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Lesson 23: The Nature of Saving Faith (Romans 4:16-22)

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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.”


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

Related Topics: Character of God, Faith, Glory, Grace, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 24: What is a Christian? (Romans 4:23-25)

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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 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.


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

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Regeneration, Justification, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 25: The Blessings of Justification (Romans 5:1-2)

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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 ….”


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

Related Topics: Faith, Glory, Grace, Regeneration, Justification, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 26: Exulting in Trials (Romans 5:3-5)

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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.


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

Related Topics: Love, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 27: God’s Amazing Love (Romans 5:6-8)

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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.


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

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Heaven, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 28: Saved for Sure! (Romans 5:9-11)

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“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.


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

Related Topics: Assurance, Soteriology (Salvation), Spiritual Life

Lesson 29: Death in Adam or Life in Christ? (Romans 5:12-19)

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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 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.


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

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 30: Super-Abundant Grace that Reigns (Romans 5:20-21)

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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:

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 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!


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

Related Topics: Grace, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 31: Are You Dead to Sin? (Romans 6:1-4)

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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.


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

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Spiritual Life

Lesson 32: Dead to Sin, Alive to God (Romans 6:5-11)

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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 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.


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

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Hamartiology (Sin), Spiritual Life