pictures our death, burial, and resurrection with Christ, which took place historically when Christ died, was buried, and was raised on behalf of His people whom He redeemed. It was applied to us the instant that we believed, but we express it symbolically in water baptism. Finally,

4. There is a spiritual fact to believe and act upon: Since we are united with Christ in His glorious resurrection, we should walk in newness of life (6:4b).

Romans 6:4b: “… so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Christ was raised bodily from the grave, not just spiritually. But spiritually, we were in Him, so that when He was raised in victory over sin and death, we were raised too (Col. 3:1). We will not receive our new resurrection bodies, which will be completely free from sin, until Jesus returns. But before then, the action on our part as a result of our spiritual resurrection with Christ is that we should walk in newness of life.

Paul says that Christ was raised from the dead “through the glory of the Father.” It’s an unusual expression. I would have expected him to say, “by the power of God.” While most commentators say that “glory” is used here as a synonym for “power,” Paul does say “glory,” not “power.” C. H. Spurgeon (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 27:626) points out that glory is a grander word, because it includes the display of all of the Father’s attributes in raising Christ from the dead. The word “Father” (rather than “God”) implies His great love for His Son and for us in giving up His Son to death. The wisdom of God was displayed by allowing Christ to suffer in our place before raising Him from the dead. The Father’s justice is displayed at the cross and resurrection (4:25). His faithfulness to His promise not to allow His Holy One to undergo decay (Ps. 16:10) was seen in the resurrection. And, of course, His great power was displayed there, too (Eph. 1:19-20).

As a result of our union with Christ in His resurrection, we are to walk in newness of life. This means that our new walk in Christ should be totally distinct from our life before Christ. We should develop transformed minds through God’s Word, so that our whole worldview lines up with Scripture. Our motives for why we do what we do should no longer be selfish, but rather for God’s glory. Our attitudes, especially in trials, should not be complaining, but rather thankful to God. Our emotions should be marked by joy and hope in the Lord. Our character should be developing the fruit of the Spirit. Our use of time and money should be managed in light of eternal values. And we should be walking in consistent obedience to God’s commandments, which are for our good.

The description of this newness of life as “a walk” implies a long, steady, gradual process. Paul is not talking about sinless perfection, but rather a direction of life in which we sin less and less. Over time, we should make progress in holy, obedient living as those who have been raised up with Christ.

Conclusion

I realize that the concept of being dead to sin and alive to God in Christ is difficult to comprehend and apply. We’ll look at it further in weeks ahead, since Paul does. But let me conclude by giving three applications based on this text:

(1) Do not presume on God’s grace as permission to sin. Many Christians stupidly (I chose that word deliberately!) think, “I can go ahead and sin and just get forgiven. After all, I’m under grace.” That is stupid because it ignores what we saw last time, that sin does not move in to help you achieve your objectives. It moves in to reign and its reign is one of death. God’s grace does not mean that He is tolerant of your sin. Grace does not excuse sloppy living. God is committed to your holiness, and if you play loose with sin, He will discipline you, perhaps severely!

(2) If you have trusted Christ, make a distinct break with your past life and declare it publicly in baptism. Becoming a Christian means burning all your bridges to your past life of sin. If you have drugs in your possession, destroy them. If you have alcohol and you are tempted to get drunk, pour it down the drain. If going to bars tempts you to drunkenness or picking up loose women, stop going there. If you have pornographic magazines, get rid of them. If Internet porn is a problem, get some system of accountability or stop using the Internet. Follow the example of the new believers in Ephesus, who burned 50,000 days’ wages worth of magic books (Acts 19:19). And then confess your new faith in water baptism.

(3) Meditate often on your union with Christ and what it means. You are now in Christ. Think about it and act accordingly. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (pp. 25 ff.) uses the example of the slaves who were freed by President Lincoln during the Civil War. His Emancipation Proclamation declared them to be free. Many of the older slaves had not known any other life. They were born slaves and had lived all their lives under a cruel master. But now they “died” to slavery. They were declared free. But they didn’t feel free. When they saw their old master coming, they may have shook in fear and even obeyed him if he gave them a command. But they didn’t have to obey him. His power over them was broken. They did not have to live under his tyranny. They could walk in newness of life.

Even so, in Christ you died to sin. You no longer have to live under its power. You don’t have to obey it. You have been raised up in Christ so that you now can walk in newness of life. Think often about your new position in Him. Our union with Christ in His death and resurrection is the foundation for separation from sin and walking in newness of life.

Application Questions

  1. Why is the thought of licentiousness the litmus test of whether we correctly understand and present God’s grace?
  2. is it just a “mind game” to think, “I’m dead to sin” when you feel very much alive to it? What real difference does this make?
  3. Why is water baptism important? Why should it be practiced only on believers? What are the dangers of infant baptism?
  4. What specific aspect of the old life do you need to cast off so that you can now walk in newness of life?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 32: Dead to Sin, Alive to God (Romans 6:5-11)

I read a rather unbelievable incident where a young married man forgot that he was married. After returning from their honeymoon, the husband was three hours late getting home from work one evening because he absentmindedly had gone to his mother’s house instead of going home to his new bride (reported in “Our Daily Bread,” June, 1982). A tip for young husbands: Do not forget that you are married!

While that sort of thing is rare in the realm of marriage, it is fairly common among those who are “married” to Christ. We are joined to Him as His bride so that we are now members of His body (Eph. 5:25-33). We are identified with Him in His death and resurrection, so that the power of sin has been broken (Rom. 6:1-4). But we forget this essential truth every time that we fall into sin.

Paul is rebutting the charge that his teaching that God justifies the ungodly by grace through faith alone, apart from any merit, will lead to licentiousness (6:1-2). He is proving that our union with Jesus Christ is completely opposed to a life of continuing sin. Rather, our identification with Christ in His death and resurrection frees us from slavery to sin and allows us to walk in newness of life. But Paul knows that we’re prone to forget our new position in Christ, which is the foundation for holy living. And so he hammers it home in these verses.

Here’s Paul’s flow of thought: In 6:4 he says that our baptism pictured the spiritual union that we have with Christ in His death and resurrection, with the practical result that we might now walk in newness of life. Verse 5 supports and explains verse 4, as the opening word (“For”) shows: “For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection.”

Then in 6:6-7 Paul expounds on the first half of 6:5, showing that we have become united with Christ in His death, so that we might no longer be slaves to sin. In 6:8-10 he expounds on the second half of 6:5, showing that we shall also live with Christ. He explains the implications of Christ’s death and resurrection, so that we will understand further what our union with Him means, namely, a decisive break with sin and a new life with God. Then in 6:11 he applies these truths: “Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

I will say at the outset that this is not an easy text to grasp. The difficulty of Romans 6 & 7 was the major reason that I held off from preaching through Romans for 33 years of ministry. I wish I could say that I’ve had a breakthrough! I’ve been struggling with what Paul says here for about 45 years now, but I’m still not sure that I get it. There are all sorts of interpretive issues where commentators differ and I find much of what they say to be confusing. So I’m not so naïve as to think that this one message will make things crystal clear for you. But I hope that you will be motivated to dig deeper into these chapters on your own.

These verses are important because Paul’s aim is that we would live in victory over sin. Christ’s death and resurrection not only paid the penalty for our sin, but also provided the power that we need to overcome sin on a daily basis. So if this message leaves you somewhat confused, I urge you not to shrug your shoulders and walk away. Rather, chew on these verses like a dog with a bone, until you get the marrow of them into your soul. Paul’s idea is:

Living in light of our union with Christ is the key to overcoming sin.

To put it another way, don’t live in sin as you used to live because you aren’t the same person that you used to be. Before, you were in Adam. Now, you are in Christ. In Adam, you were dead in sin. In Christ, you are dead to sin and alive to God. So believe and act on the basis of your new identity, not your old identity.

1. To overcome sin, know that you are totally identified with Christ in the likeness of His death (6:5a, 6-7).

In the first part of verse 5, Paul states the fact that we (believers) have become united with Christ in the likeness of His death. The word “if” does not express doubt; it could be translated “since.” Verses 6 & 7 explain this further: “knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.” Paul is talking about the knowledge of what God has revealed, not the knowledge that we gain by personal experience. In other words, you will never feel crucified with Christ; it is something that you must believe because God’s Word says so. Let’s try to follow Paul’s train of thought:

A. We are completely united with Christ in the likeness of His death (6:5a).

When we trusted in Christ as Savior, we were united to Him. The word means, literally, to be grown together with, or grafted into Christ. An older commentary (William Sanday and Arthur Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [T & T Clark], p. 157) says, “The word exactly expresses the process by which a graft becomes united with the life of a tree.” In other words, it points to our organic, living union with Christ, in which we share His resurrection life. But in the first half of verse 5 the focus is not on sharing His life, but rather in His death. We saw this in verses 3 & 4: When Christ died, we died in Him. The perfect tense in verse 5 means that this union was a past action with ongoing results.

But why does Paul say that we have become united with Him “in the likeness of His death,” not just “in His death”? While there is debate, I think that Calvin’s explanation makes sense (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 223), that Paul differentiates between Christ’s physical death and the spiritual implications of it. We have not yet died physically, as Christ did, but we are joined to Him in the spiritual benefits of His death. Our union with Christ is very close, as “united” implies, but it is not exact. Paul comments further on the implications of this union with the likeness of Christ’s death in 6:6-7 (plus in 6:9 & 10).

B. This union with Christ means that our unregenerate life is over so that we do not now need to obey our old nature (6:6-7).

Paul says (6:6), “our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with …” Things get confusing here in light of other texts where Paul talks about the “old man” and the “new man” (Eph. 2:14-16; 4:22-24; Col. 3:9-11) and texts where he tells us to put to death the deeds of the flesh (Rom. 8:12-13; Col. 3:5). In the context here “the old man” represents what we were in Adam (5:12-19). We are no longer in Adam, but now we are in Christ, who is our life (Col. 3:4). So when Paul says that “our old man was crucified with Him,” he means that what we were before we were saved died with Christ. There is a complete severance between what we were under the reign of sin and death in Adam and what we have become under the reign of grace to eternal life in Christ. Our old life has ended, as “crucified” implies.

The problem is, if our old man has been crucified, then where does my strong propensity toward sin come from? Clearly, we still have an old sin nature (sometimes called “the flesh”) within us that wars against the indwelling Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:17). And Paul commands us to put off the old man and put on the new man (Eph. 4:22-24, where most commentators agree that the infinitives have imperatival force). Why do we need to put off the old man if it already has been crucified?

Reading most commentators as they try to sort this out is thoroughly confusing! I do not claim infallibility or complete understanding here! But it seems to me that Thomas Schreiner is on target when he says (Romans [Baker], p. 318),

What we have is the already-not-yet tension that informs all of Paul’s theology. The old person has been crucified with Christ and the new person (Col. 3:10) is a reality, and yet the old person still must be resisted and its desire (Eph. 4:22) thwarted. Believers must also choose to clothe themselves with the new person that is theirs in Christ.

Or, to put it another way, in Christ our old man was crucified positionally. It is a spiritual fact, just as the fact that I am raised up and seated with Christ in the heavenly places is true positionally. But in practice, I have to count it as true by believing it and resisting my indwelling old nature when it tempts me to sin. To say that the old man “was crucified” is a vivid way of saying that positionally, its power was broken. But, practically, I have to apply that truth in the daily battle against sin and temptation.

Then what does Paul mean when he says, “in order that our body of sin might be done away with”? Again, there is much confusing discussion. The Lord makes it clear that sin originates in our hearts (Mark 7:21-23). Our physical bodies are not inherently sinful, as some ascetics have maintained, so that we should deny any physical pleasure. Rather, Paul probably uses the expression, “body of sin,” “because the body is the means by which sin is concretely accomplished” (Schreiner, p. 316). Our bodies are the means by which the sins of our hearts eventually manifest themselves. The verb translated “done away with” means to “render powerless or inoperative.”

Thus when Paul says that our old man was crucified “in order that our body of sin might be done away with,” I understand him to mean that when we believe and act upon our new position in Christ, in which our old self was crucified, we will not fulfill or act out the sinful desires that tempt us. We will “no longer be slaves to sin” (6:6b). The power of sin to control us has been broken by virtue of our union with Christ.

Verse 7 adds a word of explanation, “for he who has died is freed from sin.” The literal translation is, “for he who has died has been justified from sin,” but almost all translations and commentators take it to mean “freed” in this context. Paul shifts from “we” to “he,” so he may be citing a general illustration to support verse 6. The idea is that when a person dies, obviously he’s done with sin. Since we died positionally in Christ, sin has no jurisdiction over us. We do not have to obey it any more.

While there are a lot of difficult details in these verses, Paul’s overall point is clear: In Christ, sin’s power over us has been broken. When you come to Christ, you cannot hang onto your sin with one hand while you take hold of Christ with your other hand. You must make a distinct break with the old life. As believers we have become united with Christ in His death so that we would no longer be slaves to sin, as we all were before we came to Christ. So if you claim to be a Christian and yet you are enslaved to sin, at the very least you do not understand your new position in which your old man was crucified with Christ. Paul would ask you (6:2), “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?”

Thus far we have looked at what it means to be united with Christ in the likeness of His death. But the second half of verse 5 says, “certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection.” Paul expounds on this in 6:8-10.

2. To overcome sin, know that you are totally identified with Christ in the likeness of His resurrection (6:5b, 8-10).

Again, there is a lot of debate over the exact meaning of these verses. Let me try to explain my understanding under two headings:

A. To overcome sin, know and believe that in the future you will share fully in Christ’s resurrection victory over sin (6:5b, 8).

Some argue vigorously that Paul’s statements about being united with Christ in His resurrection and living with Him refer to the present. Other Scriptures show that we are presently raised up with Christ (Eph. 2:6; Col. 2:12; 3:1). Also, Paul’s command (6:11) to consider yourself “alive to God in Christ Jesus” lends weight to the present aspect of sharing in Christ’s resurrection.

But the problem is, Paul uses the future tense both in verse 5 and in verse 8. Those who argue that Paul is talking about our present sharing in Christ’s resurrection argue that it is future in reference to our death with Christ. But Paul could have used present tense verbs if that were his point. Instead he twice uses the future tense. Also, his words “we believe that we shall live with Him” seem to point more toward something that is not yet completely realized.

Thus while it’s true that we are presently risen with Christ and share His life, Paul’s emphasis here seems to be on the future resurrection of our bodies, when we will experience complete victory over sin (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 371, 377). So as Leon Morris puts it (The Epistle to the Romans [Apollos/Eerdmans], p. 254), “Paul is saying that the believer lives with Christ now and that this union will be even more wonderful in the life to come.”

Here’s how this works when you face temptation. Perhaps you’re tempted to use drugs or to get drunk to escape from the pressures of life. Or, you’re tempted to go back to the sexual immorality of your old life. But you realize that in Christ, you have been crucified to that corrupt way of life. You now are united to Christ in both His death and resurrection. His new life is in you. And, someday soon, you will receive a new resurrection body that cannot sin. Since that is your certain future, why would you want to sin now? As Paul rhetorically asks (6:21), “What benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death.” So knowing and believing the truth of your present position of sharing in Christ’s death and the certain promise of living forever with Him will break the power of sin in your daily life.

B. To overcome sin, know that Christ’s resurrection represents His complete and final victory over sin and death (6:9-10).

Verse 9 gives the reason or basis that we believe that we will share in Christ’s resurrection. “Knowing” is a causal participle (Moo, p. 378). The thought is, “We believe that we will live with Christ because we know that He is now beyond the reach of death.” His resurrection signifies that He will never die again. “Death is no longer master over Him” (6:9).

Verse 10 explains the last phrase of verse 9: “For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God.” When Jesus came to this earth, He submitted Himself to the reign of sin and death in the sense that He came to bear our sins on the cross. He had no sins of His own to bear. But death was master over Him during that time because He came to die for our sins. His death on the cross was a decisive, once and for all satisfaction of God’s wrath (Heb. 7:27; 9:12; 10:10). His victory over sin and death was complete. His resurrection put all of the terrors of sin and death behind Him once and for all.

Now, “the life He lives, He lives to God.” This does not imply that His life prior to His resurrection was not lived for God. Rather, as Leon Morris explains (p. 255), “His life is beyond the reach of death and every evil. It is a life lived positively in and for the glory of God (cf. John 17:5), no longer with the negative aspect of putting away sin.”

So the thought in verses 9 & 10 is that Christ’s death and resurrection completely and finally conquered sin and death. The promise that we will one day share completely in this victory gives us the desire and power to overcome sin right now. John Piper (“Justified to Break the Power of Sin,” on desiringgod.org) explains the practical benefit of verses 9 & 10: “Sin can’t enslave a person who is utterly confident and sure and hope-filled in the infinite happiness of life with Christ in the future.”

By this point, perhaps you’re either completely confused or you’re thinking, “All right, enough of this theoretical stuff. Let’s get to the practical side of things.” Paul does that in verse 11:

3. To overcome sin, continually count as true the fact of your being dead to sin and alive to God in Christ (6:11).

It is significant that verse 11 is the first command in Romans to this point. Paul felt it necessary to lay the extensive doctrinal foundation of chapters 1-6 before he finally says, “Now live in this way.” In other words, our Christian behavior must rest on solid doctrinal knowledge. Three times in chapter 6, Paul has mentioned knowledge: (6:3), “Or do you not know …” (6:6), “knowing this …” (6:9), “knowing that Christ …” Knowing who we are in Christ is the foundation for how we are to live in Christ.

So, Paul’s first command in Romans is (6:11), “Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” “Even so” means, “Just as Christ died definitively and finally to sin, so you should count yourselves in Him to be done with sin. Just as Christ has risen from the dead and now lives in God’s presence far removed from sin, so should you live in Him, since in the future you will live forever with Him.” “Consider” is in the present tense and means, “keep on counting it to be true.” You don’t count it to be true because you feel dead to sin and alive to God, but rather because God says that it is true. And the truest thing about you is not what you feel, but what God declares to be true. Victory over sin begins with your mind, how you think.

This isn’t just a mind game, where you tell yourself over and over that it’s true until it actually becomes true. Paul isn’t saying to deny reality by thinking positive thoughts. He isn’t saying, “Visualize yourself as being dead to sin and then you’ll act that way.” Rather, he is saying, “This is the fact of who God has made you in Christ. You are no longer in Adam, alive to sin, but dead towards God. Rather, you are now in Christ Jesus [this is just Paul’s second use of that frequent phrase in Romans], dead to sin and alive to God. Think on that truth. As you think, so you will act. So consider it over and over as often as you face temptation.” Living in light of your union with Christ is the key to overcoming sin.

Conclusion

When she was young, Victoria, the future queen of England, was shielded from that fact so that the knowledge of it would not spoil her. When her teacher finally did let her discover for herself that she would one day rule as queen, Victoria’s response was, “Then I will be good!” Her life from that point was controlled by her future position. She would be the queen, so she acted as a queen should act. (Adapted from Warren Wiersbe, Be Rich [Victor Books], pp. 13-14.)

In the same way, the fact that we are united with Christ in His decisive death to sin and that one day we will be raised up to live with Him eternally should cause us to proclaim, “Then I will be holy.” Counting our union with Christ in His death and resurrection to be true is the key to overcoming sin.

Application Questions

  1. A Christian says, “I don’t feel dead toward sin, so isn’t reckoning it to be true just a mind game?” Your response?
  2. Some Christian writers argue that believers do not have an old sin nature. Why is this teaching dangerous? Where does it lead?
  3. What other Scriptures could you use to prove that our physical bodies are not sinful? Why is it important to affirm this?
  4. Can a genuine believer live enslaved to sin? Is such a condition evidence that he isn’t truly regenerate? Why/why not?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 33: It Ain’t Gonna Reign No More (Romans 6:12-14)

Many of you have seen the hilarious Bob Newhart routine where he is a psychologist and a woman comes for counsel because she is afraid of being buried alive in a box. (If you haven’t seen it, watch it on You Tube when you need a good laugh.) Newhart’s counsel for her phobia, plus several other problems, consists of two words: “Stop it!” He screams it at her over and over, “Just stop it!” She tries to bring up how her mother treated her as a child, but Newhart says, “No, we don’t go there. Just stop it!”

In some ways, Paul’s command to those who are struggling with life-dominating sins sounds kind of like Bob Newhart’s counsel: “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts” (6:12). In other words, “Stop it!” Then after telling us to obey God, he gives a blanket promise (6:14a): “For sin shall not be master over you ….” It’s pretty clear: “Stop sinning and obey God because sin shall not be master over you.” Got it?

But as all of us know, overcoming stubborn, life-dominating sins is not as easy as just stopping it. Even though we often can see that these sins are having a destructive effect in our lives, we keep falling into them. So how do we stop it? How do we experience on a consistent basis the promise that sin “ain’t gonna reign no more”?

As I said last week, I’ve been struggling to understand and apply the truths of Romans 6 for 45 years now, and it’s still not easy. So I’m not suggesting in this message, “Take these three Bible verses and you’ll feel fine in the morning.” You’re going to have to grapple with these truths until they become part of the fabric of your daily thinking and practice. My aim is to try to further your understanding and help direct you on the path. But you need actively to engage with this chapter because if you don’t, your sin will destroy you. It’s a life and death battle! In a nutshell, Paul says:

Don’t let sin reign by following your lusts, but give yourself to God to live righteously under His grace.

Let’s work through these verses under four headings:

1. To apply these commands, you must understand and apply the truths of Romans 1-6:11.

I am basing this observation on the opening word of verse 12, “Therefore.” Therefore shows that the commands in 6:12-13 rest on the truths that Paul has set forth in the first five and a half chapters of Romans. If you have not understood and personally applied those truths, it would be as futile to apply the commands of 6:12-13 as it was for the woman in Bob Newhart’s office to just stop it.

We’ve spent 32 messages in Romans so far, but let me recap Paul’s main points. First, the universal human problem is, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Thankfully, God did not leave us under His judgment. He provided a way to preserve His justice and yet to justify sinners. He sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, to bear the penalty that we deserved. God now graciously justifies the ungodly person who does not work for salvation, but rather believes in Jesus as his or her sin-bearer, thus reconciling us to God. Formerly, we were all identified with Adam in his sin. But now, having received God’s free gift, we are united to Christ in His death to sin and resurrection life, which we will fully experience when He returns. In the meanwhile, whenever we are tempted to sin, we must “consider [ourselves] to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:11).

Thus, as John Murray explains (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerd­mans], p. 227), to say to a slave, “Don’t behave as a slave,” is to mock his slavery. But to say to a freed slave, “Don’t behave as a slave” is to encourage him to act in light of his new freedom. To say to a person outside of Christ, “Stop sinning” is futile. To say it to a person whom Christ has freed from sin is meaningful and helpful. The commands that Paul gives in 6:12-13 make no sense unless you are in Christ by virtue of being justified by faith alone.

2. Sin is a tyrant that will reign over us if we allow it to do so (6:12-13a).

Rom. 6:12-13a: “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness ….” I’ll try to explain these verses under four headings:

A. Sin still has a strong appeal, even to those who are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Paul’s command in 6:12 shows that we were on target in 6:1-11 when we concluded that being identified with Christ in His death so that we are freed from sin does not mean that we are now sinlessly perfect or that we’re immune to sin. Believers still feel strong desires (“lusts”) for sin. When sin comes knocking, we don’t automatically slam the door and say, “I’m not interested!” If that were so, Paul would not have given the command, “Do not let sin reign.” Being dead to sin is not a feeling that you will achieve someday when you are spiritually mature. It is a spiritual truth that you must believe and act on, often in opposition to your feelings and lusts. It is true by virtue of your union or identification with Jesus Christ. But that union with Christ does not eradicate the lusts of the flesh.

B. Sin’s goal is not to assist you with your program for happiness and success.

We tend to think of sin as a benign force that we can manage and control. “If you eat the fruit, you will be like God.” “Well, I’ve always wanted to be like God. That’s a good personal goal, isn’t it?” Satan presented sin as if it were a good thing that would assist Eve in her quest for happiness. But Paul personifies sin as an evil tyrant that will reign over you and lead to death (6:21, 23) if you let it. It’s like living with a little bit of cancer. You can’t do it, because the cancer will spread and kill you. You’ve got to eradicate it all.

In the same way, you can’t tolerate a little bit of sin or think that you can use it safely to pursue your happiness. Men, you can’t tolerate a little bit of pornography. Jesus said that if you do, you will spend eternity in hell (Matt. 5:27-30). I wouldn’t have put it so strongly. That seems to go against my theology that we’re saved by grace through faith alone. But Jesus said that if you do not cut the lust out of your life, you’ll spend eternity in hell. And Paul seems to line up with Jesus here in Romans 6 when he says that if you are a slave of sin, the outcome will be death, which is opposed to eternal life (6:20-21, 23).

On the news this week, they showed a fisherman holding a small shark that he had caught that was still alive and squirming in his hand. Suddenly, it turned and took a chunk out of his shoulder. Sin is like that shark. As long as it’s still alive in you, its aim is not to help you, but to destroy you.

C. Sin seeks to dominate us through our bodies.

Paul commands, “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body.” He adds that you should not present “the members of your body to sin.” Also, several times in chapter 7 (verses 5, 18, 23, 24) Paul makes it sound as if sin resides in our bodies.

But we need to be very careful here. An early heresy (Gnosticism) taught that the body and all matter are evil, whereas the spirit is good. This led to one of two extremes: Some treated the body harshly, denying themselves proper food, warmth, and other comforts of life. They advocated abstaining from all pleasure, including that of marital relations, as the path to spiritual growth. But others reasoned, “If my body is already evil, then it doesn’t matter what I do with it. It doesn’t touch my spirit.” So they indulged the flesh and justified it with their twisted logic.

The Bible, however, affirms that our bodies are good, that physical pleasure within the boundaries of God’s Word is to be enjoyed, and that we are to use our bodies to glorify God (Prov. 5:15-19; 1 Cor. 6:20; 10:31; 1 Tim. 4:3-4; 6:17). Harsh treatment of the body is “of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Col. 2:23).

Therefore, it is most likely that when Paul refers here to “your mortal body,” he is looking at the whole person in terms of his interaction with the world (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 383; Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 323). This is supported by the parallelism in verse 13, where Paul says not to present the members of your body to sin, but in the next line says to present yourselves to God. The “members of your body” seems to be synonymous with “yourselves.” And the “lusts” of verse 12 are not limited to bodily desires, such as the desires for food and sex. They also include sins of the heart, such as envy, jealousy, anger, greed, and pride.

So Paul uses the terms “mortal body” and “members of your body” because the way these lusts of the heart manifest themselves is through our physical bodies. Leon Morris (The Epistle to the Romans [Apollos/Eerdmans], p. 257, italics his) explains, “Paul is not arguing that the body is the cause of sin, but that it is the organ through which sin manifests itself, so that believers obey it.”

Paul adds the word mortal to emphasize the fact that we all are going to die in a few short years. Sin is pleasurable for a season (Heb. 11:25), but it leads to eternal death (Rom. 6:23). The joy of being reconciled to God and the rewards of heaven are eternal. Thus it would be foolish to indulge the lusts of your mortal body for a few short years but lose the eternal joys of heaven. Rather, use your body to glorify God (1 Cor. 6:20).

D. For sin to reign, you must allow it to reign by giving your body to it as a weapon for unrighteousness.

“Do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness” (6:13a). The word translated instruments can refer to tools or instruments, but elsewhere in the New Testament, it always means weapons (John 18:3; Rom. 13:12; 2 Cor. 6:7; 10:4). And so most likely here Paul had in mind either giving your bodily parts over to Satan to use for weapons of unrighteousness, or giving them to God as weapons of righteousness.

The picture, then, is that the struggle against sin is mortal combat against an enemy that seeks to destroy you (Eph. 6:10-20). Bishop Lightfoot (Notes on Epistles of St. Paul [Baker], p. 297; I changed his Greek into English) put it this way: “Sin is regarded as a sovereign (do not let it reign, ver. 12), who demands the military service of subjects (that you obey, ver. 12), levies their quota of arms (weapons of unrighteousness, ver. 13), and gives them their soldier’s-pay of death (wages, ver. 23).” Picture yourself in combat with an assailant who has broken into your house. As he wrestles with you, he drops his gun. You pick it up and hand it back to him. Duh! That’s how stupid it is when you give your body to sin as a weapon for unrighteousness!

Thus, to apply these commands, you must understand and personally apply the truths of Romans 1-6:11. Also, realize that sin is a tyrant that will reign over you if you let it do so.

3. In Christ, exercise your will to say no to sin and yes to God (6:13b).

In Romans 6:1-11, Paul has appealed to the mind (“knowing,” 6:3, 6, 9) and to the heart (“consider,” or “reckon,” 6:11, which depends on faith, which comes from the heart, Rom. 10:10). Now (in 6:12-13) he appeals to the will. He is saying, “Stop sinning and start obeying,” but this appeal to the will rests on the knowledge of who you now are in Christ and on believing that truth when you face temptation. Then you must choose to act on it. Three thoughts:

A. We have an active responsibility to stop the reign of sin.

Paul directs the command to us and he doesn’t say, “Just let go and let God.” Rather, to stop sinning you must take aggressive action to deny its attempt to rule your life. This is where “just say no” is a valid motto. “Stop it!” You can obey that command because in Christ, the power of sin has been broken.

Years ago, I read about a young man who professed to be a Christian, but he was enslaved to some sin. He had been to many counselors, and they spent hours trying to help him analyze his past and trying various techniques, but nothing had worked. He shared this tale of woe with a campus worker and finally asked, “What do you think I should do?” The campus worker replied, “I think you should stop doing it.” The young man was stunned. He said, “In all these years, no one told me to stop sinning.” He didn’t realize that that was an option!

But isn’t that what Paul is telling us when he says, “Flee immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18)? Or, “Flee from idolatry” (1 Cor. 10:14). Or, “Flee from youthful lusts” (2 Tim. 2:22). Fleeing is the opposite of hanging out with sin, let alone welcoming into your life. If movies defile you and put tempting thoughts in your brain, flee movies. If porn on the Internet tempts you, either put some big fences up so that you don’t go near the edge or flee the Internet. This isn’t rocket science!

B. Victory over sin begins by personally giving yourself to God.

“Present yourself to God.” The first use of that verb with regard to sin is in the present tense: “do not go on presenting.” But the second instance, with reference to God, is in the aorist tense, which leads some authors to emphasize that this is a once-for-all commitment. But Douglas Moo cautions against putting too much emphasis on the variation of verb tense here. He says (p. 385), “The aorist imperative often lacks any special force, being used simply to command that an action take place—without regard for the duration, urgency, or frequency of the action.” He suggests that since not giving ourselves to sin is constantly necessary, so giving ourselves to God as our rightful ruler must be repeated often.

The verb, present, does not have the passive meaning of yield, but the more active meaning of give in service to (Moo, p. 384, note 168). This implies that our main reason for wanting to overcome sin should not be just our own happiness, but rather the glory of the God who sent His Son to redeem us. He bought us with His blood; therefore, we must glorify Him with our bodies (1 Cor. 6:19-20). We now present ourselves to God as willing conscripts in His army for His purpose and glory. We will be happy when we give ourselves to God, but our primary aim is to glorify Him.

This is a big problem with the AA and 12-Step programs: they never dethrone self. God, “however you conceive Him to be,” is there to help you overcome your addictions so that you will be happy. But He is not presented as the Lord who loved you and bought you out of the slave-market of sin. Your motive for gaining the victory over sin should be to please the loving Lord who bought you with His blood. Give your bodily members to Him as weapons for righteousness.

C. Victory over sin is only possible for those who are spiritually alive from the dead.

Paul says (6:13b), “Present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead.” You were dead in your sins, alienated from God as His enemy. But He made you alive in Christ through the new birth. This goes back to our first point, that to apply these commands, you must first understand and apply the truth of the gospel of justification by faith alone, which Paul expounds on in chapters 1-5. You must no longer be in Adam, under the reign of sin and death, but rather be in Christ, having received new life by His grace.

Unbelievers can become more outwardly moral by self effort. But it’s like putting a tuxedo on a pig. It might look nice for a while, but you haven’t changed the pig’s nature. The first mud hole that it sees will be too tempting. To overcome the temptation, that pig needs a brand new nature. To overcome temptation on the heart level, so that it doesn’t work its way out through your bodily members, you must be alive from the dead through faith in Christ.

Thus, to apply these commands, you must understand and apply the truths of Romans 1-6:11. Sin is a tyrant that will reign over us if we let it do so. But in Christ, we now have the power to say no to sin and yes to God. Finally,

4. God promises victory over sin to those who are not under the law but under grace (6:14).

I could have devoted an entire message to verse 14, but I can only comment on it briefly. The subject of law and grace is one of the most difficult topics in all of Scripture. But Paul adds this verse to give us the encouragement and incentive to fulfill the commands of 6:12-13 (Murray, p. 228). The first part of the verse is a promise, not a command: “For sin shall not be master over you.” The second half explains the promise, “For you are not under law but under grace.”

The promise means that if you are not experiencing consistent victory over sin, either at worst you are not a genuine Christian or at best you do not understand the truths of Romans 6. While genuine Christians do fall into sin, sometimes into gross sins, they cannot remain there. They will be as unhappy in sin as a fish out of water. They will be miserable until they get right again with God. But there is no such thing as a Christian who lives consistently under the lordship of sin. Christians live under the lordship of Christ.

The explanation in the second half of 6:14 shows that grace has the power to conquer sin that the law lacks. This runs contrary to legalists who think that you’ve got to impose the law to keep people from sinning. Paul says just the opposite: the law brought the knowledge of sin (3:20; 7:7). “The Law came in so that the transgression would increase” (5:20). The Law arouses our sinful passions to bear fruit for death (7:5, 8-11). The law commands, but it contains no power to obey. But grace frees us from condemnation, motivates us by God’s undeserved love, and empowers us by His Spirit, whom He freely gives to all who trust in Christ.

When I was in high school, I was not walking very closely with the Lord. My friends were not believers and I had many temptations to get drunk or get involved in sex. But my parents loved me, trusted me, and gave me a lot of freedom. I remember thinking sometimes when I was tempted, “I can’t do that or I would hurt Mom and Dad.” That’s how God’s grace works—you want to please the One who loved you and gave Himself up for you (Gal. 2:20). How can you love the evil that put your Savior on the cross?

Conclusion

If you’ve never experienced God’s sin-conquering grace, He invites sinners to come to the cross and receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8). When you receive God’s grace in Christ, the power of sin is broken. In Christ, you can just stop it! And you can present yourself to God as your new Master, who brought you from death to life. You can say no to sin and yes to the God who loved you and gave His Son to redeem you from your sins.

Application Questions

  1. Why is it essential to understand and apply the truth of Romans 1-6:11 before you apply
  2. Discuss: Can a truly born again person be enslaved to some sin for all of his/her life? Support your answer with Scripture.
  3. If we are dead to sin (6:3, 5, 6, 8), why does it have such a strong appeal, even years after we’ve been saved? What should we learn from this (1 Cor. 10:12-13)?
  4. Some would argue that it is futile to tell a Christian who is enslaved to sin just to stop sinning. Is this valid biblically?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 34: You Gotta Serve Somebody (Romans 6:15-18)

Years ago Bob Dylan wrote a song, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” (© 1979, Special Rider Music) with the refrain,

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

I don’t know if Dylan was inspired by the words of Jesus or by our text, but his song certainly reflects the truth of our text. Paul says that either you are a slave of sin or you are a slave of obedience (6:16) or righteousness (6:18, 19) or God (6:22).

Unbelievers mistakenly think that they are free when they cast off God and follow their own lusts, but they are “slaves of corruption” (2 Pet. 2:19). God has freed us from sin (Rom. 6:18), but not to live as we please. Rather, He frees us from sin to make us “slaves of righteousness.” You gotta serve somebody!

C. H. Spurgeon observed (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 25:374), “Free will I have often heard of, but I have never seen it. I have met with will, and plenty of it, but it has either been led captive by sin or held in blessed bonds of grace.” So the choice is not, “Should I give up my freedom so that I can submit to God?” Rather, it is, “Should I serve sin or should I serve God?” (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 399.) You gotta serve somebody! Paul is telling us:

Either you are a slave of sin, resulting in death, or you are a slave of obedience, resulting in righteousness.

Clearly, Paul’s theme is “slavery.” The words slave or enslaved occur eight times in 6:15-23 and in every verse except 15, 21, & 23. Also, obedience, obedient, and obey occur four times. And so the issue here is, whose slave are you? Do you obey sin or God? There are no other options. Let’s work through the text under three headings:

1. If you think that being under grace means that you are free to sin, you do not understand God’s grace (6:15).

Romans 6:15: “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!” This verse is similar in many ways, and yet different, from 6:1-2a, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be!” There Paul was responding to the possible logical conclusion to his statement (5:20), “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” The wrong conclusion would be, “So, let’s sin a lot so that we get a lot of grace!”

But in 6:15, Paul is responding to a potential critic who would abuse his statement (6:14), “you are not under law but under grace.” This critic would have said, “If we’re not under law but under grace, then we’re free to sin without any worry of condemnation!” So in this case we don’t sin so that grace may abound, but rather because grace has replaced the law. But Paul responds, as he did in verse 2, with the strongest possible condemnation: “May it never be!”

As I said last week, the subject of law and grace is one of the most difficult theological issues in the Bible and I cannot resolve all the issues here. But it has often been taken to two extremes that we must avoid. Some have feared that if we emphasize God’s grace too much, people will fall into sin and licentiousness. And so they virtually put people back under the law by emphasizing rules for what they consider to be holy living. Often these are not biblical commands, but rather conservative cultural norms or manmade rules propped up by Bible verses taken out of context. Invariably, legalists do not focus on sins of the heart, such as pride or a lack of love for God, but rather on outward “sins” that easily can be judged. The Pharisees and the Judaizers were the leading proponents of this false, superficial “spirituality” (Matt. 23; Gal. 6:13).

On the other end of the spectrum are those who have concluded, “If we’re under grace, then sin doesn’t matter.” These folks view God as a loving, tolerant, nice old guy in the sky who would never judge anyone. So they mistake grace to mean that God is not concerned about our sin. This leads to licentiousness.

It’s important to understand that God’s true grace is not the balance point between legalism and licentiousness. Rather, legalism and licentiousness are two sides of the same coin whose operating principle is the flesh. The legalist, acting in the flesh, takes pride in his religious practices. He condemns those who do not match up to his standards of righteousness, while he congratulates himself on his performance. He imagines that by keeping the law, he can commend himself to God. But he is operating in the flesh. He is not examining his heart before God. And it’s obvious that the licentious person is operating in the flesh, giving in to the lusts of the flesh and justifying it by equating grace with tolerance for sin. So both legalism and licentiousness stem from the sinful flesh.

God’s grace is opposed to both of these, not as their balance point, but as a completely different way of relating to God. As we’ve seen, preaching God’s grace always exposes us to the charge of licentiousness from the legalists. It happened to Jesus (Luke 5:29-32; Matt. 11:19) and to Paul (Rom. 3:8). It will happen to us. But those making the charge do not understand grace at all, as Paul’s strong reaction shows: “May it never be!”

If we have responded to the good news that God freely justifies the ungodly through faith alone, apart from works (Rom. 4:5), then we will hate the sin that put our Savior on the cross. We are now identified with Him in His death to sin and resurrection to new life. That new life of Christ within us manifests itself in obedience to God (1 John 3:9). As Paul shows in 6:19, lawlessness is the mark of the slave of sin. Righteousness is the mark of the one who has received God’s grace.

And so you can test yourself by this: If you think that being under grace means that you are free to sin or that you can just shrug off your sin as no big deal, you do not understand God’s grace. If, motivated by God’s love and grace in giving His Son, you now hate and fight your sin and strive to be more obedient, then you understand grace. God’s grace instructs or trains us “to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:11, 12). Paul wants to make sure that we understand that the proper result of God’s grace is to make us slaves of righteousness, not lawlessness.

2. The only options are: You give yourself to be a slave of sin, resulting in death; or, you give yourself to be a slave of obedience, resulting in righteousness (6:16).

Paul again appeals to knowledge, in this case the common knowledge of a general example (6:16): “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?” In that culture, sometimes a man had to sell himself into slavery because of financial troubles. Once you did that, you were a slave of the one that you sold yourself to. You had to obey him as your master.

Paul’s point here, though, is not so much that a slave had to obey his master, but rather that the master you obey shows whose slave you are (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Apollos/Eerdmans], p. 261). If you obey sin, it shows that you’re a slave of sin, headed toward eternal death. If you obey God, it shows that you’re His slave, resulting in righteousness (although Paul doesn’t directly say that we are enslaved to God until 6:22). If there is a change of masters, you obey your new master. So the master you obey shows whose slave you now are.

Why does Paul contrast being a slave of sin with being a slave of obedience? We might have expected him here to say, “a slave of God.” He uses obedience because he wants to make it clear that not being under the law does not in any way imply that we are free to sin. Being under grace means that we present ourselves as slaves for obedience to God. This obedience is not the means to salvation, but rather the result of it. Thus, while slavery to sin leads to death, slavery to obedience leads to righteousness (not, life). We are not saved by our obedience, but rather we are saved by faith that results in a life of obedience (Eph. 2:8-10).

I have a hunch that if they had to describe themselves in terms of verse 16, many professing Christians would put themselves somewhere in the middle. They would say, “I’m not really a slave of sin, but it would probably be a stretch to say that I’m a slave of obedience. I’m kind of in both camps.”

But Paul doesn’t give us that option. It’s very clear: Either Christ is your master and you obey Him or sin is your master and you obey it. There is no middle ground. You can’t keep one foot on the dock and the other foot on the boat. Either you’re a slave of obedience to Christ or you’re a slave of sin. You can’t have both Christ and sin as your master.

If that sounds extreme, keep in mind that Paul is echoing the teaching of Jesus. Jesus said (Matt. 6:24), “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus said that there are two and only two gates: the narrow gate that leads to life and the broad gate that leads to destruction. There are two types of trees: the good tree that bears good fruit and the bad tree that bears bad fruit (Matt. 7:17-19). There are two kinds of builders who build two kinds of houses: Wise builders build on the rock; foolish builders build on the sand (Matt. 7:24-27). The wise builders represent those who hear Jesus’ words and obey them. The foolish builders hear Jesus’ words but do not obey.

Thus everybody serves somebody or something. You can tell who a person serves by his behavior or actions. Those who live in sin are the slaves of sin. Those who live in obedience are the slaves of Jesus Christ. Those who are the slaves of sin are not under grace and are heading for eternal death. Those who are slaves of Christ have tasted His grace, are growing in righteousness, and are heading for eternal life. Are you a slave of sin or a slave of Christ?

How does a person move from being a slave of sin to being a slave of God and righteousness?

3. The only way that you can change from being a slave of sin to being a slave of righteousness is for God to free you from sin by changing your heart (6:17-18).

Romans 6:17-18: “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.”

Paul here describes the great change that came over the Roman believers when God saved them. These changes are true of everyone whom God has saved. They are radical changes, not minor. From being slaves of sin, they became obedient from the heart to sound teaching. From being in bondage to sin, they were freed to become slaves of righteousness. Thus there was a change of lordship, from Satan’s domain of sin to God’s domain of righteousness. There was a change of thinking, so that now they submit to biblical truth. There was a change of heart, so that they are now willing and glad slaves of God; they love Him and hate their former master. There was a change of will, so that now they obey God’s standards of righteousness, not sin. Four quick thoughts:

A. Salvation is neither a human project nor a joint human-divine project; rather, salvation is of the Lord (6:17-18).

Slaves of sin are not able to free themselves by their own efforts. In fact, slaves of sin often do not realize that they are slaves and they resent anyone telling them that they are. Jesus told the Jews who had [superficially] believed in Him (John 8:31-32), “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Their response was (8:33), “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free’?”

That’s incredible! Israel had been enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. Repeatedly in their history, they had fallen under oppressive invaders (e.g., the Book of Judges). The northern tribes had fallen to Assyria. The southern tribes fell to Babylon. Later they came under the cruel reign of Antiochus Epiphanes. As they spoke, Israel was under the thumb of Rome. And yet they claimed that they had never been enslaved! But Jesus goes on to make it clear that He was talking about slavery to sin. To be freed from that cruel master, the Son would have to make them free.

In our text (6:18), Paul uses the passive verb, “freed from sin,” to show that God alone can free us. It’s not a joint project where He gives us a boost and we contribute our share. This is also seen in that Paul says (6:17), “Thanks be to God.” He did not say, “Thanks be to God, but you guys deserve some credit, too, for your part.” No, we were enslaved to sin and loving it. We hated the light because it exposed our evil deeds (John 3:19-20). So when God graciously freed us from sin, He gets all the thanks and glory. As Paul puts it (1 Cor. 1:26-31), we are saved because God chose us as foolish, weak, lowly, and despised sinners so that He might shame the world’s wise, mighty, and exalted, so that no one may boast before the Lord. Salvation is totally God’s doing, not ours.

B. The way God changes us is by bringing our mind, heart, and will into submission to His Word (6:17).

Martyn Lloyd-Jones has a chapter in his Romans series on verse 17 plus another chapter in Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure ([Eerdmans], pp. 51-62). I can only skim the surface, so I refer you to his many excellent insights that I have gleaned from.

First, note that God changes us by bringing our minds under the teaching of His Word. Scholars debate over why Paul says “form [example, pattern] of teaching,” rather than just “teaching.” We can’t be dogmatic, but my guess from the context is that he is contrasting his teaching of the gospel of grace with the false teaching of both the legalists and the antinomians. In other words, he is referring to the kind of teaching that he has set forth in Romans to this point, and especially to the bottom line test that sound doctrine leads to godly behavior.

But God does not just change our minds to conform to sound teaching. Also, He changes our hearts. Some scholars can study the Bible in the original languages and dissect it like a biologist dissects a specimen. But the truth has not affected their hearts. But as Jonathan Edwards soundly argues in his Treatise on Religious Affections, The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 1:236), “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” That is to say, God changes our hearts and our desires. We must understand the truth with our minds, but also our hearts must rejoice in and willingly embrace the truth.

The evidence of this change of mind and heart is that our wills gladly obey the truth. To be “obedient from the heart” is not grudging, outward obedience, but cheerful, inner obedience. It is obedience on the heart level, where God alone sees, not outward obedience to impress others with how spiritual we are.

C. The teaching is not committed to the Christians, but rather the Christians are committed to the teaching (6:17).

You would expect Paul to say that the teaching was committed to the Christians (the old King James Bible wrongly translated it that way). But the proper translation is, “to which you were committed.” This lines up with the slavery analogy that Paul uses here. The idea is that becoming a Christian means being put under the authority of God’s Word (Moo, p. 401). We don’t sit in judgment of the Word, but the Word sits in judgment on us. A person who has come under God’s grace in Christ submits to God’s Word. John Calvin, in a rare reference to his own conversion, described it as God “subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker reprint], preface to the Psalms, p. xl).

D. When God saves you, He frees you from sin and makes you a slave of righteousness (6:18).

Verse 18 is not an exhortation (that comes in 6:19), but a statement of fact: “And having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” Paul here sums up his argument from 6:16-17, which refutes the false charge of 6:15, that if we are not under law but under grace, we can shrug off our sin. As in verse 16, Paul makes it clear that there are two and only two options. Either you are enslaved to sin or you are enslaved to righteousness. Also, this is true of all Christians (Lloyd-Jones, Romans: The New Man [Zondervan], p. 222). It is not just true of some Christians who have had a dramatic spiritual experience to free them from sin. It is true of all who used to be in Adam, but now are in Christ. They have been freed from sin and became slaves of righteousness.

This does not mean (as Lloyd-Jones goes on to point out) that we have become sinlessly perfect. Neither does it mean that we are free from the old sin nature or that we will never be tempted by sin. Rather, it means that the power of sin over us has been broken, so that we no longer live under sin as our master. We do not obey sin as the normal course of our daily lives. Rather, we now obey righteousness. “That means,” says Lloyd-Jones (p. 225), “that we have come under the power and control and influence of righteousness.” Formerly, we served sin. We obeyed its desires and urges. But now, we serve righteousness. We obey God and His Word. The irony is that true freedom is not freedom to sin; rather, true freedom is slavery to God and His righteousness.

Conclusion

I intended to cover verse 19 in this message, but it will have to wait till next time. I close with a story and a question. The story is about a bazaar in a village in India. A farmer had brought in a covey of quail. Each bird had a string tied around its foot with the other end tied to a ring on an upright stick. The quail walked around and around in a circle, held captive by that string. No one wanted to buy any quail until a devout Hindu Brahman came along. His religious respect for all life and his compassion for these birds led him to ask the price of the quail. Then he said to the merchant, “I want to buy them all.” After he paid the money, he ordered the merchant, “Now, set them all free.” The merchant was surprised, but the Brahman insisted: “Cut the strings and set them all free.”

The farmer cut the strings, but the quail kept marching around and around in a circle. Finally, he had to shoo them off. But even then, they landed a short distance away and resumed marching in a circle, as they had done when they were tied to the stick.

God didn’t free you from sin so that you would keep going in circles as if you were still bound to it. He freed you from sin so that you would become a slave of obedience to Him, resulting in righteousness. You’ve gotta serve somebody. The question is: Who are you serving—sin or God?

Application Questions

  1. Many Christians think that being under grace means that God is tolerant of our sin. Besides this text, what other Scriptures refute this notion?
  2. By comparing 6:15 & 19 it is obvious that not being under the law does not mean being lawless. So what does it mean?
  3. Some Christians claim that they are “carnal,” that Jesus is their Savior, but not their Lord. How does our text relate to this? Why is this third option not possible?
  4. If salvation is totally of the Lord, where do repentance and faith fit in? Are these our responsibility? Do they originate with us or come from God? Use Scripture to support your answer.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 35: How to Win Over Sin (Romans 6:19-23)

If you’re a Christian, you resolutely want to win over sin so that your life will glorify your Savior, who loved you enough to go to the cross while you were still an ungrateful rebel. Sin always dishonors the Lord. A holy life glorifies Him. Sin disrupts fellowship with the Lord. A holy life allows us to enjoy sweet communion with Him. Since the aim of all Christians is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, all Christians want to win over sin.

The big question is, how do we gain consistent victory over the sin that so easily trips us up? Our text provides some solid answers to this crucial question. It’s not the complete answer, in that Paul does not mention the role of the Holy Spirit here. He will get to that in chapter 8. But he does give us some helpful strategies for the daily battle that we all face against temptation and sin.

The point of Romans 6 is to show that justification by grace through faith alone does not result in continuing sin, as Paul’s critics alleged, but rather in sanctification. From 6:15-23 Paul uses the analogy of slavery to respond to the charge that his teaching that we are not under law but under grace would lead to sin. In 6:19, he commands us to present our members as slaves to righteousness. Then (6:20-23) he gives the reasons why we should obey this command. When we were slaves of sin, we were free in regard to righteousness (6:20). But where did that get us? We had no benefit from our shameful deeds, which were only heading us toward death (6:21). But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, we gain the benefits of sanctification, with eternal life as the outcome (6:22). Verse 23 sums it up by contrasting the wages of sin, which is death, with God’s free gift of eternal life.

In these verses, Paul tells us…

To win over sin, give yourself as a slave to righteousness in view of your spiritual past, present, and future.

As we saw in 6:15-18, Paul gives two and only two options: Either you are enslaved to sin and free with regard to righteousness, resulting in death; or, you are freed from sin and enslaved to God, resulting in sanctification and eternal life. There is no middle ground. There is no place for a person who says, “Jesus is my Savior, but He isn’t my Lord.” There are two and only two masters and you must choose: Will you continue as a slave of sin (the default mode for all of us by birth)? Or, will you submit to Jesus as Lord and give yourself as a slave of righteousness?

1. To win over sin, give yourself as a slave to righteousness (6:19).

Romans 6:19: “I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.”

Before we consider Paul’s command, what does he mean when he says that he is “speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh”? In the context, he does not seem to be rebuking his readers. Rather, he is apologizing in the middle of his extended slavery analogy. He’s saying in effect, “As frail human beings, we need analogies and illustrations of spiritual truth, but often these are imperfect.” Paul realizes that many of his readers are slaves and that slavery is an imperfect analogy, in that there are many repugnant aspects of human slavery that do not apply to our relationship with the Lord. But in other ways, it’s a useful analogy, in that God has bought us with the blood of Christ and so we belong to Him and owe Him total, unquestioning obedience.

“For” goes on to explain the valid part of the analogy, namely, that just as formerly we presented ourselves as slaves to sin, so now we should present ourselves as slaves to righteousness. “Present” repeats Paul’s command in 6:13, “present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments [weapons] of righteousness to God.” The verb “present” means “to give oneself as a servant or slave.” Douglas Moo (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 404) explains Paul’s point in 6:19: “He thus makes clear that Christians should serve righteousness with all the single-minded dedication that characterized their pre-Christian service of such ‘idols’ as self, money, lust, pleasure, and power.” Since we repeatedly gave ourselves to those false gods, so we now must repeatedly give ourselves to serve God and righteousness. (Moo, p. 385, argues that this is the force of the aorist tense here.)

Practically, there are two things to keep in mind as you learn to obey Paul’s command here. First, as we saw last time, you “gotta serve somebody,” so when you’re tempted, ask yourself, “Whose slave do I want to be?” There are only two options. Do you want to serve sin, which will drag you further and further into impurity, defilement, and ultimate destruction? Or, do you want to be a slave of God and righteousness?

If you go the slave of sin route, it heads toward death (6:21). Since Paul contrasts death with eternal life (6:23), he means that a life of enslavement to sin leads to eternal spiritual death, or hell (Rev. 20:14). Spiritual death is the justly earned wage of a life of slavery to sin. Eternal life, on the other hand, is not the wage earned by righteousness; it is God’s free gift. But believers who have received God’s free gift of eternal life are characterized by being slaves of righteousness. You can tell where they’re heading (eternal life) by their growing life of holiness (“sanctification,” 6:22). So when you’re tempted, ask yourself, “Whose slave do I want to be?”

Second, keep in mind that Paul is describing a process, not a once and for all decision that catapults you into a state of total sanctification, where sin no longer tempts you. Some wrongly teach that you should seek for a dramatic spiritual experience that will transport you beyond sin and temptation. They promise that those who experience this spiritual “secret” will be free from the battles with the flesh that the rest of us unenlightened Christians struggle with. If you will just learn the secret of “letting go and letting God,” your Christian life will be one of effortless, continual fellowship with Christ. So goes the pitch, but it is not the biblical picture. Sanctification is a lifelong process that requires a daily battle against sin and temptation.

Verse 19 shows that the process works in both directions. Either you turn down the fork in the road labeled “slaves of sin,” which leads you down into more and more impurity and lawlessness. Or you turn up the road marked “slaves of righteousness,” which causes you to grow more and more like Christ as you obey Him as your new Master. Frankly, neither path is a smooth, paved highway. Picture them both more like rough, four-wheel-drive roads, where you’re going over and around boulders and through rushing streams. But the road marked “slaves to impurity” doesn’t get you where you want to go, even after all the trouble of driving it. It leads to death. The road marked “slaves of righteousness” ends up in heaven.

This means that if you’re not moving in the direction of holiness, you need to examine whether you are truly saved. Do you love God more now than you used to? Do you hate your own sin more and more? Do you love others more, as seen in laying down your rights to serve them? Do you see the fruit of the Spirit more in your daily life? “Test yourself to see if you are in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:5a). The first step in winning over sin is to present yourself as a slave to righteousness.

2. To win over sin, remember your shameful spiritual past as a slave of sin (6:20-21).

To show why you should present yourself as a slave of righteousness, Paul reminds us of the other option, which we all were following (6:20-21): “For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death.”

Even if you were raised in a Christian family, there was a point in your life at which you were a slave of sin. Since the fall of Adam and Eve into sin, the entire human race is born enslaved to sin. Maybe you want to shout, “But that’s not fair! I didn’t choose to be born in sin!” But even though you were born as a slave to sin, it is not an unwilling enslavement. Unbelievers sin because they want to sin. They like sinning. Even when they know that they are addicted to drugs, alcohol, pornography, homosexuality, or whatever the sin may be, and even though they know that these sins are causing huge problems, they keep doing them because they like sinning. To be delivered from sin, God has to give you a new nature through the new birth. Otherwise, you will just keep doing what you’ve always liked doing, namely, sinning.

There seems to be a touch of humor or irony in 6:20. Those who do not want to submit to God claim that they are now free and they don’t want to give up their freedom. They protest, “I want to be free to have sex with whomever I choose! I want to be free to get drunk or use drugs! I want to be free to lust over sexy women! I don’t need religion taking away my fun and telling me how to live!” But Paul says, “Yes, such folks are free from righteousness all right! It doesn’t even blip across the radar screen to tell them which way to go! But don’t let it escape your attention that they are not free people. Rather, they are slaves of sin.”

When you gave yourself to impurity and lawlessness, it did not satisfy your needs. It only made you crave more, so you committed worse and worse sins. To feed your lust with a little bit of porn is like pouring gas on a raging fire. It doesn’t alleviate your lust; it only burns stronger. Slaves of sin do not manage their sin for their own enjoyment. Rather, it is a cruel tyrant that dominates and destroys them.

So in 6:21, Paul asks us before we yield to sin to stop and think about what benefits we got out of sin when we were its slaves. What did you gain from having sin as your master? His implied answer is, nothing at all. In fact, the evil tyrant of sin was destroying you and leading toward death. So why yield to sin now? I have read about pastors who got arrested for soliciting sex over the Internet with underage girls. What were they thinking that they would gain from that? If they had only stopped long enough to think about the “benefits” of sin, including the shame, maybe they would not have yielded to the temptation.

Before we leave verse 21, let me also say that every Christian has things from the past of which you are now ashamed. What should you do when those things pop into your mind? First, let the memory of those sins humble you so that you deal graciously with fellow sinners. You were once a slave of sin, so don’t be self-righteous and judgmental toward those who are still slaves of sin. Rather, point them to God’s abundant grace in Christ for sinners. Second, thank God for loving you in spite of your sin and for sending Christ to die for your sins. Third, be on guard against falling back into those old sins. We are not invulnerable! Once you have yielded to a sin, it will always hold a powerful attraction, even when you’re enjoying fellowship with Christ. So be on guard!

Thus to win over sin, present yourself to God as a slave to righteousness. Remember your shameful past as a slave of sin.

3. To win over sin, keep in mind your blessed spiritual present as a slave of God (6:22).

Romans 6:22: “But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.” There are four things to note about verse 22, but I’ll save the fourth one for verse 23, where it’s repeated.

A. Your spiritual present is due to a great change that God has made in your life.

“But now”! Those words signal the great change that God brought about when he took you from the reign of sin and death and placed you in Christ, under the reign of grace through righteousness (5:21). You were a slave of sin, but now you have been freed from sin. Paul often draws this sharp contrast between our former life and what God has done for us in Christ. In Ephesians 2:12, he describes the sad former plight of the Gentiles: They were “excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” Verse 13 shows the great change: “But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” He does the same thing in Ephesians 5:8: “For you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light.”

I read of an old black preacher who used to say, “We ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we gonna be. But, thank God, we ain’t what we was!” If you have met Christ as Savior, there is a huge “but now” in your life that God has made!

B. Your spiritual present rests on your new position in Christ.

The command of 6:19 rests on the fact of 6:18, which is repeated in 6:22: God freed you from sin and made you a slave of righteousness in Jesus Christ. This is your new position in Christ. God did it for you through His grace and power. It is true of all Christians, not just of some who have attained a higher level of spirituality. As Paul repeatedly states (6:2-8), in Christ we all have died to sin and have been raised to newness of life. Therefore, be what you now are. Live in light of your new position in Christ.

The illustration that we considered was a man who had been born a slave and lived as a slave for over 50 years. But then President Lincoln declared all slaves to be free men. This former slave’s new position is that he is free from his old master, but now he had to live each day like a free man. It required a radical refocusing of his mind and the will to believe this new truth about himself. Even so, God has declared us to be in Christ, identified with Him in His death to sin and resurrection to new life. Our present victory over sin depends on counting that to be true each time we’re faced with temptation.

C. Your spiritual present includes the many wonderful benefits of sanctification.

Satan often paints the picture that a life of sin is one of freedom and pleasure, whereas a life of holiness is one of bondage and misery. What a lie! A life of sin destroys fellowship with the gracious, kind, and loving Heavenly Father. Sin destroys loving human relationships, which can be the source of much comfort and encouragement. Sin tears apart generations of family members, who need each other. Sinful parents abuse their children, depriving them of the tender love and training that they need. Rebellious children cast off the wise guidance and experience of their parents. Selfish and greedy family members fight over the inheritance, tearing apart relationships for the sake of stuff that will soon perish. Sinful people abuse their bodies with alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and venereal disease. Sin is an all-purpose, all-around destroyer!

But holiness blesses those who walk in it and those around them. Holy people enjoy fellowship with the living God. Holy husbands sacrificially love their wives as Christ loved the church. They tenderly seek the blessing and benefit of their wives. Holy fathers show the grace and kindness of the Lord to their children, training them to love and follow the Lord for their own good. Holy young people walk in the ways of the Lord, avoiding the terrible scars that come from sexual immorality, drugs, alcohol, and abusive relationships. Holy church members care for one another, encouraging the fainthearted, helping the weak, being patient, kind, and loving toward one another (1 Thess. 5:14-15).

Matthew Henry, the well-known pastor and Bible commentator, was on his deathbed in 1714, at age 52. He had endured the loss of his first wife and of three children. He was relatively young. He could have complained about his early death. But he said to a friend, “You have been used to take notice of the sayings of dying men. This is mine—that a life spent in the service of God, and communion with Him, is the most comfortable and pleasant life that one can live in the present world” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible [Revell], p. 1:xiv). That is the benefit of being enslaved to God. When you’re tempted to sin, remember your spiritual present as a slave of God, including the benefits of a holy life.

4. To win over sin, look forward to your glorious spiritual future: eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (6:23).

The outcome of a present life of holiness is eternal life (6:22). Paul repeats this in 6:23, contrasting it starkly with the outcome of a life of sin: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Verse 23 begs for an entire sermon, but I’m trying to keep moving through Romans, so I’ll be brief. The sermon would note three contrasts: Working for wages versus receiving a free gift; serving sin versus serving God; and, the final outcome of death versus eternal life. The fourth point would be that God’s free gift comes to us “in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Although this verse is often (and rightly) used in evangelism, in the context here Paul uses it to show why being under grace does not lead believers to sin: Believers know that sin pays a terrible wage: death. But receiving God’s free, gracious gift results in eternal life “in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We get to spend all of eternity in the presence of our loving Lord Jesus, who gave Himself to save us from hell. So why sin?

The word “wages” was used of a soldier’s pay. Picture a cruel dictator, who doesn’t care about his infantry. They are only pawns to preserve his luxurious lifestyle in the palace, while they’re on the front lines taking bullets and shrapnel, eating horrible rations, separated from all the comforts of home. Their wage is death. That’s the wage that sin pays its servants. If you continue in a life of sin, you’ll experience hardship now and eternal punishment as your final paycheck.

But God offers a free gift: freedom from sin and a joyous life of knowing the only true God through Jesus Christ. You begin enjoying the gift right now (John 17:3), and the final paycheck when you die is eternal life with this loving and gracious God. It seems like a no-brainer doesn’t it? Do you want to go on being a slave of sin, with the final paycheck of eternal death? Or do you want to receive God’s free gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus the Lord?

Conclusion

So how do you win over sin? How do you experience consistent victory? First, receive the gift of eternal life. If you have never trusted in Christ, you are hopelessly, helplessly under the reign of sin and death. But Christ died and rose again to free you from sin. You must be born again in order to conquer sin.

Then, present yourself to God as a slave of righteousness. He is your new Master. You no longer have authority over your body. He does. Obey His Word. Remember your shameful past as a slave of sin before He redeemed you. Keep in mind your blessed present, enjoying all of the unfathomable riches of Christ. Look forward to your glorious spiritual future of eternal life free from all sin in the presence of the One who died to save you. You won’t be sinlessly perfect in this life, but you can grow in holiness and consistently win over sin.

Application Questions

  1. Why is the new birth essential in order to overcome sin (see John 3:19-21)? Can’t unbelievers improve without it?
  2. How often should we think about our past as slaves of sin? Where is the balance? (Cf. Rom. 3:20-21, Phil. 3:13-14.)
  3. Some folks seem quite happy in their sin. Does this contradict the teaching that sin results in destruction, whereas holiness results in blessing and peace? Why not? See Ps. 73.
  4. Will we ever be free from the tug of sin in this life? What does a life of consistent victory over sin look like? Describe it.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 36: Free from the Law (Romans 7:1-6)

In my judgment, one of the most difficult theological issues in the Bible is that of the believer’s relationship to the law of God. Since the word law is used 19 times in Romans 7, clearly that is Paul’s theme. I was hoping that the Lord might come before I got to this chapter! I still have some time to be rescued before I get to the most difficult part! In Romans 7 Paul expounds on his statement in Romans 6:14, “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace.” In 6:15-23, he used the analogy of slavery to show that we will not sin under grace because we have become enslaved to God and righteousness. In chapter 7, he explains what it means to be free from the law and how this relates to breaking free from sin’s tyranny.

The theme in chapter 6 was sin; Paul uses that word 17 times there. In his mind, there was a direct correlation between sin and the law. In 1 Corinthians 15:56 he says, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” So there are several parallels between chapters 6 & 7 (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 270): Believers have died to sin (6:2) and they have died to the law (7:4). We have been freed from sin (6:18, 22) and we are released from the law (7:6). We walk in newness of life (6:4) and we serve in newness of the Spirit (7:6). Our victory over sin is tied to our union with Christ in His death and resurrection (6:8-11). Our release from the law and its sin-arousing power is because we are now joined to the crucified and risen Lord (7:4).

So if we want to gain consistent victory over sin, we have to wrestle with Romans 7 as Paul explains the purpose of God’s law and our relationship to it. His thinking was radically opposed to the common Jewish views of his day. They would have said that the law was given to make us holy, but Paul says that the Law served to arouse us to sin! In chapters 1-5 Paul shows that it is impossible to be justified by keeping the law. Here he shows that it is impossible to be sanctified by keeping the law. In fact, Paul argues that the law is actually a hindrance to sanctification (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: The Law: Its Functions and Limits [Zondervan], p. 5).

The chapter falls into three sections. In 7:1-6, Paul shows that we are no longer married to the law. A death has taken place and now we are joined to Jesus Christ so that we might bear fruit for God. But that raises the question, “Then is the law sin?” Paul answers this in 7:7-12, showing that the law is holy and good. It is we who are the problem! When our sinful nature comes into contact with the law, it does not obey. Rather, it is aroused to sin. Then in 7:13-25, he shows the ensuing battle that sinners have with the law. This is a very difficult and controversial section, as debate rages over whether the person in view is an unbeliever or a believer. I do not want to raise your hopes that I will solve this puzzle for you, but we will try to work through it as best as we can.

In our text (7:1-6), Paul first makes a general statement about the law’s jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives (7:1). Then (7:2-3) he illustrates his point by showing that a woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. He is not giving comprehensive teaching here about divorce and remarriage. Rather, he uses an analogy to make a point: the law has jurisdiction over the living, not over the dead. If a person dies, he is no longer under the law. Then (7:4), he applies the point, showing that we died to the law through the death of Christ. We are now “remarried” to Christ so that we might bear fruit for God. Then (7:5-6) Paul explains verse 4 negatively (7:5) and positively (7:6). We need to die to the law because it aroused our sinful passions to bear fruit for death (7:5). But in Christ we have been released from bondage to the law so that we serve God in newness of the Spirit (7:6). To summarize:

Through our union with Christ, we have died to the law so that we are free to bear fruit for God in the Spirit.

1. Through our union with Christ, we have died to the law, which only produced sin and death.

Many books have been written on what it means for us not to be under the law, so I can only give some brief guidelines here. I offer one negative and three positive thoughts to clarify what Paul means when he says that we died to the law.

A. Dying to the law does not mean that we are free from specific moral commandments.

We need to understand that we did not die to the law so that we could live lawlessly, doing whatever we please. That was the false charge that Paul’s enemies leveled against him. But Paul makes it very clear that we died to the law so that we might be joined to Christ, under His authority. Just as a woman is under the authority of her husband (according to the Bible), so we were under the authority of God’s law. But when we died to the law, it was not so that we could become free spirits. Rather, it was so that we could now be joined to Christ as our husband.

Paul’s analogy is rather confusing if you try to make it say more than he intends. In 7:2-3, the woman’s husband dies so that she is free to remarry. But in the application (7:4), it is not the husband that dies, but rather the wife dies to the law through Christ. By implication she is raised from the dead so that she can marry Christ, who died and was raised from the dead. But Paul does not intend this to be a tight allegory, where one thing consistently represents another. Rather, he is making the main point that by being identified with Christ in His death and resurrection, we died to the law so that we’re legally free to be joined to Christ.

But, dying to the law does not mean that we no longer are obligated to keep specific moral commandments. As Paul states later (Rom. 8:4), the requirement of the law is now fulfilled in us as we walk according to the Spirit. Sometimes it is argued that the only command under the new covenant is love, since love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:8, 10; Gal. 5:14). But this is often misapplied in a simplistic way so that “love” means whatever the person wants it to mean. For example, couples argue that it is okay to have sexual relations outside of marriage because they “love” one another. But the New Testament is abundantly clear that the sexual relationship is restricted to heterosexual marriage (1 Cor. 6:9-10, 18; 7:1-9; 1 Thess. 4:2-8). Love does not mean that we are free to disregard the Bible’s moral standards.

In fact, the New Testament gives many detailed commands about love. Love speaks the truth. Love does not steal, but rather labors so as to be able to give. Love speaks wholesome, edifying words. Love is not bitter or angry. Love is kind and forgiving. Love does not engage in immorality or greed (see Eph. 4:25-5:4). Many more specific commands on other topics are given throughout the New Testament to believers who have died to the law (see Romans 12). So we would be mistaken to think that dying to the law frees us from the obligation to obey specific moral commandments. So what does it mean?

B. Dying to the law means that we are free from the demands of the law as an impersonal system for approaching God.

While salvation has always been by grace through faith, not by works, many who were under the Mosaic law wrongly thought that they could be right with God by keeping the law. It was true: Keep the law perfectly and you will live (Matt. 19:17; Gal. 3:12). The problem is, that system brought everyone who tried to live by it under a curse, because no one could keep the law perfectly (Gal. 3:10). As a Pharisee, Paul thought that he was blameless with regard to the law (Phil. 3:6), but at best he was “blameless” only in the sense of outward obedience to the ceremonies and rituals that the law prescribed. The truth was that in his heart, he was proud of his blameless obedience, and pride is the root of all sins before God. When he met Christ, Paul came to see that he was actually the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).

So dying to the law means that we do not approach God by an impersonal system of performance, where we try to earn right standing with Him. That is the way of virtually every religion in the world, including many that go under the name of “Christian.” The good news is that God justifies sinners by grace through faith alone and that the core of saving faith is to know Jesus Christ (Rom. 4:5; Phil. 3:2-10). And, as I said, Paul’s point in Romans 7 is not only that we are justified by grace through faith alone, but also that we are sanctified in the same way (see Col. 2:6).

C. Dying to the law means that we are free from the condemnation of the law.

Paul says (Rom. 7:6) that the law held us in bondage. It did so by putting us under a curse because of our failure to obey it perfectly (Gal. 3:10). Peter refers to the law as “a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10). The law closes every mouth and makes us all accountable to God (Rom. 3:19). No one is able to be justified by keeping the law; rather, the law brings the knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20) and puts us under God’s wrath (Rom. 4:15). The law increased our transgressions and held us under the reign of sin and death (Rom. 5:20-21). Attempting to be right with God by law-keeping is doomed to failure. The only benefit of the law with regard to salvation is that it shows us God’s impossible standard of holiness and thus drives us to Christ as our only hope, so that we will be justified by faith (Gal. 3:24).

D. Dying to the law means that we are free from the inability of the law to produce obedience.

This is Paul’s primary focus in Romans 7:5: “For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death.” In this context, being “in the flesh” means, before we were saved, before we received the Holy Spirit. As Thomas Schreiner puts it (The Law and Its Fulfillment [Baker], p. 133), “The law apart from the Spirit does not produce obedience. The law apart from the Spirit does not save but kills.”

Paul will explain this further in 7:7-11, where he says that coveting was not a problem until he read, “You shall not covet.” That commandment triggered something in him that made him covet all over the place. The problem was not with the law, which is holy, but with his sinful flesh. We can all relate to what he is saying. I wouldn’t think about walking on the grass if it weren’t for that annoying sign that says, “Do not walk on the grass.” The commandment makes me want to walk on the grass!

So the law is not the answer to our sin problem. Trying to keep the law can never reconcile us to the holy God, because we’ve all violated His law many times over. Posting a list of God’s commandments on the refrigerator and trying to keep them by our own strength won’t work, either, because the law just incites our sinful passions. It does not quench the desire to sin. The oldness of the letter was a “ministry of death” (2 Cor. 3:6, 7). We need a more powerful solution, which Paul gives in 7:4 & 6.

Paul says that we were “made to die to the law through the body of Christ” (7:4). That’s an unusual phrase, referring to Christ’s physical body. Paul is calling attention to the fact that in His human body, Jesus satisfied the demands of the law on our behalf, so that He “canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col. 2:14). So when Jesus died to the demands of the law, we died in Him. In summary, this means: We are free from the demands of the law as an impersonal system for approaching God. We are free from the condemnation of the law. The power of the law to arouse our sinful desires is broken, because being joined to Christ, we now have the Holy Spirit to give us the power to obey.

2. Having died to the law, we are now joined to Jesus Christ, which produces fruit for God in the Spirit.

As I said, God does not free us from the law so that we can live any way that we please. Rather, He frees us from the law (7:4) so that we “might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, that we might bear fruit for God.” Restating it in a slightly different way (7:6), this release from the law enables us to “serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.” So our union with the risen Savior through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit works in us to bear fruit for God. Note six things about this union or marriage to Christ:

A. Our union with Christ is a transforming relationship.

In verse 6, Paul uses the same contrast that we saw in 6:22, “But now.” It points to the great change from before we met Christ to afterwards. Before we met Him, we were in the flesh, enslaved to sin, and under the condemnation and power of the law. “But now we have been released from the law, having died to that by which we were bound” (7:6). If I have broken the law and am facing a prison term, but before I go to prison I die, they aren’t going to take my corpse to prison! My death released me from the power of the law. It changed everything.

Also, our death to the law freed us to be joined in marriage to the risen Christ (7:4). This implies that we have new life in Him, because Jesus doesn’t marry a corpse. We have a new relationship of love with our Bridegroom, who gave Himself on the cross to secure us as His bride. (By the way, it’s difficult as a guy to think of myself as “married” to Jesus, but think of it corporately, not individually. The biblical analogy is that the church corporately is the bride of Christ.) Our new union with Christ changes everything.

There is one thing certain about marriage: it changes you forever! Suddenly, you are not your own. You have to think about your wife before you make plans. You have to think about what pleases her. You have to take her into account in every decision that you make. You have to work at staying close in your relationship to her. But in spite of these new responsibilities, I can say with gusto that marrying Marla changed me for the good! In the same way, being joined to Jesus Christ changes everything. It gives you new responsibilities, but it transforms you decidedly for the good.

B. Our union with Christ is a love relationship.

As I said, the phrase “through the body of Christ” points to the cross, where Jesus died a horrible death to secure us as His bride. He paid the price that the law demanded for our sin. “Christ … loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). So now we willingly submit to Him, not out of duty, but out of love.

Picture a woman married to a demanding, perfectionistic man. He’s the kind who takes a white glove and wipes it on the top of the door molding to see if it has been dusted. She lives in constant fear that she will not please him. But then (much to her relief) he dies. Sometime later, she meets a loving, kind, and caring man. They fall in love and get married. Now she still cleans the house and cooks the meals, but she does it joyfully out of love, not dutifully to meet the demands of an impossible tyrant.

The analogy breaks down, in that the law did not die. Rather, we died to it. But, we no longer have to strive in vain to meet its impossible demands as the grounds of our acceptance with God. Rather, Christ met those demands for us and we are joined to Him in love. We still live to please Him, but our whole motive has changed from duty that condemned us to love that accepts us.

C. Our union with Christ is a liberating relationship.

Before, we were bound by the law, but now we are released from its condemnation and domination (7:6). The picture is that of a prisoner who has been set free. I’ve never been in prison, but I got a feel for what it must be like when I was in boot camp. We were in captivity in every sense of the word. The Coast Guard determined our schedule, our activities, what we wore, how we looked, and what we ate. Boot camp was on an island in the Oakland Bay. From our upstairs barracks window, I could see cars stuck in rush hour traffic out on the Oakland freeway. I thought, “Those drivers are probably grumbling about the traffic, but if they only knew how free they are to be able to drive their own car wherever they want to go, they’d quit complaining!” Before Christ, we were bound by the law, but now we’re free.

D. Our union with Christ is a fruitful relationship.

The reason we are joined to Christ is so “that we might bear fruit for God” (7:4). When you compare that to 7:6, “so that we serve in newness of the Spirit,” it probably refers to the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), or “the fruit of the Light,” which is “all goodness and righteousness and truth, trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph. 5:9-10). If you’re not bearing fruit for God, you are not fulfilling the purpose for which He saved you.

E. Our union with Christ is a powerful relationship.

The law was impotent to help us obey, but Christ gives us the Holy Spirit to indwell us and empower us to overcome sin. To be under the law is to be “in the flesh” (7:5), which has no motivation or power to overcome sin. But the Spirit enables us to put to death the deeds of the body, so that we will live (8:13; Gal. 5:16-23).

F. Our union with Christ is a holy relationship.

I mentioned at the outset that being free from the law does not mean that we are free to disobey the moral commands of Scripture. But I mention it again as we close, because it is so often misunderstood or ignored. The word “serve” (7:6) is the same Greek word translated “enslaved to God” (6:22). So Christ frees us from the law to which we were bound, but not to do as we please. We’re freed from the law so that we can be enslaved to God in the newness of the Spirit. Being a slave of righteousness is true freedom!

Conclusion

Martyn Lloyd-Jones (p. 84) says, “You are either a Christian or not a Christian; you cannot be partly Christian. You are either ‘dead’ or ‘alive’; you are either ‘born’ or ‘not born’. Becoming a Christian is not a gradual process; there is nothing indeterminate about it; we either are, or we are not Christian.”

If you’re not a Christian, you are under the condemnation of the law. But if you put your trust in Christ, who bore the curse of the law, you are released from the law and joined to a loving husband so that you can bear fruit for God. That’s even better than the best of earthly marriages can be!

Application Questions

  1. Why is the notion that love is the only command for those under grace inadequate and misguided?
  2. If the law was impossible to keep and actually stimulated our sinful passions, why did God institute it?
  3. Can there be such a thing as an unfruitful Christian? Include John 15:1-8 in your discussion.
  4. Are Christians obligated to keep the Ten Commandments? What about the Sabbath command?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 37: Why God Gave the Law (Romans 7:7-11)

Almost a quarter century ago, philosopher Allan Bloom published his best-selling The Closing of the American Mind [Simon & Schuster, 1987]. He began (p. 25):

There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2 + 2 = 4. These are things you don’t think about.

The chief virtue that this relativism seeks to inculcate is tolerance or openness. The main enemy of tolerance is the person who thinks that he has the truth or is right in his views. This only “led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point,” says Bloom (p. 26), “is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.”

Bloom later (p. 67) reports his students’ reaction to his question, “Who do you think is evil?” They immediately respond, “Hitler.” They rarely mention Stalin. A few in the early 80’s mentioned Nixon, but by the time Bloom wrote the book, Nixon was being rehabilitated. Bloom comments (ibid.),

And there it stops. They have no idea of evil; they doubt its existence. Hitler is just another abstraction, an item to fill up an empty category. Although they live in a world in which the most terrible deeds are being performed and they see brutal crime in the streets, they turn aside. Perhaps they believe that evil deeds are performed by persons who, if they got the proper therapy, would not do them again—that there are evil deeds, not evil people.

I cite Bloom because the worldview of the young people that he observed a quarter century ago is now pervasive in our society. And the worldly relativism that minimizes or even eliminates the concept of sin is not just “out there.” It has flooded into the church. Popular megachurches thrive by making the church “a safe place” for everyone, where no one will be judged and where various types of immorality are relabeled as personal preferences. The “gospel” gets retooled as a way that Jesus can help you succeed and reach your personal goals. If you want your church to grow, you should never mention anything negative, like sin. Rather, tell people how much God loves them because they are so lovable. Build their self-esteem, but never suggest that they are sinners!

But if we are not sinners, then we do not need a Savior who died to bear the penalty of our sin. More than a century ago, Charles Spurgeon lamented (C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography, The Early Years [Banner of Truth], p. 54), “Too many think lightly of sin, and therefore think lightly of the Saviour.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones observed (Romans: The Law: Its Functions and Limits [Zondervan], p. 151), “The biblical doctrine of sin is absolutely crucial to an understanding of the biblical doctrine of salvation. Whatever we may think, we cannot be right and clear about the way of salvation unless we are right and clear about sin.” And since Romans 7 is one of the most penetrating analyses of sin in all of Scripture, we need to understand Paul’s thought here.

In our text, Paul defends the integrity and righteousness of God’s law against critics who argued that Paul’s teaching implied that the law is sin. “May it never be,” he exclaims (7:7). He exonerates God’s law as holy, righteous, and good (7:12), while showing why God gave the law:

God gave His law to convict us of our sin and bring us to the end of ourselves so that we would flee to Christ for salvation.

Our innate self-righteousness is so entrenched that until the law strips us of it and convicts us of our sin, we will not cast ourselves totally upon Christ. Our culture adds to this by telling us that we’re not sinners. We’re not worms, for goodness sake! We’re pretty good folks. We may want to bring Jesus into our lives as a useful coach or helper in our self-improvement program. But to trust Him as our Savior, we have to see the depth of our sin as God’s law exposes it for what it is. That’s what Paul describes here.

We come here to one of the most difficult and controversial sections of Romans. In verses 7-25, Paul dramatically shifts to the first person singular, dropping it again in chapter 8. In 7:7-13, he uses the past tense, but then in 7:14-25 he shifts to the present tense. Scholars debate whether Paul is speaking autobiographically or not. At the crux of this debate is when Paul possibly could have been “alive apart from the law” (7:9). There is also much controversy over whether verses 14-25 describe Paul before he was saved, Paul as a new believer, or Paul as a mature believer. So it’s a very difficult passage, with competent, godly scholars in every camp. I do not claim infallibility as we proceed (not that I ever do)!

Paul’s main concern in this chapter is not to share his personal experience, but rather to exonerate God’s law from any hint of being evil. He uses his own experience (as I understand it) to show how the law functions to bring conviction of sin, but also how it is powerless to deliver us from sin’s grip. Rather, it drives us to Christ, who alone has the power to save (7:25); and to the indwelling Holy Spirit, who gives us the power to overcome sin (8:2-4). So, let’s try to work through these verses.

1. The law is not sin, but it does reveal our sin (7:7).

Romans 7:7: “What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’”

Paul is responding to the charge that critics would bring in reaction to 7:5: “For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death.” The Jews believed that God gave the law to give us life and make us holy, but Paul claimed that the Law aroused us to sin, resulting in death. So now he answers this charge: “Is the Law sin?”

After strongly rejecting that slur against his teaching, Paul argues that the law functions to reveal our sin to us. He uses as a personal example the tenth commandment against coveting. This shows that by “the law” Paul mainly had in mind the Ten Commandments as the embodiment of God’s requirements for holy living. Probably he picked the tenth commandment because it is the only command that explicitly condemns evil on the heart level. Jesus pointed out that the commands against murder and adultery (and, by implication, all of the commands) go deeper than the outward action. If you’re angry at your brother, you have violated the command against murder. If you lust in your heart over a woman, you have committed adultery in God’s sight (Matt. 5:21-30). But the command against coveting explicitly goes right to the heart. Coveting concerns your heart’s desires, whether you ever act on those desires or not.

When Paul says, “I would not have come to know sin except through the Law,” he does not mean that he (or others) do not know sin at all apart from the law. He has already said (2:14-15) that Gentiles who do not have the law have the “work of the Law written in their hearts.” People sinned from Adam until Moses, even though they did not have the written law (5:12-14).

What Paul means is that the law, especially the tenth commandment focusing on the inward desires, nailed him so that he came to know sin as sin against God. Before his conversion, outwardly Paul was a self-righteous Pharisee. He thought that all of his deeds commended him to God. With regard to the law, he saw himself as “blameless” (Phil. 3:6). But when the Holy Spirit brought the tenth commandment about coveting home to his conscience, Paul realized that he had violated God’s holy law. At that point, he came to know sin. The commandment made it explicit: “Paul, you are a sinner!”

Like Paul before his conversion, most people think that they are basically good. Sure, they know they have their faults. Who doesn’t? They’re not perfect, but they are good. They excuse even their bad sins, just as Paul excused his violent persecution of the church. After all, it was justified because it was for a good cause.

So guys excuse a little pornography because, “After all, everyone looks at that stuff and I’m not hurting anyone. Besides, I’ve never cheated on my wife.” And they excuse their violent temper because that person had it coming and, “Hey, I didn’t hurt him; I just told him off!” People excuse all manner of sin and still think of themselves as basically good people because they have not come to know God’s law, especially the law as it confronts our evil desires. At the heart of coveting is the enthronement of self as lord.

Spurgeon (“The Soul’s Great Crisis,” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 61:425) compares the sinner who thinks that he is basically good, but won’t look at God’s law, to a man who thinks he is rich and lives in a lavish manner, but refuses to look at his books. The guy lives in style. When he gets into a financial bind, he takes out a loan, and when that one comes due, he’ll meet it with another loan. He says he is all right and he convinces himself that he is all right. At the moment he’s living as if he’s all right. But does he ever get out his accounts and take stock of his real condition? No, that’s boring. We all know where that will end—the man will go bankrupt.

In the same way, Spurgeon says, we may convince ourselves that we are right with God by brushing over our faults as no big deal. We live as if we’re good people; all is well. But if we don’t examine our true condition in light of God’s law, we’re heading for eternal bankruptcy. The law reveals our sin. But Paul goes further:

2. The law provokes sinners to sin (7:8).

Romans 7:8: “But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law, sin is dead.”

Paul personifies sin as an active force that uses the law to provoke us to commit acts of sin. By sin, Paul means sin as a principle and power, not just acts of sin (Lloyd-Jones, p. 120). He repeats the phrase again (7:11), “sin, taking opportunity through the commandment.” Opportunity was a word used for a military base of operations from which the army launched its campaigns. So sin takes God’s holy commandments and uses them to tempt us to violate those commands. It stirs up the rebel in us and makes us want to assert our right to do as we please.

James Boice (Romans: The Reign of Grace [Baker], pp. 742-743) tells a story from when he was in sixth grade. The school principal came into his classroom just before lunch and said that he had heard that some students had been bringing firecrackers to school. He went on to warn about the dangers of firecrackers and to say that anyone caught with firecrackers at school would be expelled. Well, Boice didn’t own any firecrackers and he hadn’t even thought about firecrackers. But when you get to thinking about firecrackers, it’s an intriguing subject. He then remembered that one of his friends had some.

So during his lunch break, he and a friend went by this other friend’s house, got a firecracker and returned to school. They went into a cloakroom and planned to light it and pinch it out before it exploded. But the lit fuse burned the fingers of the boy holding it. He dropped it and it exploded with a horrific bang, echoing in that old building with its high ceilings, marble floors, and plaster walls. Before the boys could stagger out of the cloakroom, the principal was out of his office, down the hall, and standing there to greet them. As Boice later sat in the principal’s office with his parents, he remembers the principal saying over and over, “I had just told them not to bring any firecrackers to school. I just can’t believe it.”

But that’s how sin operates in the hearts of rebels. It takes God’s good and right commandments and entices us to violate them. Sometimes when you read about others sinning or you see it on TV or in a movie, you think, “I’ll bet that would be fun!” You know that God forbids it, but probably He just wants to deprive you of some fun. Besides, what will it hurt to try it once? It can’t be all that bad. And, I can always get forgiven later. So our sin nature springboards off the commandment to provoke us to sin.

What does Paul mean when he says, “For apart from the Law sin is dead”? Since the fall, everyone is born in sin and is prone to sin. Before the flood, before God gave the law to Moses, the world was so sinful that we read (Gen. 6:5), “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” So how can Paul say, “apart from the Law sin is dead”?

He must have meant, “Sin was comparatively dead; as far as his awareness was concerned it was dead” (Lloyd-Jones, p. 135). In other words, before God brought the law to bear on Paul’s conscience, as far as he knew, he wasn’t in sin. He saw himself as a good person. The law had not yet revived the sin that lay dormant in his heart. Apart from the law, sin seems to be dead as far as the sinner is concerned. Paul traces the process further:

3. The law, through our failures to keep it, brings us to the end of ourselves (7:9-11).

Romans 7:9-11: “I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” (I will have to deal with the deceptive aspect of sin in our next study.)

What does Paul mean when he says that he was “once alive apart from the Law”? This is the same apostle who said that before salvation we all were dead in our sins (Eph. 2:1). How could he once be alive? And when was Paul ever “apart from the Law”? He was raised from his youth up in the strictest traditions of Judaism (Acts 22:3; 26:4-5; Phil. 3:5). And, when did sin “kill” him?

As with every verse in this text, there are many opinions. Some say that verse 9 refers to Adam, since he is the only one of whom it rightly could be said that he was once alive apart from the law. Others take it to refer to Israel before the law was given. But most likely, Paul is speaking in a relative sense about his own perception of himself. Once, he thought that he was alive and doing quite well in God’s sight. He saw himself as blameless with regard to the righteousness of the law (Phil. 3:6). Like the Pharisee in Jesus’ story, he would have prayed (Luke 18:11-12), “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.” In that sense, Paul saw himself as once alive apart from the law. He was “apart from the law” in the sense that it had not yet bore down on his conscience to convict him on the heart level.

But then “the commandment came”—“You shall not covet.” He had memorized that commandment as a child. He had recited it many times. But the Holy Spirit had not nailed him with it. Lloyd-Jones (p. 134) illustrates this with the experience that we’ve all had, where we’ve read a verse many, many times, but we’ve skipped right over it and kept going. It didn’t say anything to us. But then suddenly, it hits you. You see it as you’ve never seen it before. The commandment came to you.

Then what happens? “Sin became alive and I died” (7:9). At first, Paul thought that he was alive and sin was dead. But then, God’s law hit him and he suddenly realized that his sin was very much alive and he was dead. He saw that he was not right with God, as he formerly had thought. Rather, he was alienated from God and under His judgment. He had thought that he would get into heaven because he was a zealous Jew, and even a notch above other Jews, because he was a Pharisee. But now he realized that he was a blasphemer, a persecutor of God’s church, a violent aggressor, and the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:13, 15).

The commandment promised life (7:10) to all who keep it (Lev. 18:5; Ezek. 20:11). Paul thought that he had been keeping it blamelessly. But God shot the arrow of the commandment, “You shall not covet.” It hit Paul in the heart and killed him. Spurgeon (61:427) says, “What died in Paul was that which ought never to have lived. It was that great ‘I’ in Paul … that ‘I’ that used to say, ‘I thank thee that I am not like other men’—that ‘I’ that folded its arms in satisfied security—that ‘I’ that bent its knee in prayer, but never bowed down the heart in penitence—that ‘I’ died.”

Spurgeon goes on (pp. 427-428) to show several other respects in which Paul died. He died in that he saw he was condemned to die. He stood guilty before God. He died in that all his hopes from his past life died. His good works that he had been relying on came crashing down as worthless. He died in that all his hopes as to the future died. He realized that if his salvation depended on his future keeping the law, he was doomed. His past showed that he would be sure to break it again in the future. And, he died in that all his powers seemed to die. Formerly, he thought that he could keep the law just fine by his own strength. But now he saw that every thought, word, and desire that did not meet God’s holy standard would condemn him. And so all his hope died. He felt condemned. The rope was around his neck, as Spurgeon says elsewhere (Autobiography, 1:54).

Conclusion

Can you identify with Paul’s experience? Has God’s holy law hit home to your conscience so that you died to all self-righteousness? Has the law killed all your hopes that your good works will get you into heaven? If so, that’s a good thing, because Jesus didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). When you see God’s holy standard and how miserably you have violated it over and over, you then see your need for a Savior. And the best news ever is that Jesus Christ came into this world to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15)!

James Boice (p. 746) tells of a time when John Gerstner, who was then retired from teaching church history at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, was at a church preaching from Romans. He expounded on the law and used it to expose sin. After the service, a woman came up to him. She held up her hand with her index finger and thumb about a half-inch apart and she said, “Dr. Gerstner, you make me feel this big.”

Dr. Gerstner replied, “But madam, that’s too big. That’s much too big. Don’t you know that that much self-righteousness will take you to hell?”

God gave His law to strip us of all self-righteousness and to convict us of our sin so that we would flee to Christ to save us. Make sure that your hope for eternal life is in Christ alone!

Application Questions

  1. Is there ever a proper place in evangelism to tell sinners that God loves them? If so, when?
  2. A popular author says that Christians should not view themselves as sinners, not even as sinners saved by grace, but as saints who occasionally sin. What’s wrong with this biblically?
  3. To what degree has moral relativism invaded the church? How can we counter and resist this trend?
  4. How can we know whether feelings of guilt are coming from the Holy Spirit or from the accuser (Rev. 12:10)?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 38: The Utter Sinfulness of Sin (Romans 7:11-13)

In 1973, psychiatrist Karl Menninger, founder of the famous Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, wrote a best-seller titled, Whatever Became of Sin? [Bantam Books]. I didn’t read that book, but the title, especially coming from a psychiatrist, who to my knowledge was not a Christian, is significant. Menninger realized almost 40 years ago that the concept of sin was vanishing from our culture. He argued (as summarized by James Boice, Romans: The Reign of Grace [Baker], 2:747),

In the lifetimes of many of us, sin has been redefined: first, as crime—that is, as transgression of the law of man rather than transgression of the law of God—and second, as symptoms. Since “symptoms” are caused by things external to the individual, they are seen as effects for which the offender is not responsible. Thus it happened that sin against God has been redefined (and dismissed) as the unfortunate effects of bad circumstances. And no one is to blame.

We now view many behaviors that the Bible calls “sin” as psychological or emotional issues for which therapy, not repentance, is the solution. I’ve read polls that show that even among evangelical Christians, many do not view premarital sex or homosexual behavior as sin. Churches offer anger management classes (not anger repentance classes) or groups to help you overcome your “addictions” (not sins). Sin has become a disease that we treat therapeutically, not a behavior for which we’re responsible.

Christians regularly watch Hollywood’s latest movies that are rife with filthy language, sexual scenes, and violence, without any concern that they are disobeying Scripture, which commands (Eph. 5:3-4), “But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.” So Dr. Menninger was quite right to ask, “Whatever became of sin?”

In our text, Paul is defending himself against critics who alleged that he taught that the law is sin. Paul has been teaching that if you try to gain right standing with God by keeping the law, you are doomed to fail. The law was not given to make us right before God. To the contrary, “through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). “The Law brings about wrath” (4:15). “The Law came in so that the transgression would increase” (5:20). And so Paul shows (7:4) that through our union with Christ, we died to the law in order that we might bear fruit for God. We have been released from the law so that now “we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter” (7:6).

Paul knew that critics would react to this teaching by accusing him of saying that the law is sin. His response is (7:7), “May it never be!” The problem is not with the law. Rather, the problem is our sin. When you mix God’s holy law with our sin, it produces negative results, much like mixing two incompatible chemicals.

Verses 11 & 12 wrap up Paul’s argument that the law is not the problem; rather, sin is the problem. As we saw last time, he personifies sin as an active force. Verse 13 serves as a hinge verse, restating the argument from 7:7-12 while also introducing 7:14-25. We can sum up his thought in 7:11-13:

God’s law reveals the holiness of His commandments and the utter sinfulness of sin so that we will hate our sin.

1. God’s law reveals the holiness of His commandments.

Paul concludes (7:12), “So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.”

By “the Law,” Paul means the law as a whole. When he repeats, “the commandment,” he may be referring to the tenth commandment against coveting that he has just mentioned (7:7), or to the moral commands. But he means that the law as a whole and every single part of it is “holy and righteous and good.” He piles up these terms to emphasize his point (in 7:7) that the law is not in any way sinful. The reason that the law is holy, righteous, and good is that it was given to us by God who is holy, righteous, and good.

God’s law is holy. God’s holiness means that He is altogether separate from us and separate from sin. Christ’s aim for His church is that “she would be holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:27). Applied to us, God’s holy commandments show us how to live separately from this evil world, in a manner pleasing to the Lord.

That God’s law is righteous means that it is right or just. God Himself is the standard of what is right. Moses says of God (Deut. 32:4), “For all His ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice, righteous and upright is He.” If we violate God’s moral commands, we are wrong because God is always right. His standards are not relative, changing with the culture or over time. We can’t persuade Him to bend His righteous commands to fit what we may think is right.

God’s commandments are also good because they come from God who is always good. As with righteousness, God is the final standard of what is good (Luke 18:19). This means that all of God’s commandments are for our good. To violate His commands is to bring trouble and hardship on ourselves. If we want to live the truly “good life,” then we must follow God’s good commands.

Since as new covenant believers we are not under the Law of Moses, we may wonder, “Which of the Old Testament commands apply to us? Are we obligated to keep the Ten Commandments, since Paul calls them a ‘ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones’” (2 Cor. 3:7)?

In the sense that the Ten Commandments serve as a summary of the two great commandments, to love God and love others, they are valid and binding for today. Also, all of the Ten Commandments, except for the Sabbath command, are repeated in the New Testament. The Sabbath command, as I understand it, was fulfilled in Christ (Heb. 4:1-11; Rom. 14:5; Col. 2:16). The exhortation to us is not to forsake assembling together (Heb. 10:25), but we are not under that command in the legal sense of the Old Testament. (See my message, “God’s Day of Rest,” from Gen. 2:1-3, 12/17/95, on the church website for my further thoughts on this.)

So Paul wants us to be clear that God’s law is holy, righteous, and good. Being under grace does not mean living in a lawless manner (1 John 3:4; 1 Cor. 9:21).

2. God’s law reveals the utter sinfulness of sin.

Paul concludes (7:13c), “so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.” As C. H. Spurgeon put it (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 59:469), “[The law] was not the cure of the disease, much less the creator of it, but it was the revealer of the disease that lurked in the constitution of man.” He goes on to show that when Paul wanted to come up with a word to describe how bad sin is, he didn’t call it exceedingly black or horrible or deadly. Rather, when he wanted to find the very worst word, he called sin by its own name—it is exceedingly sinful. There is nothing as evil as sin. God gave His law for our good (Deut. 10:13), and so when we deliberately throw it off and trample it under foot, that law exposes the utter sinfulness of our sin in at least four ways:

A. Sin is utterly sinful because it is rebellion against our loving and kind Heavenly Father.

When God gave Adam and Eve the command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that command was for their good, to keep them from the consequence of death (Gen. 2:16-17). We can compare it to parents who tell their little children not to run into a busy street. That command is not to deprive the children of fun, but to protect them from death. So when we sin, we rebel against the God who is loving and kind towards us. He is never mean, harsh, or cruel. Rather, sin (as Spur­geon put it in another sermon) is the monster that this verse drags to light (ibid., 19:73). We need to see sin for what it is, rebellion against our loving and kind  Heavenly Father.

B. Sin is utterly sinful because it takes a good thing and uses it to kill us.

Sin takes the good law and turns it into an instrument of death. It would be like taking a scalpel and using it to murder someone. Is the scalpel bad? No! The scalpel is a good and useful tool in the hands of a skilled physician. The sinner who used the scalpel to murder someone is the culprit. Sin takes God’s holy commandments and uses them to kill us. (Paul mentions “death” or “killed” in 7:9, 10, 11, & 13.) He means that the law brings us under God’s righteous, eternal condemnation because we have deliberately violated it over and over. So we should fight against our sin with as much effort as we would struggle against an intruder who broke into our house and was attempting to murder us.

C. Sin is utterly sinful because it involves deliberate violation of God’s good and perfect will for us.

As Paul said (4:15), “Where there is no law, there also is no violation.” This is not to say that people did not sin before the law (5:13-14), but rather to say that the law heightens the sinfulness of sin by showing that we are deliberately going against what God has commanded for our good. Our conscience may nag at us that something is wrong. But when we read the explicit command in the Bible and then go against it, we’re just thumbing our nose at God. We’re saying, “God, You don’t know what is best for me! I know better than You do, and I’m going my own way.” The commandment shows sin to be utterly sinful.

D. Sin is utterly sinful because it uses deception to kill us.

In his book and film, “Peace Child,” missionary Don Richardson told about the wicked practice of the Sawi tribe before he brought the gospel to them. They extolled deception as a virtue. They would lure an outsider into their midst as a friend, who didn’t suspect their treachery. They would treat him as a king and feed him well, but they were literally fattening him for the slaughter. At the opportune time, when the victim thought that the Sawi tribal leaders were his friends, they would sadistically smile as they killed him, and then they would eat him. And so when Richardson first told them the story of Jesus, they thought that Judas was the real hero! He used deception to kill Jesus. In the same way, sin is utterly sinful because it uses deception to kill us.

In two other places (2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:14) Paul uses the same verb, “deceived” (Rom. 7:11) to describe the serpent’s deception of Eve in the garden. One commentator (C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [T. & T. Clark], 1:352-353) shows three ways that the serpent deceived Eve. First, he distorted and misrepresented God’s commandment by drawing attention only to the negative part of it and ignoring the positive. Second, he made her believe that God would not punish disobedience with death, as He had warned. Third, he used the very commandment itself to insinuate doubts about God’s good will and to suggest the possibility that she and Adam could assert themselves in opposition to God. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: The Law: Its Functions and Limits [Zondervan], pp. 155-160) lists nine ways that sin deceives us. I’ve incorporated his list into my own list of 15 ways that sin deceives us. I don’t expect you to remember all of these, but by piling them up without much comment, I want you to see how dangerous of an enemy sin really is.

(1). Sin deceives us into thinking that outward obedience alone pleases God, whereas we need to please Him on the heart level.

This was the downfall of the Pharisees. They thought that they were keeping all of God’s commandments, but Jesus rebuked them because their hearts were far from God (Mark 7:6-7; Matt. 23:25). Sin deceives us so that we congratulate ourselves for our outward obedience to God, but all the while our hearts are corrupt. “Sure, I look at some porn, but at least I’ve never cheated on my wife.” “Sure, I’m bitter over what he did to me, but I haven’t killed him.” But God looks on the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb. 4:12).

(2). Sometimes sin changes its tactics and tells us that everything is hopeless, so we might as well keep on sinning.

We wrongly conclude, “I’ve failed again and again, so there is no hope for me. I might as well just give in and go on sinning.”

(3). Sin deceives us to presume on God’s grace.

Sin tells us that it doesn’t matter whether or not we are holy. It says, “Don’t worry about your sin. It’s not hurting anyone. Besides, you can always get forgiven later.”

(4). Sin deceives us into thinking that it will bring true and lasting happiness, while holiness will bring us misery.

This is such a common ploy that you would think that we’d see right through it. But it works over and over again. “An affair will bring happiness, but being faithful to your marriage vows will make you miserable.” Related to this is the next form of deception:

(5). Sin deceives us into thinking that we have a right to happiness, while we forget that we have a responsibility to holiness.

I’ve known Christians who walk away from their marriages with the excuse, “I deserve some happiness in my life. My marriage has only brought me misery. How can this new relationship be wrong when it makes me so happy?” That’s the defense of a well-known Christian singer who divorced her husband and married another singer who divorced his wife. I recently read an article that tried to convince the readers that this sinful behavior was all right, because now she and her new husband are so happy. But what about the biblical command to be holy?

(6). Sin deceives us by getting us to discount the consequences of willful disobedience.

Satan lied to Eve (Gen. 3:4), “You surely will not die!” God would not be so mean as to impose such harsh consequences for such a minor thing as eating a piece of fruit, would He? God is loving and gracious; He won’t punish your sin!

(7). Sin deceives us into thinking that we’ve earned some free passes to sin because of all that we’ve done to serve God.

This may have been what led to David’s downfall. He was the king—didn’t that give him some extra privileges? He had written many psalms. He had fought and won many battles. Didn’t he deserve a “break”? Several years ago, a well known pastor was exposed when it came out that he “relieved the stress” of his ministry responsibilities by going to a homosexual prostitute! Talk about being deceived!

(8). Sin deceives us by getting us to swap the labels and call it something much more acceptable.

It is not adultery; it’s an affair or a fling. It’s not perversion; it’s being gay. It’s not stealing; it’s just taking what the company owes me but doesn’t pay me. I’m not angry; I just have a short fuse. It’s not gossip; I just wanted to share a prayer concern.

(9). Sin deceives us by making us think that we’re normal when we sin and to think that holy people are weird.

We look around at the world and conclude that yielding to temptation is normal. The weirdoes are those holy people who obey God. Or, we think, “I’ll bet that they’re no different than I am. They probably engage in some secret sins, but they’re hypocrites. At least I’m honest about who I am.”

(10). Sin deceives us by working by degrees, so that eventually that which would have shocked us is now accepted as normal.

When I used to paint houses, the home owner would walk in and make a big deal about the smell of the paint. But I was so used to it that I didn’t even notice. The prophet Hosea chided “Ephraim,” or Israel (Hos.7:9): “Gray hairs are sprinkled on him, yet he does not know it.” Can you imagine someone going gray without being aware of it? But the prophet was using this humorous analogy to show how we drift spiritually without being aware of how far off course we really are. The first time you watch a sex scene in a movie, it shocks you. But after you’ve seen such filth a few dozen times, you just shrug it off as no big deal. When you first hear profanity, it jars you. But after being around it a while, you don’t even wince and you may even toss off a bad word or two yourself without being aware of it.

(11). Sin deceives us by making us angry at the law, feeling that God is against us when He prohibits something.

Sin gets us to believe that God and His law are unreasonable, impossible, and unjust. “Does He expect me to be perfect? Why doesn’t He give me a break now and then? He must not care about me or He wouldn’t give such unreasonable commands!”

(12). Sin deceives us by making us think very highly of ourselves.

“You’re smart enough to figure out what is best for you. You’re able to determine right and wrong without putting yourself under God’s legalistic standards. Think for yourself!”

(13). Sin tells us that the law is oppressive, keeping us from developing the gifts and talents we have within us.

“God’s moral standards are holding you back from reaching your full potential! Use the brain that God gave you! You don’t have to be restricted by that outdated book, the Bible!”

(14). Sin makes righteousness look drab and unattractive.

“You’ve only had sex with your marriage partner? How boring! You go to church every Sunday? How restrictive! What a way to mess up your weekend!”

(15). Sin deceives us by getting us to compare ourselves with other sinners, rather than to compare ourselves to God’s holy standard.

The psalmist says that sin flatters us in our own eyes (Ps. 36:2). It makes us think that we’re not so bad because we compare our relatively “minor faults” with the really bad things that others do. By comparison, we’re not so bad. But the standard is not what others do or what we do, but what God’s Word commands.

Thus God’s law reveals the holiness and goodness of His commands, along with the utter sinfulness of sin. What should our response be?

3. The practical result of understanding the holiness of God’s commands and the utter sinfulness of sin is that we should hate our own sin.

I am inferring this, since Paul doesn’t state it directly here, although he does go on (7:14-25) to show how much he hates his own propensity towards sin. But the Bible is clear: “Hate evil, you who love the Lord” (Ps. 97:10a). And we’re not just supposed to hate the evil in others, but first and foremost, we need to hate our own sin. Take the log out of your own eye first (Matt. 7:5). It was Paul’s hatred of his own sin that caused him to cry out (Rom. 7:24), “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?”

Conclusion

Do you hate your own sin? Do you hate it enough to stop making excuses for it and to give serious thought and effort as to how not to sin? Sin is ugly, ugly, ugly! To watch a believer fall into sin is like watching a dog licking up its own vomit (2 Pet. 2:22). God’s Word shows us how walk in the light so that we do not fall into the mire of sin. Love the Word! Read it! Memorize it! Obey it! Don’t let sin kill you. Rather, hate your sin enough to kill it!

Application Questions

  1. Since we are not under the Law of Moses, how can we know which of the O.T. commands are binding on us?
  2. Why is it important to understand that God’s law is holy, righteous, and good? How does doubting God’s goodness set us up to yield to temptation (see Gen. 3:1-7)?
  3. Meditate on 2 Cor. 11:3. What does this verse teach about Satan’s deception and how to avoid it?
  4. What are some practical strategies for fighting against and killing sin? See Rom. 8:13; Gal. 5:16-23; Eph. 6:10-20.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 39: Who is This Wretched Man? (Romans 7:14-25, Overview)

We come now to one of the most difficult passages to interpret in the Book of Romans. With the exception of certain prophetic texts, there are not many other passages in Scripture where there is such widespread difference of opinion among godly scholars as there is for Romans 7:14-25. Is Paul describing his own experience here? If so, is it his experience before he was saved, his experience as an immature believer, or his experience as a mature believer? Since Paul is in the midst of teaching us how to overcome sin in our daily experience, it’s an important text to understand. But we can’t apply it correctly until we first understand it correctly.

In this message, I want to give an overview of the various views and their main arguments. In subsequent messages I’ll work through the text in more detail. When you come to a text where so many godly men differ, it’s important to be gracious towards those who differ and acknowledge that there is no neat, tidy view that answers all the difficulties. Each view has its strengths and weaknesses, and so you have to pick which weaknesses you’re willing to live with in the view that you adopt. If someone claims to have solved all the problems, he is blind to the weaknesses of his view. If we could solve all the difficulties, then everyone would agree.

Also, when you come to a difficult text, it’s important to interpret it in light of other texts that are more clear. We need to try to harmonize and integrate this text into the flow of Paul’s unambiguous teaching elsewhere. And, as always, we need to confess our lack of understanding to the Lord and ask Him to give us insight through the Holy Spirit so that we will grow in godliness. Our aim is not just to solve the interpretive puzzle, but to become more like Jesus Christ.

The main problem that we have to grapple with here is that some statements make it sound as if Paul were not a believer, whereas other statements make it sound as if he were a believer. Among those who argue that Paul is describing the experience of an unbeliever, some say that it is the experience of a Jew under the law. Some say that it describes a man under deep conviction of sin just before his conversion. Among those who argue that it describes a believer, some argue that he is talking about the normal experience of a mature Christian, whereas others say that he is describing the experience of a new or very immature believer.

Some argue that Paul is not speaking autobiographically here, but it seems to me that he is describing himself here. He uses “I” 24 times in 7:14-25, plus “me,” “my,” or “myself” 14 times. While Paul could be using this as a literary device, the most obvious way to take it is that he is speaking of his own experience. Obviously his experience is representative of the experience of all who have struggled against sin. But we’re learning through Paul’s experience.

Also, we need to keep in mind that Paul’s main purpose is not to share this as an interesting story, but rather to establish the holiness and integrity of the law, while at the same time to show the law’s inability to deliver us from sin. To have consistent victory over sin, we must learn to rely moment by moment on the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, which Paul explains in chapter 8.

With that as a background, let me walk you through some of the arguments for the various views. There are a number of variants within each view which we will not have time to delve into.

Romans 7:14-25 describes an unbeliever.

This was the position of the early church fathers in the first three centuries of Christianity. Augustine held this view earlier in his Christian life, but later argued that it refers to believers. John Wesley and many in the Arminian camp hold to this view. Here are the strongest arguments for this view:

1. Paul uses language throughout the passage that could only be descriptive of an unbeliever.

This is the strongest argument for this position. In 7:14, Paul laments, “I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.” But in 6:14, he stated as a matter of fact, “For sin shall not be master over you.” He also stated (6:17-18), “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” He reinforces this in 6:22, “But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.”

Also, in 6:2, Paul said, “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” But in 7:25b he says that with his flesh he is serving (the word means, “to serve as a slave”) the law of sin. In 6:6, he says that we were crucified with Christ so that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin. But in 7:24 he laments, “Who will set me free from the body of this death?” In 7:18 Paul says, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” How could a man indwelled by the Holy Spirit say such a thing? In 7:23 he adds that he is “a prisoner of the law of sin.” And, how could a believer who has already been redeemed by Christ cry out (7:24), “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?”

So the descriptions of our new position in Christ as believers in chapter 6 are totally at odds with these statements of the wretched man in chapter 7. He must still be an unbeliever.

2. The flow of the context argues for 7:14-25 being a description of unbelievers.

Almost everyone agrees that 7:7-13 describes Paul as an unbeliever. If 7:14 shifts to his experience as a believer, you would expect a disjunctive word, such as “but.” Instead, Paul uses “for,” which indicates that he is explaining further his experience as an unbeliever. This is further substantiated by his immediately stating that he is “of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.” This goes back to 7:5, where Paul describes his experience as an unbeliever as being “in the flesh.”

Also, some argue that our text describes further the experience of 7:5, of the unbeliever in the flesh, whereas 8:1-17 picks up on 7:6, which describes the newness of serving in the Spirit. Also, there is the dramatic shift between the miserable experience of 7:14-25 and the “now” of 8:1 and the experience of victory that follows. Douglas Moo (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 442-451) argues that Paul presents his experience as a representative Jewish unbeliever under the law to show that the law is impotent to save anyone from their sin, thus reinforcing the argument of 7:1-13. He also is persuaded by the contrasts mentioned under the first argument.

3. In 7:14-25, there is an absence of any references to the Holy Spirit, who indwells all believers, whereas in chapter 8, the Holy Spirit is mentioned frequently.

Paul makes it clear (in 8:9) that every believer is indwelled with the Holy Spirit. If you do not have the Holy Spirit, you do not belong to Christ. Since there is a glaring absence of any mention of the Spirit in 7:14-25, as contrasted with at least 17 references to the Spirit in chapter 8, chapter 7 must describe an unbeliever.

4. The person in 7:14-25 is not just struggling with sin but is defeated by sin.

Elsewhere Paul makes it clear that all believers struggle with sin, but that’s not what he describes in these verses. His experience in 7:14-25 is not just a struggle, but one of repeated failure, defeat, and inability to obey God. This is descriptive of an unbeliever.

There are some variations of the view that these verses describe an unbeliever. Martyn Lloyd-Jones argues for the position (also held by Godet and the Pietists, Francke and Bengel), that Paul is describing the experience of a Jew who is under deep conviction of sin, but not yet reborn. Thomas Schreiner (Romans [Baker], p. 390) argues that “Paul does not intend to distinguish believers from unbelievers in this text.” Rather, “Paul reflects on whether the law has the ability to transform human beings, concluding that it does not.” So Schreiner says that the passage could be describing either unbelievers or believers. Stuart Briscoe (The Communicator’s Commentary [Word], p. 147), somewhat in line with Schreiner, holds that “Paul is relating the struggles he had with the law of God before he knew Christ and which he continues to have since coming into an experience of the risen Lord.”

Romans 7:14-25 describes a mature believer.

This was the view of Augustine later in life, as already mentioned. It is also the view of Luther, Calvin, and most of the Reformers, along with Reformed men down through the centuries, such as John Owen, Charles Hodge, John Murray, James Boice, J. I. Packer, John Piper, and others. Here are the main arguments to support the view that Paul is describing the experience of a mature believer. (John Piper gives ten arguments in favor of this view, but I can only list a few.)

1. The shift to the present tense argues that Paul is speaking of his present experience as a mature believer.

As I’ve noted, Paul makes a very obvious shift from past tense verbs in 7:7-13 to present tense verbs in 7:14-25. The most natural way to understand this is that Paul is here describing his ongoing struggle against sin when he wrote this letter.

2. The context of Romans 6-8 is a discussion of sanctification in the Christian life, not of an unbeliever’s struggle with the law.

3. If 7:14-25 describes Paul’s pre-conversion experience, it is in conflict with how he describes that experience elsewhere.

In Philippians 3 and in Galatians 1, along with a couple of places in Acts, Paul portrays himself before conversion as a self-satisfied Jew, bent on persecuting the church. There is no record that he went through an intense inward conflict such as that described here.

4. Paul’s desires in these verses are those of a believer, not of an unbeliever.

He says (7:22), “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man.” He is seeking to obey the law, not just outwardly, but with the “inner man” (7:15-20, 22). Unbelievers may put on an outward show of obedience, but their hearts are far from God (Matt. 23; Mark 7:6-13). Unbelievers do not seek after God (Rom. 3:11) or desire to please Him (8:8). His heartfelt cry, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” sounds like the cry of a man who yearns for God and the new resurrection body, which will be free from sin. The closer a man draws to God, the more he sees the corruption of his old nature and the more he desires to be free from all inclination to sin.

5. The battle between the two “I’s” describes a believer, not an unbeliever.

Unbelievers only live in the flesh, but believers have a new nature and the indwelling Holy Spirit that war against the flesh (Gal. 5:17). Every Christian who is honest acknowledges this inner struggle against sin that goes on throughout life. Paul’s lament (7:18), “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh,” indicates that there is more to Paul than just flesh. He has a new inner man that longs for God and His holiness, although he has not yet attained it.

There are more arguments for each side and each side has arguments to rebut the arguments of the other side. For sake of time, I cannot go through each of these. Rather, I will now give you the correct view (yeah, sure!). As I said, there are strengths and weaknesses with every view, so we have to pick a view that seems most to harmonize with other Scriptures and to have the fewest problems. I actually was pushed toward this view by reading Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ volume on Romans 7 where he argues that these verses describe a Jew under intense conviction of sin, just prior to conversion. (He would not be happy that his argument pushed me in this direction!)

Romans 7:14-25 describes an immature believer who has not yet learned that he is free from the law and that he has the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit to overcome sin.

Let me begin by acknowledging that the main weakness of this view is Paul’s use of the present tense. It sounds as if Paul is speaking of his current experience, not of a past experience that he had as a new believer. But Paul could be using the present tense as a vivid way of sharing his experiences as a new believer. For reasons that I will share in a moment, I cannot accept that Paul is describing his experience as a mature believer.

Also, I want to distance myself from what is called the Keswick teaching, popularized by Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, Watchman Nee’s The Normal Christian Life and Ian Thomas’ The Saving Life of Christ. These and other books of this persuasion teach that Romans 7 describes a “carnal” Christian who has not yet learned the secret of the “exchanged life.” When you learn the secret, “not I, but Christ,” you break through into the experience of Romans 8. It is sometimes pictured as moving from the wilderness to the Promised Land. This teaching gives the impression that once you break into the Romans 8 experience, the Christian life becomes an effortless, struggle-free, sin-free life. You never worry, you’re never ruffled by trials, and you experience perpetual joy and close fellowship with the Lord. These books convey that if you’re struggling against sin, you haven’t learned the secret of letting go and letting God. That is not my understanding of the biblical Christian life!

I understand the Christian life to be an ongoing, lifelong struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. We never arrive at a place in this life where sin no longer tempts us, where trials are not a difficult burden, and where we have attained sinless perfection. Jesus Himself cried out to God with loud crying and tears (Heb. 5:7). Paul was burdened so much that he despaired of life itself (2 Cor. 1:8). He describes his Christian life as a fight, not an effortless rest (2 Tim. 4:7). The author of Hebrews commends his readers in their striving against sin, and encourages them to submit to the difficult discipline of the Lord that for the moment does not seem joyful, but sorrowful (Heb. 12:4-11). So I’m not saying that in moving from Romans 7 to Romans 8, life becomes an effortless, ecstatic experience of perpetual victory. Even mature believers fall into sin on occasions and they always fall far short of perfection.

This means that there is always going to be some degree of the struggle expressed in Romans 7 in the Christian life, even in Romans 8. In that, I agree with those who argue that this is the experience of a mature Christian. As we grow to know God and His ways more deeply, we will always be painfully aware of how far short we fall. We will always lament our propensity toward living in the flesh and yielding to the sin that so easily besets us. There will always be the battle between the two natures. I do not agree with those who say that believers only have the new nature, or that we only sin occasionally. It is a daily battle with many setbacks.

But I disagree with those who argue that Romans 7 describes the “normal” Christian life. The man in Romans 7 is not just struggling against sin, which every Christian must do all through life, but he is consistently defeated by sin. He describes himself as “sold into bondage to sin” (7:14). He is “not practicing” what he would like to do, but is doing the very thing he hates (7:15). He wills to do good, but he does not do it (7:18). He practices the very evil that he does not want to do (7:19). He describes himself as a prisoner of the law of sin (7:23). These descriptions are contrary to 1 John 3:9, which says that believers cannot continue to sin as a normal way of life. Believers do sin, but they do not live in perpetual defeat to sin as Paul here describes. Mature believers do not continue practicing sin or living in slavery to it.

I’m sensitive to the argument that in light of chapter 6, no believer could say that he is “sold into bondage to sin” and “a prisoner of the law of sin.” As I said, that is the strongest argument that this is an unbeliever. But an unbeliever would not experience this intense hatred of his sin and inner desire to be free from it. And a mature believer would not describe himself as being in bondage to sin. Thus I think that Paul is describing his experience as a new believer, before he understood that he had died to the law and been joined in marriage to Christ and before he learned to walk by means of the Holy Spirit.

Since Paul before his conversion was a legalistic Pharisee, it’s not likely that immediately after his conversion he understood that he was dead to the law or that he now could live by the power of the Holy Spirit. He probably began his Christian experience by striving to obey the law in the flesh. After a time of trying and failing and trying again and failing again, he finally broke through to realize, “Sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace” (6:14). He came to understand that since he was identified with Christ in His death, he was now free from the law, so that now he could serve in newness of the Spirit (7:4, 6). He grew to understand his new identity in Christ. He realized the glorious truth, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1). But it probably took him a while, perhaps a few years, to work through all of this both theologically and practically in terms of his daily experience. My understanding is that he is sharing those early struggles in Romans 7:14-25.

Conclusion

I’ll go back and work through these verses in more detail in coming messages. But for now, let me leave you with a few practical issues to think about.

First, if you do not hate your sin and struggle against it, you need to examine whether you are saved. Those who have experienced the new birth hate their sin and they desperately want to have victory over it. If you shrug off your sin as no big deal, it is not a sign that the Holy Spirit is dwelling in you. A life of ongoing repentance is the mark of the new birth.

Second, if you have trusted Christ but are defeated often by sin, so that you feel in bondage to it, there is hope for deliverance. Your defeats do not necessarily mean that you are not born again. At the same time, you need to realize how serious your sins are and that God did not save you so that you would live a defeated life. He has provided the Word, the indwelling Holy Spirit, and the body of Christ to help every Christian gain consistent victory over sin, beginning on the thought level. We will never be sinless in this life, but we should be sinning less as we grow to maturity in Christ. If you learn to walk in the Spirit, you will not carry out the desire of the flesh (Gal. 5:16).

So wherever you’re at spiritually, I want to offer you genuine hope in the Lord. If you are not saved, cry out to God: “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13). If you are defeated by sin, so was none other than the apostle Paul. But he learned to live in consistent victory in Christ, and so can you! Romans 8 will help point the way.

Application Questions

  1. In your opinion, which are the strongest arguments for each view? Which are the weakest arguments? Which view do you think is the best?
  2. What are some of the practical ramifications of each view?
  3. Some deny that believers have an old sin nature, emphasizing 2 Cor. 5:17. Why is this view spiritually dangerous?
  4. Have you heard of the Keswick teaching? Why is this view spiritually dangerous?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 40: The Merry-Go-Round of Sin (Romans 7:14-20)

Have you ever felt like you were on a merry-go-round of sin, but you couldn’t figure out how to get off even though you wanted to? In that sense, it isn’t a merry-go-round, but a miserable-go-round! You hate going around and around, but you don’t know how to get off the stupid thing.

That’s what Paul describes in Romans 7:14-20 about his spiritual experience: he hates what he is doing, but he can’t stop doing it. He knows that God gave us the law; it’s spiritual and good; it’s the right thing to do. The problem is, he can’t do it. He doesn’t have the power to get off the merry-go-round of sin.

But the problem we face in trying to understand Paul (as I explained at length last week) is that it’s difficult to determine whether he is talking here about his experience before salvation or after he was saved. Some of his statements sound as if he was an unbeliever, but other statements sound as if he was a believer. And, if it refers to his experience as a believer, how then do his words about being in bondage to sin (7:14) square with what he has said in chapter 6 about being freed from sin?

My understanding is that Paul is describing his experience as an immature believer, before he came to understand that he was no longer under the law and that he could experience consistent victory over sin by relying on the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. I hold this view because Paul makes some statements that an unbeliever could not make. He loves God’s law and wants to keep it from the heart (7:22). He hates his own sin.

But he also makes some statements that a mature believer could not make. He is not merely describing the ongoing struggle against sin that all believers experience, but rather an experience of ongoing defeat. He was habitually practicing the very evil that he hated (7:15, 19). This does not square with a person who walks by means of the Spirit and thus does not fulfill the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:16). It does not line up with 1 John 3:9 (and 2:3-6), that those born of God do not practice sin.

It’s reasonable to assume that after his conversion, Paul did not instantly understand his new position of being dead to the law and united to Christ (Rom. 7:1-4) or how to walk in dependence on the indwelling Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:4, 13). So I believe that he is describing his own frustrating experience as a new believer, before he learned these truths. And, as I also said, Paul’s main point in the context is to show that God’s law is holy, righteous, and good, but it is not able to deliver us from the power of sin.

As I also explained, I agree that the Christian life is never free from the struggles that Paul describes here. We have to do battle against indwelling sin as long as we live. But Paul is not merely describing a struggle here. Rather, he is talking about a life of consistent defeat. He’s not just describing an ongoing battle, but a losing ongoing battle! I contend that this is not the normal Christian life of a mature believer.

Rather, as we grow to understand and live in light of our new identity in Christ and to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit, we can experience consistent victory over sin. We will never be sinless, but we will sin less as we grow. Also, as we grow we will come to see more and more of our inward corruption and more and more of God’s holiness, so that we lament our propensity toward sin and long for our new resurrection bodies. But we will not yield to our sinful desires as often as we did as new believers. So that is my approach to these verses.

Several commentators (F. Godet, Commentary on Romans [Kregel], p. 282, is the earliest that I could find) point out the cyclical structure of Romans 7:14-25. Each cycle begins with a fact, then gives the proof of it, and a conclusion:

First cycle (7:14-17):

Fact (7:14): “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of flesh….”

Proof: (7:15-16): “For what I am doing, I do not understand….”

Conclusion: (7:17): “So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.”

Second cycle (7:18-20):

Fact: (7:18): “For I know that nothing good dwells in me….”

Proof (7:18b-19): “For the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not….”

Conclusion (7:20): “But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.”

Third cycle (7:21-25):

Fact (7:21): “I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good.”

Proof (7:22-23): “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in … my body….”

Conclusion (7:25): “So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but … with my flesh the law of sin.”

The second and third cycles in many ways repeat the first cycle, which is why I’m describing Paul’s experience here as being on a merry-go-round of sin. He’s doing the same thing over and over, in spite of his good intentions to the contrary. He wants to stop, but he can’t. And so the overall feeling is one of powerlessness. He knows that he’s doing wrong and he wants to please God, but he’s not able to do so. Sin gets the upper hand again and again.

In this message, I will look at the first two cycles (7:14-17, 18-20), which teach us:

After the new birth, immature believers often experience a frustrating cycle of being defeated by sin because they yield to the old nature.

I’m not saying that once you understand the truths of Romans 8, you will never suffer bouts of being defeated by sin. Romans 8 does not propel you into a life of effortless, struggle-free spiritual victory. The Christian life is a continual battle and there are setbacks and at times overwhelming failures. But I do contend that Romans 7, with its perpetual defeat, pictures an immature believer, whereas Romans 8 gives us the key to consistent victory. This means that if Romans 7 describes your life right now more than Romans 8 does, there is hope! Paul was once where you’re at now. His frustrating experience teaches us three things:

1. When God saves you, He gives you a new nature, but He does not eradicate the old nature, which is corrupted by sin.

In Romans 6:6, Paul says that “our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin.” In light of that, some, such as John MacArthur, teach (The MacArthur Study Bible NASB [Nelson Bibles], p. 1670), “The believer does not have two competing natures, the old and the new; but one new nature that is still incarcerated in unredeemed flesh.” As highly as I respect John MacArthur, I strongly disagree with that statement. I think it is unhelpful and dangerous, because it minimizes the spiritual danger that resides in every believer. I don’t care whether you call it the old nature, the flesh, or indwelling sin. But there resides in every believer a strong propensity toward sin that wars against the new nature that we received through the new birth.

Then how do I explain Romans 6:6? It reflects our new position in Christ, which we must count as true in the daily battle against sin. Paul often portrays the tension between our position and our practice in the Christian life. In Colossians 3:9-10, he says that as believers we have “laid aside the old self with its evil practices and have put on the new self….” But in the parallel in Ephesians 4:22-24, he commands us (almost all commentators take the infinitives as imperatives) to “lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit …” and “put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” If we have already laid aside the old and put on the new, why does he command us to do it? The answer is, positionally it is true. But practically, we must count it as true and live in light of it.

You find the same tension between Romans 6, which emphasizes that we have died with Christ, and Romans 8:13, which commands us to put to death the deeds of the flesh. Or, in Colossians 3:3, Paul says that we have died with Christ, but in 3:5 he commands us to put to death (literal translation) the members of our earthly body with regard to various sins. We’re dead, so we need to live like it by putting our flesh to death.

So the point is, conversion does not eradicate the strong desires of the flesh or work to improve the flesh. The old man is “being corrupted according to the lusts of deceit” (Eph. 4:22). It won’t get better over time. You may have been a believer for 50 years, but you still must put off the flesh on a daily basis. That’s why the godly George Muller used to pray as an elderly man, “Lord, don’t let me become a wicked old man!” He knew that in him, that is, in his flesh, dwells nothing good (Rom. 7:18).

2. New believers are often still enslaved to sin because they yield to the old nature.

Again, while there is much controversy, with some saying that these verses describe unbelievers, while others argue that they reflect Paul’s experience as a mature believer, I contend that they describe an immature believer who is still yielding to his old nature. He has not yet learned to put on his new identity in Christ and to walk by means of the indwelling Holy Spirit, who gives us the power to resist the lusts of the flesh (Gal. 5:16).

There has been a lot of confusion because of some popular teaching that Christians may be divided into those that are “carnal” and those that are “spiritual.” This teaching was popularized through the Scofield Reference Bible, Lewis Sperry Chafer’s He That is Spiritual, and Campus Crusade for Christ’s “Holy Spirit” booklet. Purportedly based on 1 Corinthians 2 & 3, the teaching is that you can legitimately be a Christian through a decision to invite Christ into your life as Savior, but you’ve not yet chosen to let Him be Lord of your life. So you live with self on the throne until you learn to yield to the Holy Spirit. After that, you bounce back and forth between “carnal” and “spiritual,” depending on who is on the throne: self or the Lord.

But Scripture does not present the option of accepting Christ as your Savior, but not as your Lord. And you don’t bounce back and forth between being carnal or spiritual. Granted, there is a lifetime of growth involved in yielding every area of life and every thought to Christ. But if you are not seeking to obey Christ in every area of life, you need to examine whether He has changed your heart. All who are born of God strive to please God in every way. (See Ernest Reisinger’s booklet, What Should We Think of the Carnal Christian? [Banner of Truth], for more on this.)

It is better to say that Christians, like humans, grow through various stages: infancy, youth, and adulthood (see 1 John 2:12-14). Paul addresses the Corinthians as “infants in Christ,” who needed milk, not meat, because they were still fleshly (1 Cor. 3:1-3). Just as human babies must grow from milk to solid food, and from being fed to learning to feed themselves, and from being carried to crawling to walking, and in many more areas, the same is true spiritually. Newer believers usually yield more often to the old nature (the flesh or indwelling sin) than more mature believers do. Maturity involves learning to reckon yourself as dead to sin and alive to God in Christ. And it involves learning by the Spirit to put to death the deeds of the flesh (Rom. 8:13).

Here, Paul gives us a glimpse of his losing battle against sin as a babe in Christ, which he calls being “sold into bondage to sin” (7:14). Note six things about this enslavement to sin:

A. This enslavement to sin stands in complete contrast to our new identity in Christ, creating an intense internal battle.

Romans 7 stands in such stark contrast to the truths of Romans 6 that many have concluded that it describes an unbeliever. If it were not for the inner struggle, you’d look at Paul’s behavior and conclude that he is not a believer. He is in bondage to sin. He does not obey God’s law, but rather does the opposite. In other words, Paul knew that he was living in disobedience to God. But internally, this war was raging, because he knew that his behavior did not match what he was supposed to be and what he desperately wanted to be.

This means that living in continual defeat to sin does not necessarily mean that you are not saved. But if you are saved, you can’t live contentedly in sin. You will hate what you’re doing and you will fight it desperately until you gain the victory. Spiritual complacency is not a good sign! Even young believers experience this intense internal conflict.

B. This enslavement to sin causes inner turmoil, because it conflicts with the desires of the new nature.

Jonathan Edwards argued forcefully in his A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (in The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth] 1:236), “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” In other words, when God saves us, He gives us new holy desires. Edwards argues (1:239, italics his), “So holy desire, exercised in longings, hungerings, and thirstings after God and holiness, is often mentioned in Scripture as an important part of true religion.”

We see that here. Paul wants to obey God’s law and do what is right, but he’s failing. He confesses that God’s law is good, but he’s not able to obey it. His desires for holiness are evidence that God has imparted new life to him, but his inability to do what God requires is causing this inner turmoil. If you know that you’re disobeying God, but you just shrug it off, it may mean that you’re not born again. Those born of God’s Spirit are in turmoil when they disobey Him.

C. This enslavement to sin causes mental confusion.

“For what I am doing, I do not understand” (7:15). By “understand,” Paul may mean that he does not approve of what he is doing (C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans [ICC, T. & T. Clark], 1:358). Or, he may mean that he does not fully comprehend the depths of sin that are still in his heart (Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 373). But it’s obvious that he is a confused man. He doesn’t understand his own behavior. Sin always clouds our minds and causes us not to think clearly.

D. This enslavement to sin does not eradicate our recognition of God’s holy standards.

Paul agrees with the Law, confessing that it is good (7:16). Even though he is defeated by sin, he still recognizes that God’s ways are right and his own ways are wrong. He isn’t disputing with the law, as if it were unfair or even wrong.

E. This enslavement to sin stems from the ongoing existence of indwelling sin, not from our new, true identity in Christ.

Paul concludes the first section (7:17), “So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.” We need to be careful not to fall into error over verses 17 and 20, which say essentially the same thing. Paul is not saying, “I’m not responsible for my sin. I’m just a helpless victim. I didn’t do it; sin did it!” Rather, he is acknowledging the powerful inner struggle that takes place in every believer. He’s personifying sin not as an honored guest or a paying tenant, but as an uninvited squatter who is difficult to eject (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 293). But since Paul commits the sin, he is responsible for doing it. And he is acknowledging that when he sins, he is acting against his new identity in Christ, which is his true new person. As new creatures in Christ, we are responsible to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ (Rom. 6:11).

F. This enslavement to sin shows that indwelling sin is a powerful force that we are not able to control in and of ourselves.

You can resist sin outwardly by sheer will-power, but it will keep wearing away in your inner man until it wins. In other words, outward morality is not enough. The Pharisees were outwardly moral, but Jesus nailed them for their hypocrisy and the evil that was in their hearts (Matt. 23). You have to judge sin on the thought level. It is so powerful that Jesus graphically portrayed dealing with it as cutting off your hand or plucking out your eye (Matt. 5:29-30). To live in consistent victory over indwelling sin, we need nothing less than the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. We all tend to minimize our sin, excusing it as no big deal. But these verses should show us that we’re dealing with a powerful force that is out to control and destroy us. We need more than will-power.

Thus, we all have a battle within due to the existence of the new man and the old in the same person. If we yield to the old man (the flesh, indwelling sin), it will dominate and enslave us.

3. A new believer’s enslavement to sin feels like a merry-go-round of defeat due to the inner battle between the two natures.

In large part, verses 18-20 are a repeat of verses 14-17. Paul is explaining further the conclusion of verse 17, and his conclusion in verse 20 is almost identical with his conclusion in verse 17. He’s on the merry-go-round and can’t figure out how to get off. The repetition serves to drive home the facts that sin is more powerful than human will power, that the flesh is corrupt, and that if we let it, the old nature will dominate the new, even against our desires to the contrary. So we need nothing less than the very power of God to overcome the power of indwelling sin.

Conclusion

There are no answers to this huge problem of indwelling sin in Romans 7:14-25, except for the brief exclamation of hope in verse 25, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” The answers come in chapter 8.

But in one way there is an answer here: Sometimes God lets us come to the end of ourselves so that we will be driven to trust in Him alone. By our proud fallen nature, we’re prone to trust in ourselves, first for salvation, and then for sanctification. God has to show us that we cannot save ourselves by our own righteousness or good deeds. God only saves sinners who cast themselves upon His mercy in Christ. And He has to show us that we cannot conquer sin by our own will-power and effort. If we could, we’d boast in our holiness! Peter had to learn that painful lesson by denying the Lord. We have to learn it by going through the Romans 7 merry-go-round of resolve and failure, until we learn that the victory is not in us; it’s in the Lord.

My friend, Bob Deffinbaugh, who is a pastor in the Dallas area, put it this way (bible.org/seriespage/war-within-romans-714-25):The problem with many Christians is not their despair, like that of Paul, but their lack of it.” He goes on to point out that until we come to the end of ourselves in utter despair, we will not come to Christ, because we think that we don’t really need Him. Until we see the magnitude of our sin problem in the inner person, we’ll assure ourselves that it’s under control because we’re outwardly moral. The first step to get off the merry-go-round of sin is to cry out (7:24), “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” Thankfully, the answer is clear: God will set us free through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Application Questions

  1. Why is it important to recognize that believers have both a corrupt old nature and a redeemed new nature? Why is it dangerous to say that believers only have a new nature?
  2. Why is it erroneous and spiritually dangerous to teach that believers can get to a place of complete victory where there is no internal battle?
  3. At first glance, it seems as if Paul (7:17, 20) is disassociating himself from his sin, as if he is not responsible. What other Scriptures show that this is a wrong interpretation? What does he mean in these verses?
  4. Why is the popular “carnal” Christian model unhelpful and misleading? Isn’t that what Paul teaches in 1 Cor. 3:1-3?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 41: The War Within (Romans 7:21-25)

I recently saw a bumper sticker with the peace symbol around the border. It showed two children with their arms around each other. The caption was, “All the arms we need.” I said to Marla, “What planet do these people live on?” When we dwell on the new earth, when all sin is completely eradicated, we won’t need arms to defend ourselves. But as long as sin is in this world, we need arms not only to hug one another, but also to fight against enemies that seek to destroy us. As unpleasant as it is, the reality of life in this fallen world includes conflict.

That’s also true in the Christian life. We all want peaceful lives. Perhaps you came to Christ because someone told you that in Him, you would find peace. That’s true. In Christ, we experience peace with God (Rom. 5:1). Christ is the basis for peace between believers (Eph. 2:14). As much as is possible, we are to be at peace with all people (Rom. 12:18). And, in Christ we come to know a sense of inner peace, even in the face of tribulation, that we lacked before (John 16:33).

But while the Christian life is one of peace, it’s also one of constant warfare. As we serve Christ and seek to extend His kingdom, we’re at war with the evil powers of darkness (Eph. 6:10-20). We’re engaged in the battle between God’s truth and the lies of Satan that captivate the minds of the unbelieving (2 Cor. 10:3-5). And, as every Christian knows, there is a fierce inner battle that goes on between the flesh and the spirit, the old man and the new (Gal. 5:17). If we do not learn how to overcome the strong inner urge to gratify the flesh, sin will take us captive and enslave us. Paul describes this war within in Romans 7:14-25.

As I explained in the previous two messages, some godly scholars understand these verses to be a description of Paul as an unbelieving Jew, striving but failing to keep God’s law. Others argue that Paul is describing the ongoing battle that he was experiencing as he wrote. Even mature believers have to fight this battle against indwelling sin as long as they live.

While I agree that mature believers must fight a continual battle against indwelling sin (the flesh or the old sin nature), I disagree that such a description adequately explains these verses. Paul is not just describing a battle here, but a losing battle. He describes himself as (7:14), “I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.” He is not practicing what he would like to do, but rather was doing the very thing he hated (7:15, 18, 19). He was a prisoner of the law of sin (7:23). As I explained (in the last message), he was on the merry-go-round of sin and he couldn’t get off.

We looked at the first two cycles (7:14-17, 18-20) of sin and defeat. Now we come to the third time around the merry-go-round, which follows the same three-fold progression: Fact, proof, and conclusion:

Fact (7:21): “I find then the principle that evil is present in me ….”

Proof (7:22-23): “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in my members, waging war…”

Conclusion (7:25): “So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.”

I reject the view that Paul is describing his experience as an unbeliever because he says things that are not true of unbelievers. I reject the view that he was writing primarily about his struggle as a mature believer because while mature believers struggle with sin and sometimes lose the battle, they do not live in perpetual defeat and bondage to sin.

I contend that these verses primarily describe an immature believer who has not yet come to understand that he is no longer under the law, but under grace. He has not yet learned to rely on the indwelling Holy Spirit to overcome the lusts of the flesh. (There is no mention of the Spirit here, but much is said of the Spirit in chapter 8.) But at the same time, the war that Paul describes here does go on, even for mature believers. The difference is that while sin is winning the war in chapter 7, Paul through the Holy Spirit is winning against sin in chapter 8. While we can never in this life obey God’s law perfectly, we can learn to obey God consistently. We do not have to yield repeatedly to sin, which is the frustrating cycle that Paul describes here. This third cycle teaches us:

To win the war within, we must understand the magnitude of the inner conflict so that in despair we cry out to God for deliverance.

In 7:24, Paul cries out in despair, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death?” His exclamation in 7:25 gives us a ray of hope, followed by a summary of the war within: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.” Chapter 8 goes on to unfold the deliverance that God gives us over sin through the indwelling Holy Spirit. I see three lessons in our text:

1. To win the war within, we must understand the nature and magnitude of the conflict between indwelling sin and the new man.

The Christian life is a constant battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Here the focus is on the flesh. “I find” implies that this was a discovery that came to Paul after some painful failures. He discovered this truth in the school of hard knocks. Even though Paul had experienced a dramatic conversion, it didn’t immediately result in a life of consistent victory over sin. And so he portrays here the two combatants in this battle. We can picture them as boxers:

A. In this corner: The reigning champion, the old man, waging war in my members to make me a prisoner.

Paul uses several terms here to describe the evil within. While they have different nuances, they basically describe the same thing: “the law that evil is present in me” (7:21); “a different law … waging war” (7:23); “the law of sin” (7:23, 25); “the body of this death” (7:24); and, “my flesh” (7:25). All of these terms refer to the old man and its method of operation. The old man is not eradicated at conversion, but continues to be corrupted according to the lusts of deceit (Eph. 4:22). As we saw last time, positionally the old man was crucified with Christ, in order that our body of sin might be done away with (Rom. 6:6). But practically, we have to reckon this to be true in our daily experience by putting it off (Rom. 6:11; Eph. 4:22-24). If we don’t learn to do this, the old man will make us prisoners to the law of sin (7:23). Note how the old man operates:

(1). The old man (the flesh, indwelling sin) operates according to a law.

The word translated “principle” (NASB, 7:21) is literally, “law.” Some commentators argue that it refers to God’s law (as it does in 7:22 & 25), so that in 7:21 the sense is, “I find then that in reference to [God’s] law, evil is present in me .…” While that is possible, the fact that Paul specifies “the law of God” in 7:22 indicates that he is distinguishing it from the law that he has just mentioned in 7:21.

So he is probably using “law” ironically in 7:21, both to compare and contrast the law of sin with God’s law. In this sense, it rules us and with authority tells us how to live (although wrongly!). It promises rewards if we obey it: “You’ll be happier and more fulfilled if you experience the pleasure of this sin.” It threatens us with penalties if we do not obey it: “You’ll miss out on all the fun if you don’t do what I say.” So indwelling sin is powerful. It operates as a law, commanding us, threatening us, and enticing us. (I am indebted to Kris Lundgaard, The Enemy Within [P & R Publishing], pp. 23-26 for some of these insights about the law of sin.)

(2). The old man operates by waging a cunning, relentless war.

Paul says (7:23), “But I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war ….” The war that the old man wages is a guerilla war. It doesn’t wear red coats and come marching towards you in formation, so that you can see it coming. It uses snipers and land mines and hidden roadside bombs and civilians posing as friends when really they’re enemies. In other words, sin is subtle and cunning. It lures you into traps where you get ambushed. And it’s relentless. If it loses one battle, it doesn’t pack up and go home, conceding defeat. It keeps coming at you until it brings you down.

(3). The old man operates through our bodies.

This law operates “in the members of my body” (7:23). Paul laments “the body of this death” (7:24), which refers to his physical body that is under the curse of death. He contrasts the law of sin with “the law of my mind” (7:23).

We need to be careful here or we could fall into an error that became prevalent in the early church. Gnosticism taught that the body is inherently evil, whereas the spirit is good. This led to two different extremes. Some said that since the body is evil, we must treat it harshly by depriving ourselves of food, comfort, and physical pleasure. This is asceticism, which Paul strongly condemns (Col. 2:16-23). The other extreme was that some said that since the body is evil anyway, you might as well indulge it. What the body does is unrelated to the spirit. So you could indulge in sexual immorality, but at the same time claim that your spirit was not in sin.

Since Paul elsewhere clearly denounces these errors, we would be mistaken to take his teaching here in that way. Rather, he is saying that the law of sin works through his physical body and manifests itself in evil deeds. But it takes his entire person captive (7:23, “making me a prisoner”). In this sense, by his members, Paul means his flesh (7:18), which is the old sin nature. Temptation always begins in our minds, but it appeals to and works its way out through our bodies. Thus one strategy against sin is to make it your aim always to glorify God with your body (1 Cor. 6:20).

(4). The old man operates through strong compulsion or feelings, not through reason alone.

Sin uses reason, however faulty, to appeal to us. Satan reasoned with Eve that God surely would not impose the death penalty for eating a little piece of fruit. He also used faulty reasoning to get her to doubt God’s goodness in imposing the command. The fall brought our minds as well as our bodies into captivity to sin.

But in addition to reason, temptation always appeals to our feelings. Leon Morris (The Epistle to the Romans [Apollos/Eerdmans, p. 294) refers to it as “the compulsion to do evil.” It’s not purely rational. In fact, sin is usually irrational. If we were to stop and think about the consequences both for us and for others, we’d resist the temptation. Don Kistler pointed out the irrationality of sin when he astutely observed (in “Why Read the Puritans Today?” referring to Jeremiah Burroughs’ thesis in The Evil of Evils), “Sin is worse than suffering; but people will do everything they can to avoid suffering, but almost nothing to avoid sin.”

So, in the first corner, we have the reigning champion that has dominated the human race ever since the fall: the old man.

B. In the other corner: The new challenger, the inner man, joyfully concurring with the law of God.

Paul wants to do good (7:21). He says (7:22), “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man.” He says that with his mind he is serving the law of God (7:25). This must refer to the mind of a regenerate man. So by the inner man and my mind, Paul is referring to the new man, which through the new birth “has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph. 4:24). Leon Morris (p. 295) calls this “the real Paul.” F. F. Bruce (Romans [IVP/Eerdmans], rev. ed., p. 146) identifies it as “the ‘new nature’ in Christ that is daily being renewed in the Creator’s image.” He adds (ibid.), “In light of 8:7-8 it is difficult to view the speaker here as other than a believer.”

One of the marks of the new birth is that God gives you new desires. You have a new love for Christ, who gave Himself on the cross for you. You love God’s Word and desire it like a newborn babe desires his mother’s milk (1 Pet. 2:2). You long to be holy, just as Jesus is holy. You hate your own sin. You love to be with God’s people and talk about the things of God. And yet, at the same time, you know that in your flesh there is still a strong desire to do evil. In new believers, the desires of the old nature (the reigning champion) often win out over the new desires of the new nature (the new challenger) until the new believer learns how to fight.

That’s the picture of Paul here. He has a new nature that joyfully concurs with God’s law in the inner man, but he’s still dominated by the old nature. Unbelievers do not have two natures warring against each other and they do not joyfully love God’s law in their hearts. But mature believers have learned to put on the new man and put off the old, so that they experience consistent victory over sin. But before we begin to see consistent victory, we often experience frustrating defeats because of the power of the reigning champion, the old man. Let’s examine what deliverance from the old nature looks like:

2. Deliverance in this conflict consists of consistent victory over sin in this life and perfect, permanent victory in the resurrection.

In addition to Paul’s dramatic use of the present tense, one strong argument that he is describing mature believers here is that even mature believers identify with the struggle pictured here. Even after we’ve learned to overcome temptation on a consistent basis and after we’ve walked in obedience to the Lord for years, we still find ourselves sinning. We lash out in anger at our loved ones. We act selfishly with no regard for others. We see a seductive woman and lust floods into our thoughts.

But I do not see Paul describing here a lack of perfection, but rather a lack of obedience. He is not doing what he knows to be right. He is practicing what he knows to be wrong. He is failing completely. I agree with Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: The Law: Its Functions and Limits [Zondervan], p. 222), who argues that Paul’s cry of anguish (in 7:24) is not caused by the fact that he is in conflict against his old nature, but rather by his persistent defeat in yielding to that old nature (7:23). So let me make three observations to try to picture what deliverance looks like:

A. Deliverance does not refer to a state of sinless perfection in this life, but to consistent victory over sin.

In this life, I will never love God as completely as I should, with my entire heart, soul, mind, and strength. I will never love others as much as I love myself (Mark 12:30-31). I will always fall short of these commands. But a lack of perfection is not the same as persistent disobedience. As a new creature in Christ, by God’s Spirit, I can choose to love God by spending time with Him each day in His Word and in prayer, by gathering with His people to worship Him each week, and by honoring Him with the money He entrusts to me. I can love my wife, my children, and others in a self-sacrificing manner. The deliverance that Paul is crying out for (in 7:24) may include the perfection that will come when we get our resurrection bodies. But he wants to be freed from his present enslavement to sin (7:23). He wants to obey God consistently, even if such obedience can never be perfect in this life.

B. Deliverance from sin always creates tension with the growing awareness of your many sins and shortcomings.

There is an irony in the Christian life: As you walk more consistently in obedience to God and grow closer to the light of His holy presence, you see all the more how dirty you really are. When Isaiah saw God in His holiness, he immediately saw how sinful he was (Isa. 6:5). Paul’s cry here may have stemmed partly from this awareness of his sinful imperfection. In that sense, it’s a cry that we will continually echo as we grow in Christ.

But it seems to me that Lloyd-Jones is right when he connects Paul’s cry in this context mainly with his disobedience and defeat, not just with his imperfection (7:24 follows 7:23). Yet at the same time, growing to know Christ and obey Him more always leads to a greater awareness of how sinful you still are. Deliverance from sin’s power does not eliminate this tension of how far short you fall.

C. Deliverance from sin means consistent victory over it, but it does not eliminate the lifelong struggle against it.

After Paul’s jubilant exclamation (7:25), you’d expect him to move on to talk about victory over sin. But instead, he summarizes the war he has just described, in which with his mind he serves the law of God, but with his flesh, the law of sin. It leaves you with the feeling that sin is still consistently winning. Victory doesn’t come until chapter 8. Bishop Lightfoot (Notes on Epistles of St. Paul [Baker], p. 305) says that while Paul’s thanksgiving is out of place, he can’t endure to leave the difficulty unsolved, so he gives the solution parenthetically, even though it interrupts his argument.

But while the struggle against sin is a lifelong battle, when we do learn that we can’t win it in our own strength and when we learn to walk in the Spirit, we can experience consistent victory, which is the flavor of chapter 8. But even when we walk in the Spirit, the daily struggle against sin goes on. The war within of chapter 7 is never eradicated in this life, but the difference is, chapter 7 pictures persistent defeat, whereas chapter 8 pictures consistent triumph and victory, even in the face of severe trials. By God’s grace, we can put the defeat of chapter 7 in the past and experience the consistent victory of chapter 8.

3. To experience consistent victory over sin, we must despair over our sin and cry out to God for deliverance.

As I cited my friend Bob Deffinbaugh last week, the problem with many Christians is not their despair, like that of Paul, but their lack of it. They don’t feel the anguish of their persistent disobedience. They avoid the struggle, often by minimizing their sin as a “personality quirk” or as “just being human.” They excuse it as normal: “Everyone has his faults.”

But you will not gain consistent victory over sin until you first see God’s holy standard and realize how often you’re disobeying that standard. You must also realize, often through repeated failures, that you cannot obey God in your own strength. Then, in despair, you cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” As you search God’s Word for answers, you learn that “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death” (8:2). You learn to walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (8:4). You begin to experience consistent victory over sin in your daily walk, beginning on the thought level.

Conclusion

Dwight Eisenhower once said, “War is a terrible thing. But if you’re going to get into it, you’ve got to get into it all the way.” Underestimating the power of the enemy is a sure way to lose. The war within will be with us as long as we live in these fallen bodies. It is winnable, not perfectly or permanently, but consistently. But we can’t be half-hearted. If we fully engage the battle using God’s resources, we can consistently win!

Application Questions

  1. Some argue that the way to victory over sin is to see yourself as a saint who occasionally sins, not as a sinner. Why is this at odds with the biblical strategy for victory?
  2. Why is underestimating the power of indwelling sin a sure path to spiritual defeat?
  3. James Boice points out that Christians often avoid the battle against sin by a formula, a new experience that supposedly will give instant victory, or avoidance. To which of these are you most prone?
  4. Why is it important to distinguish between perfection and consistent obedience? What problems result if we don’t?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 42: Set Free (Romans 8:1-4)

We come to a chapter that has often been called either the greatest or one of the greatest chapters in the Bible (James Boice, Romans [Baker], 2:781; Martyn Lloyd Jones, Romans: The Law: Its Functions and Limits [Zondervan], p. 258). The Swiss commentator Godet pointed out that it begins with “no condemnation” and ends with “no separation.” Another commentator (C. A. Fox) added that in between there is “no defeat” (cited by Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 299).

Personally, I’ve come to Romans 8 again and again when I’ve been discouraged or depressed. I don’t see how you can read Romans 8 and remain down. If you struggle with guilt, read Romans 8. If you struggle with sin, read Romans 8. If you’re going through trials, read Romans 8. If you don’t know how to pray, read Romans 8. If you’re struggling with assurance of your salvation, read Romans 8. Interestingly, while the flavor of Romans 8 is exhortation, there is not a single command in the chapter. The German Pietist Philipp Spener said that if the Bible were a ring and Romans its precious stone, chapter 8 would be “the sparkling point of the jewel” (F. Godet, Commentary on Romans [Kregel], p. 295).

There is a noticeable shift from Romans 7 to Romans 8. In chapter 7, “I” is frequent, the law is prominent, and sin is dominant. In chapter 8, the Holy Spirit is frequent (18x, more than any other NT chapter), God’s grace and persevering love are prominent, and victory over sin is dominant. There are several ways to outline the chapter; here is one:

1. Justification and sanctification: God’s salvation through Christ and His indwelling Spirit give us life to overcome judgment and sin (8:1-13).

2. Adoption: God’s Spirit assures us of our adoption as His children and heirs (8:14-17).

3. Glorification: Although we (and all creation) now suffer, God will bring us to final glory (8:18-30).

A. Our present sufferings do not compare to our future glory (8:18-25).

B. In our weakness, the Spirit intercedes for us (8:26-27).

C. God will work all things together for our good, because His sovereign purpose for His elect will bring us to glory (8:28-30).

4. Assurance: No attack or hardship can separate God’s elect from His great love (8:31-39).

With that as an overview of the chapter, let’s zero in on 8:1-4, where Paul deals with two very practical issues: guilt and sin. As we saw in chapter 7, believers fight an inner war. With the new man in Christ, they joyfully concur with the holy commandments of God’s law. But, with the old man (the flesh, or indwelling sin), they are prone to be held captive by the law of sin. As I explained, I understand Romans 7:14-25 to refer primarily to immature believers who have not learned of their new identity in Christ. They do not yet reckon themselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ. They have not yet learned to rely on the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit to put to death the deeds of the flesh. They’re living like unbelievers. So sin and guilt are a major problem for them.

Even though mature believers experience consistent victory over sin, they still struggle daily against the flesh and occasionally lose the battle. So they must understand how to deal with guilt and how to overcome temptation. When we do sin as Christians, the enemy comes in to stir up doubts about our salvation: “How do you know that your sins are all forgiven? True Christians don’t do what you just did! You’re hopeless! You might as well admit your hypocrisy in claiming to be a Christian and quit trying to be holy.” It is to those practical issues that Paul directs these opening verses:

God has graciously set free from sin’s penalty and power all who are in Christ Jesus.

Although these are wonderful verses, they’re not easy to interpret. So godly commentators and pastors disagree over many details in the text. Some see verses 1 & 3 as pertaining to justification, with verses 2 & 4 applying to sanctification. But as I’ve wrestled with the flow of thought, I think that Paul is dealing with justification through most of this paragraph, but brings in sanctification at the end to answer his critics who accused him of promoting licentiousness. Note that verses 2 & 3 both begin with “for.” In verse 2, Paul explains what he said in verse 1, which clearly deals with justification. Thus I understand verse 2 primarily to explain justification. Verse 3 explains further verse 2. The first half of verse 4 gives the result of justification (in 8:1-3). Then the last half of verse 4 describes those who have been justified: They do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. Verses 5-11 explain the differences between those in the flesh and those in the Spirit, which is applied to believers in verses 12-13.

1. Justification: God has graciously set free from sin’s penalty all who are in Christ Jesus (8:1-4a).

There are three stages in Paul’s thought:

A. Those who are in Christ Jesus can be assured that they will not be condemned at the judgment (8:1).

Romans 8:1: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” If you have not memorized that simple verse, do it! You will need it over and over again, every time you sin. By the way, the King James Version wrongly includes the phrase from verse 4, “who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” That rightly belongs at the end of verse 4, but it was probably inserted after verse 1 by a copyist who was worried that the bold statement of verse 1 as it stands would lead readers into licentiousness. But it lacks sufficient manuscript support. Verse 1 ends with the wonderful phrase that Paul uses so often, “in Christ Jesus.”

There are four words or phrases that we must understand to grasp the truth of verse 1: “Therefore”; “no condemnation”; “now”; and, “in Christ Jesus.”

Therefore”: It is not immediately obvious what Paul refers to with “therefore.” Some think that it refers to his exclamation in 7:25, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” But the intervening summary at the end of that verse makes the connection unclear. Probably, Paul is going back to the entire argument of justification by faith that has dominated the letter from 3:21 onward. But there are two more definite connections. The word “condemnation” (in Greek) only occurs elsewhere in the New Testament in Romans 5:16 & 18, where Paul argued that just as condemnation came to the entire human race through Adam’s sin, so God’s free gift of justification came to us through Jesus Christ. Just as we were under condemnation in Adam, so now we are in Christ, justified by His grace.

Also, in Romans 7:6, Paul said, “But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.” He seems to be picking up that truth and elaborating on it here. So “therefore” goes back to sum up the great truth of the gospel of justification by faith alone through God’s grace alone in Christ alone that Paul has laid out earlier in this letter.

No condemnation”: “No” is emphatic and means, “not any,” or “not one.” “Condemnation” is a legal or forensic term that “includes both the sentence and the execution of the sentence” (Morris, p. 300). In Adam, we all stand before God as guilty and condemned to eternal punishment (5:16, 18). We’re on death row, awaiting the execution of the guilty verdict that has been passed. If we died in that condition, we would pass into eternal separation from God, the second death. But since Christ bore the punishment that we deserved, in Him we are set free so that we stand before God justified and acquitted, with all charges dismissed.

This raises the practical question, “As a believer should I feel guilty when I sin?” If there is no condemnation, should we refuse to feel guilty when we disobey God? I would argue that properly understood, believers should feel guilty when they sin. The guilt stems from the fact that I have violated God’s holy Word. I have disobeyed my loving heavenly Father. Rather than loving my Savior, who went to the cross on my behalf, I have loved the sin that put Him there. Feelings of guilt that lead to genuine sorrow and repentance when I disobey God are appropriate.

On the other hand, I should not feel the guilt of condemnation that stems from the accuser’s false charge: “True Christians don’t do what you did. You’re not even a Christian!” If I mourn over my sin and am repentant before God over it, then I must accept His forgiveness and answer the accuser with the blood of the Lamb and the word of my testimony that I trust in Jesus (Rev. 12:10-11; Zech. 3:1-5). To put it another way, the guilt that I feel when I sin is relational, as a child to my Father. It is not forensic, as a criminal before the judge.

The third word is “now”: This refers to the great change that came about in salvation history when God sent His own Son to bear our sins on the cross. Now that Christ has come, we no longer need to bring the blood of sacrificial animals over and over again to atone for our sins. Once for all, Jesus offered Himself as the perfect and final sacrifice (Heb. 10:1-18). But personally, it also applies to the time since you put your trust in Christ as your sin-bearer. Since He bore the full wrath of God, which you deserved, and your trust is in Him, not in any good works of your own, now you stand before God with no condemnation. Even when you sin, you stand before God as His child, not as a guilty criminal. Now should bring you great relief every day, especially when you sin.

Finally, this great blessing of no condemnation is not for everyone. Rather, it is for those who are “in Christ Jesus.” As we saw (in 5:12-21; 6:1-11), there are only two categories of people: Those who are in Adam; and, those who are in Christ. Those who are in Adam are under God’s just condemnation and face His awful wrath for all their sins. Those who are in Christ have been clothed with His righteousness. His death paid the penalty for all of their sins, so that God can be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (3:26). So, as one writer put it, “The unbeliever has his judgment day before him, but the believer in Christ has his judgment day behind him” (Marcus Rainsford, cited by W. H. Griffith Thomas, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 205).

And so it’s no trivial question to ask, “Are you in Christ Jesus?” Have you fled to Christ as your only refuge from God’s judgment? When God destroyed the world through the flood, the only thing that mattered was, were you on the ark? You may have thought that you were a decent person, but if you weren’t on the ark, you perished. You may not have believed that God was going to judge the whole earth, but your not believing it didn’t change the fact. God brought that terrible judgment and the only ones who were saved were those who heeded His warning and got on board the ark. Have you “gotten on board” with Jesus Christ? If you’re in Him, you’re safe from the judgment to come. If you’re trusting in your own ability to swim, you’re under condemnation!

B. Liberation from the law of sin and of death comes through the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (8:2).

Romans 8:2: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” “For” explains how it is that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ. Before Christ, you were under the law of sin and of death. This refers to the strong principle or authority of sin that dominated your life as an unbeliever. Unchecked, that life under sin’s domination was leading you toward death. As I explained in the messages on 7:14-25, I believe it also explains the experience of an immature believer, who has not yet learned to live under the new law of the Spirit of life in Christ (7:23, 25). So in that sense, Romans 8:2 has a secondary application to sanctification, or the process of growing in holiness. Believers are now freed from sin’s domination by the new principle or power of the Spirit of life.

But I think that verse 2 refers primarily to the new life that the Holy Spirit gives to us in regeneration. Jesus told the religious Nicodemus (John 3:6-7), “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” He also said (John 6:63), “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.”

Religion, no matter how conscientiously we follow it, cannot deliver anyone from the power of sin and death. All the good deeds in the world will not set you free from the law of sin and death. To be set free, you need new life imparted by God’s Spirit. Along with this new life comes complete justification from all your sins (8:1). But also, this new life means that you are now dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (6:11). The new law of life in the Spirit frees you from the old law in which sin held you down, just as the law of aerodynamics frees a heavy plane from the law of gravity.

So I understand verse 2 as primarily referring to the new life that the Spirit gives in regeneration. That new life comes to us “in Christ Jesus” and frees us from “the law of sin and of death.” But of course this new life in the Spirit works after regeneration by giving us the power to overcome sin in daily life. Sin still tries to hold us down, but the life that comes from the indwelling Spirit gives us the power to soar above sin and the resulting death.

C. God did what the law could not do: through the substitutionary death of His own Son, He paid the penalty that the law demanded (8:3-4a).

Romans 8:3-4a: “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, …” As Paul has stated, the law brought God’s wrath and resulted in increased sin (4:15; 5:20). The problem wasn’t with the law, which is holy, righteous, and good (7:12). The problem was with our flesh (7:13, 25). The law did not provide the power to keep it, and so was weak through the flesh. Apart from God’s intervention, the law only served to condemn us.

But, thankfully, God intervened! He sent His own Son. Salvation is completely from the Lord. God’s sending His Son implies the pre-existence of the Son. Did you notice the Trinity in our text? God the Father sent Jesus Christ His Son to offer Himself for our sins, so that the Holy Spirit could provide us with new life. God is one God who exists eternally in three distinct persons, each of whom is fully God. The word own is emphatic and shows us God’s great love for us: He sent none other than His own Son (5:8).

When Jesus came, He took on “the likeness of sinful flesh.” There is a fine balance here. Jesus did not come in sinful flesh, in that He was without sin. If He had been born in sin, He would have had to die for His own sin. He did not come in the likeness of flesh, which would mean that He was not truly human. This was the early church heresy known as Docetism. They claimed that Jesus only appeared to be a man. But Jesus came in the likeness of sinful flesh. His body was a real human body, so that He could die for human sins. But He was also sinless, so that He could be the Lamb without blemish, dying as a substitute for sinners.

Also, He died “as an offering for sin.” The literal Greek phrase is, for sin, which may mean, “to deal with the sin problem.” But it is also a technical phrase in the LXX, where in 44 out of 54 occurrences it refers to a sacrifice for sin (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 480, note 48). The result of Christ’s sacrificial death was that “He condemned sin in the flesh.” The phrase might better be rendered, “in the flesh, He condemned sin” (Morris, p. 303). This means that by His sacrificial death, offering His body on the cross, Jesus paid the penalty for our sin. His death was substitutionary—in our place. He died the death that we deserve so that we could be set free from the law of sin and death.

But there is debate over what the next phrase means (8:4a): “so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, …” Many scholars whom I respect (e.g., Thomas Schreiner, F. F. Bruce, John Piper, Martyn Lloyd-Jones) understand this to refer to the obedience of Christians who walk by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit enables them to obey God’s law. Thus it refers to sanctification.

Others (John Calvin, Charles Hodge, Douglas Moo) point out that even with the Spirit’s power, no believer fulfills the righteous requirement of the law. If you keep the entire law, but stumble in one point, you are guilty of it all (James 2:10). Only Christ completely fulfilled the law by His perfect obedience and sacrificial death. Thus I think that the first part of verse 4 refers to Christ’s perfect righteousness applied to our account through faith. This is the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone.

But critics have always alleged that that doctrine will lead to licentiousness (Rom. 3:8). If God counts us as totally righteous apart from our good works, then we can sin all we want, so that grace might abound. Paul’s strong response to that charge is (6:1), “May it never be!” Here he counters it by adding the last phrase of verse 4 and then expanding on it in 8:5-13:

2. Sanctification: God has graciously set free from sin’s power all who are in Christ Jesus, who walk in the Spirit (8:4b).

Romans 8:4b: “who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Justification (8:1-4a) is the necessary foundation and motivating cause of sanctification (8:4b). Justification frees us from sin’s penalty; sanctification frees us from sin’s power. Because God has forgiven all our sins through Christ’s death and because He has imparted new life to us through the Holy Spirit, we now do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Walk implies steady, gradual progress along a path toward a goal. In this life, we will never walk in perfect obedience. Only Jesus did that and His perfect righteousness is credited to our account so that we stand before God with no condemnation. But as we learn to walk daily in the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we will make progress in obedience to God’s Word. We will grow in holiness. Our lives will increasingly be distinguished by the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Salvation by grace through faith alone always results in a life of walking in good works (Eph. 2:8-10).

Conclusion

I leave you with two questions: (1) Are you in Christ Jesus through faith in His blood, shed for the remission of your sins? If so, you can enjoy the assurance that there is now no condemnation for you, because you are in Christ Jesus.

(2) Are you walking according to the Spirit, not according to the flesh? Each day, do you yield to the Holy Spirit and rely on His power, so that His fruit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal. 5:22-23)—are growing in you? Christ died and the Spirit gave you new life to set you free from the law of sin and of death.

Application Questions

  1. Do you agree that believers who sin should feel guilty? If not, why not? If so, explain what you mean.
  2. Why is justification the necessary foundation for sanctification? Why is it important to affirm that justification is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, not the impartation of righteousness?
  3. Some argue that the requirement of the law being fulfilled in us refers to our sincere obedience in fulfillment of Jer. 31:33. Agree/disagree? Why?
  4. What does it mean practically to “walk in the Spirit”? Describe what it looks like in specific terms.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 43: Two Groups, Two Destinies (Romans 8:5-6)

In Faith Works ([Word Publishing], p. 127) John MacArthur tells about reading a book which told about a pastor who had been sent to prison for robbing 14 banks to finance his encounters with prostitutes! The author of this book was fully convinced that this pastor was a true Christian and so he wrote the book to explore how such a thing could be possible. MacArthur writes, “Call me old-fashioned, but I think it is fair to raise the question of whether someone who regularly robs banks to pay for illicit sex is truly saved!” Yes!

In recent years several polls have shown disturbing beliefs and behaviors among those who profess to be evangelical Christians. For example, a Pew Forum poll indicated that 57 percent of evangelical church attenders believe many religions can lead to eternal life (in Arizona Daily Sun [06/24/2008]). Other surveys show that only 9 percent of teens and 32 percent of adults who claim to be born again believe in moral absolutes (Barna Update, 2/12/2002). That means that over 90 percent of “born again” teens and two-thirds of “born again” adults do not believe in moral absolutes!

These shocking numbers may be explained in part by a lack of solid biblical preaching in evangelical churches. But beneath this lack of solid preaching is a basic misunderstanding about the nature of the gospel. We have wrongly assumed that when someone makes a decision to accept Christ as Savior or prays a prayer to invite Jesus into his heart, he is saved. We wrongly think that someone can accept Jesus as his Savior, but not yield to Him as Lord. Or we mistakenly assume that all who profess Jesus as Lord, especially those who serve Him, will go to heaven. But Jesus made it clear that only those who obey Him can expect to be welcomed into heaven (Matt. 7:21-27).

The Bible is clear that salvation is a matter of God’s imparting new life to a person who was dead in his sins. And such new life always manifests itself in changed belief and behavior. This is not to say that those who are truly born again cannot fall into gross sins. But it is to say that they cannot live complacently in sin. While growth in godliness is a lifelong process, there is such growth in the lives of all who have been born of the Spirit.

In Romans 8:1-4, Paul gives assurance that if we are in Christ, we will not be condemned at the judgment. Jesus paid the penalty we deserved on the cross. If we have trusted in His shed blood, the Holy Spirit who gives life has set us free from the law of sin and of death. Paul concludes that section (8:4b) by describing those who have been justified by faith: they “do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

Now he explains (“for”) why some walk according to the flesh and others walk according to the Spirit: It is due to their nature. Their spiritual nature of being either “according to the flesh” or “according to the Spirit” determines their spiritual behavior of walking according to the flesh or the Spirit. In 8:5-8, he mainly describes those who are “according to the flesh.” In 8:9-11 he focuses on those who are “in the Spirit.” Griffith Thomas (St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 208) summarizes the flow of thought: “Hence, as in verses 1-4, the Apostle has shown that until and unless a man is justified he cannot possibly be holy, so now, in verses 5-11, he will show that if a man is not holy he cannot possibly have been justified.” In other words, justification is always the necessary foundation for sanctification. And sanctification is always the evidence of justification.

So Paul paints a picture of these two distinct groups: those according to the flesh; and, those according to the Spirit. We can apply his point by saying,

Since there are only two groups of people with two very different destinies, make sure that you are“according to the Spirit,” not the flesh.

1. There are two and only two groups of people in the world: Those who are according to the flesh and those who are according to the Spirit.

Romans 8:5: “For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.”

It’s important to understand that Paul is not writing here about two types of Christians, but rather about how non-Christians differ from true Christians. While it’s true that immature believers may yet live in accordance with the flesh (as I believe 7:14-25 describes), and even mature believers at times yield to the flesh (Rom. 8:12; Gal. 5:17), that is not what Paul is describing here. Here, “those who are according to the flesh” describes the spiritual condition of unbelievers. They are characterized by death (8:6). “Those who are according to the Spirit” describes believers, who are characterized by life and peace (8:6). The nature of each group determines their present behavior and their final destiny.

There is a popular but mistaken view that there are two optional tracks for the Christian life. If you’re prone toward masochism, you can sign up for the discipleship track. Under this plan, you give up everything to follow Christ. You have to deny yourself and take up your cross daily. You will suffer hardship, sacrifice, and perhaps even martyrdom. You have to give the control of all of your material assets to Christ. You may be required to take the gospel to a foreign culture, where you’ll live in difficult and perhaps dangerous circumstances. But, your rewards in heaven will be great. This discipleship track is for the super-committed.

The other track, the “cultural Christian track,” is for the rest of us more “ordinary” believers. Under this plan, you can accept Jesus as your Savior (to make sure that you’ll go to heaven), but also pursue your dreams for success and personal fulfillment in this life. You get the best of both worlds without needing to be gung ho, like those on the discipleship track. You can enjoy the fellowship of a good evangelical church and pursue the American dream at the same time. Just drop something in the offering plate once in a while to pay your dues. Once in a while you can volunteer to help out at the church, when it fits in with your busy schedule. Don’t be too hard on yourself about obedience to the Bible. After all, we’re all human. God is gracious and He understands your weaknesses. So accept yourself and don’t think that you have to be all-out for Jesus. That’s just for the fanatics on the discipleship track.

But Jesus made it clear that there is only one track for the Christian life (Mark 8:34-38):

And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? For what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”

It’s pretty clear that Jesus is talking about eternal life or eternal condemnation. If you want eternal life, you must die to self and follow Jesus. In Paul’s language, that describes a person who is “according to the Spirit.” The other track describes those who are “according to the flesh.” These are the only two groups in the world when it comes to eternal life or eternal death.

2. These two groups are sharply distinguished by different mindsets.

Paul describes the mindset of those who are according to the flesh as “the things of the flesh” (8:5). This mindset is death (8:6); it is hostile toward God, not subject to God’s law (8:7), and not pleasing to God (8:8). On the other hand, the mindset of those who are according to the Spirit is “the things of the Spirit” (8:5). This mindset is life and peace (8:6). By implication, since it is the opposite of the mindset of the flesh, the mindset of those who are according to the Spirit is friendly toward God, subject to His law, and pleasing to Him.

To be “according to” the flesh means to live under the flesh, to make it your rule, or to obey it. To live “according to” the Spirit means to be “ruled and determined by His awakening, regenerating, illuminating presence; characterized by the fact that He dwells in [us]” (H. C. G. Moule, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans [Cambridge, 1903], p. 141). Let’s look at the two mindsets:

A. Those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh (8:5a).

“Flesh” in the Bible can be used in different ways, depending on the context. It may refer to our human bodies with no moral connotations at all (2 Cor. 10:3; Gal. 2:20; 4:13). It may refer to the weakness of human life as temporal (1 Pet. 2:24). Or it may refer to the sinfulness of human nature after the fall, as expressed in the deeds of the flesh (Gal. 5:16-21). These deeds include sins that we might categorize as sensual (immorality, impurity, drunkenness); but they also include worshiping false gods, strife, jealousy, and anger. So to live according to the flesh is to live independently of God, in dependence on oneself, with self at the center. The fleshly person may be outwardly moral, but his motives and goals are for his own glory or gain or comfort, without regard for the glory of God or the good of others.

Paul makes it clear that being “according to the flesh” has to do with our mindset, or how we think. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: The Sons of God [Zondervan], p. 5) explains, “The term includes not only thought and understanding, it includes the affections, the emotions, the desires and the objects of pursuit.” That non-Christians set their minds on the things of the flesh not only means that they think about them occasionally, he says, “but that these are the things which they think of most of all; these are the things of which they think habitually, the trend or the bent of their thinking is toward them.”

To set one’s mind on the things of the flesh is much the same as when John says (1 John 2:15-16), “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.” Loving the world or setting one’s mind on the things of the flesh means to live for the temporal things that the world values, in disregard of God and eternity.

B. Those who are according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit (8:5b).

The things of the Spirit are the truths revealed to us in God’s Word concerning who He is, who we are, the great salvation that He has provided in Christ, and how we should live in light of that salvation (1 Cor. 2:6-13). To set your mind on the things of the Spirit does not mean that you go around with your head in the clouds, detached from everyday matters. It does not mean that you must join a monastery and spend hours every day in meditation and prayer. It does not mean that you do not get your hands dirty with mundane things like work, paying bills, cleaning the house, fixing meals, mowing your lawn, or reading the newspaper.

Rather, to set your mind on the things of the Spirit means to relate all of life to God and His Word. God has seen fit in His Word to tell us how to have our sins forgiven and to have eternal life through faith in Christ. That is the most important thing, because you could die at any moment and stand before God. That is why Paul says (Col. 3:1-4),

Therefore, if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.

So to set your mind on the things of the Spirit means especially to think often about matters of salvation. It means to worship God and commune with Him.

But the Bible also tells us a lot about many practical, down-to-earth matters. In the context of Colossians 3, Paul goes on to talk about sex, greed, anger, abusive speech, and truthfulness. He gives practical commands regarding relationships, marriage, child-rearing, and work. In other places, the Bible says a lot about how to manage money, how to deal with trials, how to relate to civil authorities, and many other practical matters. So to repeat, to set your mind on the things of the Spirit means to relate all of life to God and His Word. It means to develop a biblical worldview, where you think about and process all of life through the lens of the Bible.

At the heart of this process is how you think. In an article on the Greek noun, phronema, which occurs only in Romans 8 (translated “the mind set”), J. Goetzmann points out that there can be no such thing as neutral thinking. We’re always aiming at something. He adds (The New International Dictionary of New Testament Words [Zondervan], ed. by Colin Brown, 2:617):

This passage makes it abundantly clear that the way one thinks is intimately related to the way one lives, whether in Christ, in the Spirit and by faith, or alternatively in the flesh, in sin and in spiritual death. A man’s thinking and striving cannot be seen in isolation from the overall direction of his life; the latter will be reflected in the aims which he sets himself.

In Colossians 3, Paul commands us to set our minds on the things above, but in Romans 8 he describes believers as those who set their minds on the things of the Spirit. While it’s a lifelong process that involves growth, we need to ask ourselves honestly, “Does this describe me? Do I set my mind on the things of the Spirit or on the things of the flesh? Which direction am I heading?”

I’ll give you a clue: If you spend more of your spare time watching television or playing video games or on your computer than you spend reading the Bible, reading Christian books, fellowshipping with other believers, or serving the Lord in some capacity, you’re probably not heading in the right direction. I’m not saying that every spare minute should be spent on spiritual activities. We all need some down time. We all have chores to do. But if you’re not making a concerted, consistent effort to develop a biblical mindset, something is seriously wrong.

Thus there are two and only two groups of people in the world: Unbelievers who live under the domination of the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh. Believers who live under the domination of the Holy Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. From there, things get even more serious:

3. These two distinct groups are marked by mindsets that lead to two completely different destinies: death or life and peace.

Romans 8:6: “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.”

Paul is describing the current spiritual state of each group, which explains (“for”) why the first group sets their minds on the things of the flesh and the second group sets their minds on the things of the Spirit. The first group is dominated by the flesh because they are spiritually dead. The second group is dominated by the Holy Spirit because He has given them life and peace with God.

But the scary part is this: If those who are dead in their sins continue in that state until they die physically, they will continue throughout eternity in the awful condition of separation from God, under the penalty of His just wrath. The Bible calls this the second death and it is spent in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14). The next verse (Rev. 20:15) adds, “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

This state of eternal spiritual death does not mean that those in hell are annihilated or cease to exist. That would be a blessing for them! But the Bible is clear that eternal spiritual death means enduring conscious torment forever (Mark 9:43-48; Luke 16:16-31; Rev. 14:10-11). These frightening truths come to us from the Lord Jesus Himself and from John, the apostle of love. If we reject this truth, we are not following Jesus.

The good news is, if you have been given new life through the Holy Spirit, although your physical body will die (Rom. 8:10), God will resurrect your body (8:11) and you will enjoy life and peace with Him and with all the saints throughout eternity. The moment your physical body dies, your spirit goes immediately into the presence of the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6-8; Acts 7:59; Luke 23:43).

Death is never a pretty picture. The mortician can make up a corpse to look its best, but we all know, that person is dead. And death is the spiritual picture of all who are outside of Jesus Christ. In Ephesians 2:1, Paul writes, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins.” He repeats (Eph. 2:5), “Even when we were dead in our transgressions, [God] made us alive together with Christ ….” The unbeliever may be a good person. He may give generously to charity and devote himself to good deeds. But if he has not been born again by the life-giving Spirit, he is spiritually dead.

But the one who has been born again has life and peace. The life is called eternal life because it is indestructible. It cannot be taken away by any evil force (Rom. 8:33-39). It joins us in living union with Jesus Christ, who once and for all conquered death and who lives and reigns forever. Peace means that we now have peace with God because our sins have been completely forgiven: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Even in the midst of life’s trials, we enjoy peace in Christ (John 16:33).

Conclusion

The application of our text is obvious: Make sure that you have new life through God’s Spirit and that you are not living according to the flesh! Don’t deceive yourself by thinking, “I’m one of those worldly or carnal Christians, but I’m going to heaven because I prayed a prayer to ask Jesus into my heart.” The issue is, do you have life and peace with God through the Spirit? Do you set your mind on the things of the Spirit? If not, repent and cry out to God to give you new life! If you’re sure that you’ve been born again, but you’re drifting into the things of the flesh or world, the solution is the same: Repent and don’t rest until your mind and focus are on the things of the Spirit.

Sit down and evaluate your schedule. Do you remember the “big rocks” illustration? A professor came in with a large jar filled to the brim with big rocks. He asked the class, “Is the jar full?” “Yes,” they responded. He poured in some pea gravel and shook it down through the cracks. “Is it full now?” They weren’t so sure. He poured in some sand. Then he added water. The point of the illustration is, if you don’t put the big rocks in first you won’t be able to fit them in at all. Schedule your priorities or they will get crowded out by the urgent but trivial. Your biggest rock is your relationship with God. Set your mind on the things of the Spirit!

Application Questions

  1. Do you agree that there are not two options for followers of Jesus? What bad consequences follow the “carnal” Christian teaching?
  2. How can a person know for sure that he has eternal life? What are the marks of the new birth? Give biblical support.
  3. Is setting our minds on the things above automatic or does it require discipline? How (practically) can we do this?
  4. A professing Christian tells you, “I’ve tried to get into the Bible, but it bores me.” How would you counsel him?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 44: Understanding the Unbelieving Mind (Romans 8:6-8)

Once in a while people ask why I do not give altar calls, where I invite people to come forward to indicate that they want to receive Christ as Savior and Lord. Due to the influence of Billy Graham and other popular evangelists, many think that if you don’t give an altar call, you have not properly preached the gospel.

The short answer to why I do not give altar calls is that there is no biblical example or command to do so. I assume that Jesus and the apostles, as recorded in the Gospels and Acts, preached the gospel. While they often called on people to repent and believe in Christ (as I also do), there is no indication that they ever invited them to raise their hands or get out of their seats and come forward. That method of evangelism came into vogue in the early 19th century and was later popularized by Charles Finney, who held to some seriously heretical views of human nature. Iain Murray, who chronicles this in Revival and Revivalism [Banner of Truth], says regarding altar calls (p. 186), “Nobody, at first, claimed to regard it as a means of conversion. But very soon, and inevitably, answering the call to the altar came to be confused with being converted.”

Murray shows the damaging effects of “revivalism,” the evangelistic method that emphasizes some external action that the sinner can do to be saved. Gospel preaching that brings sinners to despair over their inability to do anything, driving them to trust in Christ alone, may bring true revival. At the root of the problem (and the longer answer for why I don’t do altar calls) is the biblical understanding of the spiritual condition of unbelievers and the nature of true conversion, which is Paul’s subject in our text.

Charles Spurgeon, who was used of God to bring thousands to genuine conversion through his preaching, understood this even early in his ministry. In a sermon in 1860, when he was only 24, Spurgeon said that the doctrine which leaves salvation up to something that man does exalts the flesh and dishonors God. He labels that view as Arminian. He explained (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 6:259, also cited by Iain Murray, The Forgotten Spurgeon [Banner of Truth], pp. 87-88, italics Spurgeon’s):

What the Arminian wants to do is to arouse man’s activity; what we want to do is to kill it once for all, to show him that he is lost and ruined, and that his activities are not now at all equal to the work of conversion; that he must look upward. They seek to make the man stand up; we seek to bring him down, and make him feel that there he lies in the hand of God, and that his business is to submit himself to God, and cry aloud, “Lord, save or we perish.” We hold that man is never so near grace as when he begins to feel that he can do nothing at all. When he says, “I can pray, I can believe, I can do this, and I can do the other,” marks of self-sufficiency and arrogance are on his brow.

He goes on to emphasize that you cannot be saved unless God saves you. And so he urges sinners, not to come forward, not to look to their own prayers or faith, but to cry out to God to draw them to Christ by His grace. Only God can take away a sinner’s heart of stone and give a heart of flesh that loves Him. And if anyone complains that he cannot repent or believe, Spurgeon says, these, too, are gifts from God. Cry out to Him to have mercy and save you. Salvation is totally from the Lord, not from us, or we would boast, even about our own repentance and faith!

The frequent result of an emphasis on doing something, such as coming forward, to receive Christ is that it promotes false conversions and gives false assurance to those who did it that they are saved because they went forward or prayed a prayer (Murray, Revival, p. 243). But such a decision alone is no evidence of the new birth. As Paul makes clear in Romans 8, the genuine result of being saved is that we walk according to the Spirit, not the flesh (8:4).

In 8:5, Paul sets forth the contrast between these two groups: “For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.” To be “according to the flesh” means to live under the domination of the flesh and to obey its dictates. It is to live with a self-centered, not a God-centered focus. Another way of saying it is that such people are “in the flesh” (8:8); they live in the sphere of the flesh. Such people may believe in God and be very religious, but they live to please themselves. Godet (Commentary on Romans [Kregel], p. 303) calls the flesh, “the life of the I for itself.” Those in the flesh do not set their minds on the things of the Spirit, which are the truths revealed to us in God’s Word. (See last week’s message for more on 8:5-6.)

In 8:6, Paul explains that the reason those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh is that they are spiritually dead: “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.” Then, in 8:7-8, he explains further why the mind set on the flesh is spiritually dead and headed toward eternal death: because it is hostile toward God, not subject to His law, and displeasing to Him. These verses reveal Paul’s insight into the unbelieving mind:

The mind set on the flesh is spiritually dead and thus an enemy of God because it does not and cannot submit to Him or please Him.

Note three things:

1. The mind set on the flesh is spiritually dead and headed toward eternal death because it is an enemy of God (8:6a, 7a).

A. The mind set on the flesh is spiritually dead and headed toward eternal spiritual death (8:6a).

Romans 8:6a: “For the mind set on the flesh is death ….” In our last study we saw that outside of Christ, everyone is spiritually dead, and so I only mention this in passing since it’s the foundation for verse 7. To be spiritually dead means to be separated from God and the eternal life that only He can give. In Ephesians (2:1, 5) Paul says that we all were dead in our sins before God graciously imparted new life to us. And if we die in that state of spiritual death, we enter into what the Bible calls “the second death,” eternal separation from God (Rev. 20:14, 15).

Some try to avoid the implications of what it means to be spiritually dead by saying, “It’s only a metaphor and you can’t press it too far.” But the metaphor was not chosen without reason and it does convey something important (which I’ll say more on in a moment), namely, that sinners are spiritually unable to seek God or please Him. Spiritually dead people are cut off from understanding the things of the Spirit, including the gospel (1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 4:4-6). This is the natural condition of every person (except Jesus) descended from Adam since the fall.

B. The mind set on the flesh is not spiritually neutral, but is an enemy of God (8:7a).

Romans 8:7a: “Because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God.” Paul uses the same word (“hostile”) to describe a deed of the flesh (Gal. 5:20) and the perpetual hostility between Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:14, 16). It is the opposite of love. Unbelievers do not love God; they hate Him. He is their enemy.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “But I know many unbelievers who don’t hate God. They don’t have anything against Him.” But the Bible draws a line: Either you are a God-lover because He has saved you from your sins; or, you’re a God-hater because you do not want Him to rule over you. Unbelievers may be religious, but invariably, it’s religion as they like it. They pick and choose the kind of “God” that suits their preferences. They come to God on their own terms, by their own good works, and they “use” Him for their own selfish purposes.

So unbelievers are not spiritually neutral. They may be indifferent toward God, but that’s often the worst form of hatred. Spurgeon (MTP, 32:20-21; I’m paraphrasing somewhat) illustrates this by supposing that someone wrote you a letter, but you paid no attention to it. “When did it come?” “Last Monday.” “Have you read it?” “Oh no, I don’t bother to read his letters.” “You’ve had a good many of them, then?” “Oh yes, hundreds of them.” “What have you done with them?” “I haven’t done anything with them. I leave them alone and don’t bother to read them.”

“When you did read one of his letters, what was it about?” “Well, it was about wishing to be at peace with me, and desiring to do me good. He spoke of my being in great danger, and said that he would help me; and of my being poor, and he offered to make me rich.” “He talked like that and yet you’ve never read any more of his letters? You must hate that person very much!” Indifference toward this kind and merciful God is to hate Him.

Also, unbelievers often think that a holy God is too strict and foreboding. They prefer a God who is more cuddly and user-friendly. They think that God’s justice in judging sinners is too severe. They protest, “Sure, I’ve got my faults. But God shouldn’t judge me for being imperfect. That’s not fair!” They think that God’s truth is too inflexible. They wish He would be more tolerant, as they are. They say, “I believe that as long as a person is sincere and does his best, he will go to heaven.” And they even think that God’s mercy through the cross is offensive, because it implies that they cannot save themselves by their own good works (Charles Simeon, Expository Outlines of the Whole Bible [Zondervan], XV:203, suggests the thoughts I developed in this paragraph.) But all of this puts the person who sets his mind on the flesh at odds with God.

You should always be careful before you make an enemy, especially if that enemy is much stronger and smarter than you are! But the problem is, we all are born at enmity with God. You would think that everyone would be scrambling to figure out how to become God’s friend and end the hostility. But instead, unbelievers brazenly defy God and disobey His law. They boastfully oppose God’s truth as revealed in His Word, asserting that they know more about spiritual matters than He does! They remake God in their own image. I’ve even heard of professing Christians who say, “My God isn’t a God of judgment; He’s a God of love!” Okay, but then your “God” isn’t the God of the Bible!

By way of contrast, those who set their minds on the Spirit (believers in Christ) are not God-haters, but God-lovers. We seek to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We love the Savior, who left the glory of heaven to suffer and die on the cross in our place. We don’t want to do anything to hinder the fellowship that we now enjoy with Him because of His grace.

So Paul shows that the mind set on the flesh is not spiritually neutral. Rather, it is separated from God (dead) and actively opposed to Him as His enemy. Also,

2. The mind set on the flesh does not submit to God (8:7b).

Romans 8:7b: “for it does not subject itself to the law of God.” God’s law reveals who He is and how He commands us to live. While we’re not under the law of Moses (Rom. 6:14), we are under the law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21). We are subject to the two great