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Lesson 21: Forgiveness: The Supreme Blessing (Romans 4:6-8)

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Carl Hoefler (Will Daylight Come? [C. C. S. Publishing, 1979]) tells the story of a little boy who was visiting his grandparents. He was given his first slingshot and was having fun playing with it in the woods, but he never hit anything he was aiming at. But on his way home, as he cut through the back yard, he saw Grandmother’s pet duck. He took aim and let the stone fly. To his horror, it went straight to the mark and the duck fell dead.

The boy panicked. He quickly hid the dead duck in the woodpile. Then he saw his smirking sister Sally standing by the corner of the house. She had seen the whole affair.

They went in for lunch. Sally said nothing. After lunch, Grandmother said, “Sally, let’s clear the table and wash the dishes.” Sally said, “Oh, Grandmother, Johnny said he wanted to help you in the kitchen today. Didn’t you, Johnny?” Then she whispered to him, “Remember the duck!” So Johnny did the dishes.

Later in the day Grandfather called the children to go fishing. Grandmother said, “I’m sorry, but Sally has to stay here to help me clean house and get dinner.” Sally smiled and said, “That’s all been taken care of. Johnny said he wanted to help today, didn’t you, Johnny?” Then she whispered, “Remember the duck!”

This went on for several days. Johnny did all the chores, both his and those assigned to Sally. Finally, he could stand it no longer, so he went to his grandmother and confessed all. His grandmother took him in her arms and said, “I know, Johnny. I was standing at the kitchen window and saw the whole thing. And because I love you, I forgave you. And knowing that I loved you and would always forgive you, I wondered just how long you would let Sally make a slave of you.”

Guilt makes slaves of us all. When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden, they tried in vain to hide from God. Guilt makes us want to hide from His holy presence. It also alienates us from one another. We’re afraid that if others find out what we have done, they will either reject us or use the information to hold us hostage. “Remember the duck!” Because we all have sinned and because God knows all of our sins, even our secret sins, what we all desperately need is the supreme blessing of God’s forgiveness.

In our last study, we saw how Abraham, the father of the Jewish faith, was justified by faith alone, not by his works. To be justified is to be declared righteous by God. It is to be acquitted of all our sins by God’s judicial decree. In explaining this wonderful truth, Paul states (Rom. 4:4-5), “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” We saw that God does not justify the pretty good guy who tries to do his best. He does not justify the one whose good works outweigh his bad works. Rather, He justifies the ungodly sinner who has faith in Jesus.

But maybe Paul was stretching things a bit. After all, the Jews knew that Abraham was a good man. Maybe God justified Abraham because of his good works. So Paul brings in another witness, King David. The Jews also recognized David as a great man. He was the best of Israel’s kings. But as everyone knew, he also sinned greatly. He committed adultery with Bathsheba and then tried to cover it up when she got pregnant by having her husband murdered. So Paul brings David in as a second witness to prove that God justifies sinners by faith apart from any good works.

Paul (4:7-8) cites David’s Psalm 32:1-2 (from the LXX): “Blessed are those who lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.” The common thread between Psalm 32:2 (Rom. 4:8) and Genesis 15:6 (Rom. 4:3) is the word “credited” or “take into account” (Greek = logidzomai). It is an accounting term, meaning to enter something into a ledger. In Abraham’s case, God entered into the asset column, “Righteousness.” In David’s case, God did not enter into the liabilities column, “Sin.” He didn’t credit David’s sins against him.

But Paul says that it amounts to the same thing (4:6), “just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.” And so in Psalm 32 David extols the supreme blessing of God’s gracious forgiveness of all our sins. Paul uses these verses to teach us that…

The supreme blessing of God forgiving all your sins comes through faith apart from any works.

As we saw in our last study, this doctrine of God justifying the ungodly by grace alone apart from any good works grates against our fallen human nature. We instinctively want good people to go to heaven because of their goodness. We want terrible sinners to pay for their sins. They shouldn’t get off scot-free. But if that were true, then we would have grounds to boast in our own goodness as the reason for our salvation. And, there would be no hope for really bad sinners. There would be no good news. So if Mother Teresa is in heaven, it is because she saw herself as an undeserving sinner and she fled to the cross for mercy. And if a mass murderer is in heaven, it is because he saw himself as an undeserving sinner and fled to the cross for mercy. God only justifies the ungodly.

Do you remember the parable that Jesus told in Matthew 20? A landowner went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for their day’s wages, so they went to work. Mid-morning, he went out again and hired others and agreed to give them whatever was right. He did the same thing at noon and at mid-afternoon. Then, an hour before sundown, he found others and sent them into his vineyard.

When it was time to pay the laborers, those who came an hour before dark received a denarius. When those who had been working all day came, they expected to get more, since they had put in a long day’s work. But they also got a denarius. They grumbled about how unfair it was, but the landowner said, “I gave you what we agreed on, so take what is yours and go. But am I not free to be generous to these last men with what is my own?” That’s how God’s grace works. It is not dispensed according to merit. He gives it freely to whom He chooses. As Paul says (Rom. 9:16), “It does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.”

The point that Paul drives home from 1:18-3:20 is that we all are under sin. The pagans who do not know God are obviously under sin. But so are the religious folks (the Jews), who think that they are better than the pagans. All deserve God’s judgment and so all desperately need His grace (unmerited favor). The good news of the gospel is that God freely justifies and pardons every sinner who does not work, but believes in Jesus as the propitiation for his sins.

So in our text, Paul is reinforcing that point from David’s Psalm 32. The emphasis is on the blessing of God’s gracious forgiveness. (He uses “blessing” or “blessed” in 4:6, 7, 8, and 9.)

1. The greatest blessing of all is to have God forgive all your sins.

To appreciate the blessing of forgiveness …

A. We must feel the heavy burden of our guilt.

A cartoon pictured a psychologist saying to a patient, “Mr. Figby, I think I can explain your feelings of guilt. You’re guilty!”

Ever since the fall, sinners have instinctively responded to their guilt by blaming others. When God confronted Adam, he blamed his wife and he even implicated God for giving him his wife (Gen. 3:12): “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.” In effect, he was saying, “It’s her fault or Your fault, but don’t blame me!”

But blaming others doesn’t alleviate the guilt. True, if a person keeps denying his sin and blaming others for it, eventually he may develop a seared conscience (1 Tim. 4:2), where he feels no guilt, even for horrific sins. I read that the Cambodian dictator, Pol Pot, felt no twinge of guilt for murdering over a million of his countrymen! But even if the sinner’s conscience is seared, it doesn’t remove the reality that he will answer to God for his many sins.

So a guilty conscience is a good thing. It’s like the pain sensors in our body, which alert us to a problem. A person with leprosy can’t feel pain, and so he can burn his finger off without knowing it. If we suppress our guilt, it often leads to other emotional, physical, and relational problems. But guilt should get our attention by shouting, “You’re not right with God!” David suppressed his guilt over his sin with Bathsheba for about a year until the prophet Nathan cornered him with a story and then directly said, “You are the man!” You’re guilty!

Puritan Robert Bolton, who at first resisted the gospel, but later came to Christ after deep conviction of his sins, wrote (Instructions for a Right Comforting Afflicted Consciences, cited by Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], p. 128):

A man must feel himself in misery, before he will go about to find a remedy; be sick before he will seek a physician; be in prison before he will seek for a pardon. A sinner … must be cast down, confounded, condemned, a cast away, and lost in himself, before he will look about for a Saviour.

J. C. Ryle (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], on John 4:7-26, pp. 204-205) put it,

Never does a soul value the Gospel medicine until it feels its disease. Never does a man see any beauty in Christ as a Saviour, until he discovers that he is himself a lost and ruined sinner.

Or, as C. H. Spurgeon put it when describing his own painful five years of conviction of sin before his conversion (C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography [Banner of Truth], 1:54):

Too many think lightly of sin, and therefore think lightly of the Saviour. He who has stood before his God, convicted and condemned, with the rope about his neck, is the man to weep for joy when he is pardoned, to hate the evil which has been forgiven him, and to live to the honour of the Redeemer by whose blood he has been cleansed.

So for God’s blessing of forgiving all your sins to be the supreme blessing, you must feel to some extent the heavy burden of your guilt before Him. Then,

B. Forgiveness is the greatest of all blessings.

The Greek word “blessed” means “happy,” especially in the sense of being the recipient of God’s favor (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, by Walter Bauer, translated by William Arndt and Wilbur Gingrich [University of Chicago Press], 2nd ed., p. 486). John Piper (“When the Lord Does not Take Account of Sin,” on DesiringGod.org) defines it as “a condition in which you are deeply secure and content and happy in God.”

We might think that those who are rich in this world’s goods are blessed, but as you know, many rich people are miserable because they lack close relationships with others. They often have to keep others at a distance because they’re afraid that they will take their money. Besides, this world’s riches can disappear in a moment with a stock market collapse or war or some other disaster. And everything that we accrue in this life is instantly taken the moment we die. So the only true and lasting blessing is to be right with God by knowing that He has forgiven all our sins. What a great feeling to know that the burden of guilt is gone forever!

We need to understand that when God forgives all our sins, it does not mean that He removes all temporal consequences for our sins. God forgave David, but He ordained some rather severe consequences on David and his family for the rest of his life (2 Sam. 12:10-15). Sometimes God graciously softens the consequences, but at other times He uses them to teach us to hate our sin The fact that we experience difficult trials does not mean that God has not forgiven us. In fact, it is one evidence that He has forgiven us (Heb. 12:8-10).

Also, although many Christian authors talk about the need to forgive yourself, you won’t find that concept anywhere in Scripture. If we have sinned, we must seek God’s forgiveness and we must ask forgiveness of those we have sinned against. And if others have wronged us, we must forgive them. But the Bible never talks about forgiving yourself. Your need is to receive God’s forgiveness.

Before we leave this point, let me ask: Have you experienced this greatest of all blessings? Do you know that God has forgiven all of your sins? Are you sure that He will not take them into account on that day when you stand before Him?

In the context Paul is still talking about the doctrine of justification by faith alone. But we might wonder, how does forgiveness fit in with justification?

2. Justification means that God credits Christ’s righteousness to the guilty sinner and forgives all his sins apart from any good works.

John Calvin (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. by John McNeill [Westminster Press], 3:11:3, p. 727) summed up his understanding of justification, “that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.”

A. Justification means that God credits Christ’s righteousness to the guilty sinner.

As we saw in verse 3 (citing Gen. 15:6), “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” To justify is not to make righteous or to infuse righteousness into the sinner, but rather, to declare the sinner righteous. It is a judicial act of God, based on the satisfaction of God’s righteous penalty by the shed blood of Jesus Christ (3:25). Because Christ paid the penalty that our sin deserved, God can be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26).

B. Justification means that God’s forgives all of the guilty sinner’s sins.

Positively, God declares the sinner righteous by crediting to his account the very righteousness of Jesus Christ. Negatively, God does not credit the sinner’s sins to his account. Paul uses three somewhat synonymous phrases to describe this blessing of forgiveness:

First (4:7a), “Blessed are those who lawless deeds have been forgiven.” The Greek word for forgive means “to send away.” It is sometimes used of divorce, which means a permanent sending away of one’s spouse. It was used of forgiving a debt. The books were wiped clean as the debt was removed from the debtor. In the Old Testament ritual for the Day of Atonement, two male goats were selected. The high priest laid his hands on the head of one goat (the scapegoat), confessing the sins of the people. That goat was then sent away into the wilderness, taking away the sins of the people. Forgiveness means that God has sent away all of our sins. They are removed from us.

Second (4:7b), blessed are those “whose sins have been covered.” The word covered is used only here in the New Testament, quoted from Psalm 32:1. It also referred to the Day of Atonement when the priest took the blood of the other goat and sprinkled it on the mercy seat (or covering) of the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark contained the Ten Commandments, which God’s people all have broken. The blood of an innocent victim covered the sins of the people. Those repeated animal sacrifices postponed judgment until Christ offered Himself as the perfect and final sacrifice to cover all our sins (Heb. 9:11-15; 10:1-14).

Third (4:8), “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.” This is the accounting term, used 11 times in this chapter (translated as “credited” in 4:3, 4, 5; “credits” in 6). God takes our debt of sin off the books. He wipes the slate clean. It means (Rom. 8:1), “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Also, since David was already a justified man when he sinned with Bathsheba and murdered her husband, Psalm 32 shows that God’s crediting of righteousness and forgiving of sins is not revoked by a believer’s sins (Everett Harrison, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 10:49). Although as I said, God disciplines us for our sins and does not remove all of the consequences of our sins, He does forgive them so that we do not incur His eternal wrath and judgment. We must submit to His discipline, but we do not need to fear His condemnation.

C. Justification means that God credits Christ’s righteousness to the guilty sinner and forgives all his sins apart from any good works.

Paul says (4:6) that “David speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.” If it’s apart from works, then how is it done? In verse 5 Paul says that the ungodly person’s faith (in Christ) is credited as righteousness. We must be clear that he does not mean that God views our faith as a work that merits righteousness. That would make verse 5 say the exact opposite of what Paul is saying! If faith somehow merited God’s favor, then grace would not be undeserved. Rather, faith lays hold of what Christ did for us on the cross (3:24-26). God justifies us as a gift (3:24), not as a reward or payment that our faith earns. Faith by definition looks away from oneself and to Christ. Faith is the hand that receives the gift of forgiveness through Jesus paying for our sins on the cross. Thus,

3. To obtain this blessing, we must cease from our own works and believe in God’s provision in Christ.

As we saw in verse 5, the only one God justifies is “the one who does not work.” In case we missed it, Paul repeats (4:6), “apart from works.” If you are trusting in any sense in your good works, you exclude yourself from God crediting Christ’s righteousness to your account. Paul plainly states (4:6), “God credits righteousness apart from works.” While you must repent of your sins, if you are trusting in your repentance, you exclude yourself from this blessing of forgiveness. And while you must believe in Christ, if you are trusting in your faith, you exclude yourself from God’s forgiveness. Your faith must not be in faith. Rather, your faith must be in Christ alone.

Conclusion

Some years ago, a 6-year-old Michigan boy could not be found. That night, 80 people frantically searched the woods near his home. By morning, more than 300 were looking for him. Then at about 10:30, he suddenly emerged from his bedroom. He had been hiding in a large drawer underneath his captain style bed.

It turned out that he hid himself in there because he was afraid. The evening before he disappeared, a policeman had asked him if he knew anything about a broken window across the street. He lied to the officer. A little later the officer turned on his flasher to stop a nearby motorist. The boy saw it and his imagination ran wild. He thought he would be locked up in jail. Fear and guilt drove him into hiding (from “Our Daily Bread,” Winter, 1980-81).

Guilt over your sins can cause you to keep your distance from others and to try to hide from God. If you are not in Christ, you have legitimate cause to fear His judgment. But God offers every sinner the supreme blessing: He will forgive all of your sins and credit the very righteousness of Christ to your account if you will cease from your own works and trust in what Christ did for you on the cross. Trust in Christ and you don’t have to “remember the duck.” The guilt will be gone and you will know the supreme blessing of having all of your lawless deeds forgiven.

Application Questions

  1. Should Christians feel guilty when they sin? What is the proper function of guilt? How can we recognize false guilt?
  2. How can we know whether our guilt is due to the Holy Spirit convicting us or Satan accusing us? What action should we take in either case?
  3. Some might argue that forgiveness by grace alone without penance on our part would lead to licentiousness. Your response?
  4. Genuine faith includes repentance, which includes “a broken and contrite heart” (Ps. 51:17). Some might argue that this then becomes a work that nullifies grace. Agree/disagree? Why?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

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

Related Topics: Faith, Forgiveness, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 22: Religion Can’t Save You (Romans 4:9-15)

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If you’ve been tracking with this series in Romans, you may be getting to the point where you’re thinking, “Why does Paul keep hammering on the truth that God’s righteousness is credited to us by faith alone?” How many times does he need to say it? He states it in Romans 3:22, “even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” He hits it again in 3:26, “so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (To be the justifier means to declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus.) He hammers it again in 3:28, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”

He keeps going in 4:3 (citing Gen. 15:6): “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness.” In case we missed it, he repeats it in 4:5: “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” If you still didn’t get it, he comes at it again in 4:6, “just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.” Not done yet, he says it again (4:8), “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account” (“credits” and “take into account” both come from the same Greek word).

But he still isn’t done! He anticipates the reaction of religious Jews who will still be thinking, “Yes, God credits righteousness by faith, but it is only for the circumcised who believe, not for uncircumcised Gentiles.” So in 4:9-12, he proves from the Old Testament that God credited righteousness to Abraham by faith while he was still uncircumcised. In proving this, he relentlessly beats the same drum. In 4:9, he cites again Genesis 15:6, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” In 4:10, he insists that it was credited to him while he was still uncircumcised. In 4:11, he repeats that the uncircumcised who believe will have righteousness credited to them. And in 4:12 he applies it to the circumcised Jews: They, too, must follow in the steps of the faith of Abraham which he had while he was still uncircumcised.

But Paul anticipates another objection from religious Jews: “Surely we become heirs of God’s promises to Abraham through the Law. Gentiles must keep the Law to come under these blessings.” This was the teaching of the Judaizers, who plagued Paul’s ministry (Acts 15:1, 5; Galatians). But Paul insists that the true heirs of the promises to Abraham are not those who are of the Law, but rather those who are of faith. He sums this up in 4:16 (which we will examine in more detail next time): “For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.”

So why does Paul keep hammering on this truth that God’s righteousness is credited to us by faith alone? I think it’s because he knows how deeply embedded in the fallen human heart is the idea that we can do something to commend ourselves to God. The last two millennia of human history prove him to be right. All religions, including the major ones that go under the label of “Christian,” are works oriented. They teach what Paul explicitly and repeatedly denies here, that at least in part, we are saved by keeping religious rituals and by our good deeds.

For example, at the Council of Trent (in 1547), the Roman Catholic Church responded to the Protestant Reformation, including the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The Canons and Decrees of Trent represent the official teaching of the Catholic Church to this day. The Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s declared these doctrines “irreformable.” The Council of Trent did not deny that we are saved by God’s grace through faith. But it added works to faith by combining justification (right standing with God) with sanctification (our growth in holiness subsequent to being justified) and by making justification a process that depends in part on our good works. To quote:

If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified, in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, ... let him be anathema. (Session 6, Canon 9, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom [Baker], 2:112.)

If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified: let him be anathema. (Session 6, Canon 12, in Schaff, 2:113.)

If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof: let him be anathema. (Session 6, Canon 24, in Schaff, 2:115.)

If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened [to him]: let him be anathema. (Session 6, Canon 30, in Schaff, 2:117.)

In other words, the Roman Catholic Church declares that we are justified before God by grace through faith, but not through faith alone. We must add our good works to that faith in order to obtain, preserve, and increase our right standing before God. This process is not completed at the initial point of faith in Christ, and not even in this life, but only, hopefully, in Purgatory. Thus the Catholic Church denies the sufficiency of the guilty sinner’s faith in Christ’s sacrifice as the means of right standing with God. (See Justification by Faith Alone [Soli Deo Gloria], ed. by Don Kistler, especially pp. 7-14, by John MacArthur, Jr.)

I do not point out these things to be unkind to Roman Catholics. Quite the contrary, I say it because I care deeply that Catholics come to understand what Paul teaches about this most crucial matter of how a person gets right with God. And, even if you are not from a Catholic background, because of the fall you are prone to trust in your religious activities and your good works as the basis of your standing before God. But Paul wants you to see that …

Salvation does not come through religious rituals or the Law, but through God crediting righteousness through faith alone.

“This blessing” (4:9) refers to the blessing of salvation, of God not counting our sins against us (4:7-8). First, Paul shows that Abraham was not justified after he was circumcised, but before:

1. The blessing of salvation does not come through keeping religious rituals, but through God crediting righteousness to us through faith alone (4:9-12).

We can apply this to any religious rituals, such as baptism, communion, going to mass, praying the rosary, or whatever. We can sum up Paul’s flow of thought under two headings:

A. God credits righteousness to the ungodly sinner who believes in Jesus Christ.

This is the shocking point that Paul makes in 4:5, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” As I said when we studied that verse, most people would assume that it should read, “But to the one who tries hard and believes in Him who justifies all good people, his faith is credited as righteousness.” But Paul specifically states that on the one hand, this person isn’t trying hard; he does not work. On the other hand, he isn’t described as a good person, but rather as ungodly. He isn’t a religious person who tries to obey God. He isn’t a person who devotes his life to serving the poor. He isn’t a person who never deliberately hurt anyone. He is ungodly. God justifies the ungodly sinner who believes in Jesus!

The Jews viewed Gentiles as ungodly, but they viewed themselves as godly people. Circumcision was the main religious ritual that distinguished them from the “Gentile dogs.” When Abraham was 99 years-old, God commanded him to circumcise himself and all the males in his household. He extended that command for all Jewish baby boys throughout all generations, that they be circumcised on the eighth day. It was the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham (Gen. 17:11-12).

But Paul here points out a simple fact of Old Testament chronology: God’s command to Abraham to be circumcised happened at least 14 years after the incident in Genesis 15:6 where God credited Abraham’s faith to him as righteousness. Thus Abraham was in effect still an uncircumcised Gentile! So Paul effectively turns the tables on the Jews who argued for circumcision as essential for salvation. He is saying that it is not for the Gentiles to enter through the gate of Jewish circumcision, but rather for the Jews to enter through the gate of Gentile faith apart from circumcision (Frederic Godet, Commentary on Romans [Kregel], p. 174)!

Or, to put it in more modern terms, you do not get saved (or justified) by being baptized (whether as an infant or an adult) or by taking communion. You do not get saved by going to church or by faithfully saying your prayers or by doing penance. Rather, you get saved when God credits the very righteousness of Christ to you the instant that you believe in Him. Salvation does not come through the performance of any religious rituals, but only through faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:25).

Well then, what is the role of religious rituals? Are they worthless? Should we just forget about them? No,

B. Religious rituals serve as signs and seals of the reality that comes through faith in Christ.

Paul (4:11) refers to circumcision as both a sign and a seal of the righteousness of the faith that Abraham had while uncircumcised. This makes him “the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them.”

A sign is not the real thing, but it points to it. A sign that says “Flagstaff, 10 miles” is not the actual city, but it points you to it. Circumcision was a physical sign in every Jewish man’s flesh that pointed to the fact that he belonged to God. He was in covenant with God and God’s people. He was separated to God through the shedding of blood. It was a sign of purification from the flesh, so that both Moses (Deut. 10:16) and the prophets (Jer. 4:4) exhorted Israel spiritually to circumcise their hearts.

As Christians, baptism is a sign that your sins have been washed away through faith in Christ (Acts 22:16). It pictures the truth that you have been identified completely (immersed) with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-4). The Lord’s Supper is a sign of the New Covenant (1 Cor. 11:25), showing that you are a partaker in Christ’s sacrificial death on your behalf. The sign is not the reality, but it points to the reality. The reality is God’s promise to forgive all our sins and impute Christ’s righteousness to our account by faith alone. The “ritual” is a sign of the reality. If you don’t have the reality, the ritual is worthless.

Also, Paul refers to circumcision as a seal. A seal authenticates or attests to the reality of something. A notary’s seal on a document attests that it is the real thing. Circumcision attested to the reality of Abraham’s previous faith that justified him and to God’s covenant with him. But it was the faith that justified, not the act of circumcision. In 4:12, Paul applies this to the Jews, but then narrows it by saying that it does not apply to all Jews, but only to those “who also follow in the steps of the faith” of Abraham. He almost twists the knife when he adds, “which he had while uncircumcised.” He is saying that whether you are a Gentile or a Jew, the key thing is to believe God’s promise to justify the ungodly. The rituals follow as signs and seals, but the reality is through faith alone.

What then is the benefit of religious “rituals,” such as baptism and communion? Should we do them at all? Yes, because Scripture commands us to do them. But they should only be done after you have put your trust in Christ as your righteousness. They then become a sign pointing to that reality and a seal that attests to your faith in Christ.

I can only briefly deal with the fact that those who argue for infant baptism point to Romans 4:11 as a key verse. They argue that although for Abraham circumcision pointed back to his previous faith, for Abraham’s descendants, it was done for them as infants and thus pointed ahead to the faith they later would exercise. They argue that baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign of the covenant. Thus we should baptize infants.

How do we answer this? (For a more thorough treatment, see my sermon, “Why We Do Not Baptize Infants,” 9/8/96, on fcfonline.org). But, briefly: First, there is no New Testament example or command to baptize infants. Rather, every mention of baptism in the New Testament shows that it is the appropriate response to saving faith, not the precursor of it. Also, while the New Testament shows some correspondence between circumcision and baptism (Col. 2:11-12), it explicitly mentions faith in that context. It is an argument from silence, but it is a loud silence when in the many New Testament discussions about circumcision, there is absolutely no reference to it now being replaced by baptism.

There are some significant differences between circumcision and baptism. But even if we grant the parallels, then just as circumcision was administered to the physical descendants of Abraham in the age of type, so baptism ought to be administered to the spiritual descendants of Abraham in the age of fulfillment, namely, to believers. Old Testament Israel consisted of the physical descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob, and thus the sign was given to show that the males were children of the covenant. But the New Testament church consists of those who are the spiritual children of Abraham through faith in Christ (Gal. 3:7). Thus baptism should only be administered to those who give a clear profession of faith in Christ.

I should also point out that while some denominations (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran) teach that baptism imparts regeneration to infants, others that practice infant baptism (Presbyterians, the Reformed Church, and Methodists) do not. But I argue that even if a church denies that it imparts regeneration, to baptize infants is potentially damaging in that it later gives them false assurance that they are right with God through a ritual. But we are right with God through faith in Christ alone. (See also, John Piper, “How do Circumcision and Baptism Correspond?” on DesiringGod.org.)

But Paul anticipates that his Jewish readers will bring up the Law. Surely Paul wouldn’t throw out God’s Law! Don’t the Gentiles have to keep the Law in order to call Abraham their father?

2. The blessing of salvation does not come through keeping the Law, but through God crediting righteousness to us through faith alone (4:13-15).

The Jews would have not restricted the obedience which they thought necessary for salvation to circumcision, but would have expanded it to the whole Law (Acts 15:5). Paul could have countered their argument, as he does in Galatians 3:17, by showing that the Law, which came 430 years after the promise to Abraham, does not invalidate the previous covenant. But instead, he limits himself here to the argument of Galatians 3:18, that the concept of a covenant promise is fundamentally opposed to the concept of the Law.

He states the principle in 4:13: “For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith.” Then he explains (4:14), “For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified.” Thus he is saying,

A. If you seek to be justified by keeping the Law, you make faith void and you nullify God’s promises (4:14).

The principle of receiving a gift by faith is the opposite of receiving a reward that you work for (Rom. 3:24; 4:4). If you offer me a gift and I say, “Let me pay you back by working for it,” I have turned the gift into something that I owe you or you end up owing me. God promises to justify the ungodly person who does not deserve it, but who receives it freely by His grace. If you mix human works with God’s grace, then grace is no longer grace. The promise of salvation as a free gift received by faith has been nullified and turned into a debt for payment of services rendered.

B. If you seek to be justified by keeping the Law, rather than gaining the blessing of salvation you actually incur God’s wrath (4:15).

In 4:15, Paul explains why the attempt to gain salvation by the Law is doomed to fail: “for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there is no violation.” The Law brings wrath because no one can keep it perfectly. To gain acceptance with God by keeping the Law, you have to keep it perfectly (James 2:10). Any failure makes you liable for God’s judgment. The second phrase does not mean that there is no sin when there is no law. As Paul previously stated, the Gentile who did not know the explicit commands of God is guilty of violating his own conscience (Rom. 2:14-15). But the Jew who knows the Law and violates it is going against what he explicitly knows to be right. The Law shows us what sin is (Rom. 7:7). Thus to know the Law and violate it incurs God’s wrath to a greater degree than not to know the Law at all.

Also, note that there are two and only two possible eternal futures for every person: either you are an heir of the world as a true descendant of Abraham (4:13) or you are an heir of wrath as one who sought to be right with God by keeping the Law (4:15).

The phrase, “heir of the world,” does not occur in those exact words anywhere in God’s promises to Abraham. Rather, Paul is probably summing up God’s promises that Abraham would have a large number of descendants from many nations (Gen. 12:2; 13:16; 15:5; 17:4-6, 16-20; 22:17); that he would possess the land (Gen. 13:15-17; 15:12-21; 17:8); and that he would be the channel of blessing “all the peoples of the earth” (Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 274). Jesus Christ is the final “seed” (“descendant”) of Abraham (Gal. 3:16). If we are in Christ through faith, then we are fellow heirs with Him (Rom. 8:17; Eph. 3:6). As Paul puts it (Gal. 3:29), “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.”

Conclusion

In verse 9, as I said, “this blessing” refers to the blessing that Paul has enumerated from Psalm 32 (in Rom. 4:7-8), namely, the blessing of knowing that your lawless deeds have been forgiven, that your sins have been covered, and that God will not take your sins into account. Do you want that blessing?

You won’t get it by being born into a Christian home or by faithful attendance at a Christian church. You won’t get it by being baptized and partaking of communion. You won’t get the blessing of forgiveness by doing penance or devoting yourself to sacrificial service to the poor. In short, you won’t get the blessing of salvation through religious rituals or by keeping the Law. Rather, God forgives all our sins and credits Christ’s righteousness to us if we put our faith in Jesus and His shed blood. Religion can’t save you, but Jesus can. Trust in Him and instantly you become an heir of God’s promise of eternal life as His free gift!

Application Questions

  1. Some say that the doctrine of justification by faith alone should be set aside so that Protestants and Catholics can come together in the many areas where they agree. Your thoughts?
  2. Discuss: Do religious “rituals” convey grace to all who participate or only to those who participate in faith?
  3. Do you agree that infant baptism is potentially damaging? Why/why not?
  4. Why is the concept of approaching God by keeping the Law (or any good works) fundamentally opposed to “the righteousness of faith”?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

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

Related Topics: Faith, Soteriology (Salvation)

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.”

Conclusion

I’ve told you before about the granny who had never flown in an airplane, but she had to make a trip by air. Her kids and grandkids all tried to convince her that it was safer than riding in a car. Finally, with a lot of misgivings, she got on board.

When she returned safely, the family met her at the airport and asked, “How’d it go, Granny? Did the plane hold you up?” She reluctantly agreed, “Yeah.” But then she added, “But I never put my full weight down on it!”

Could your faith in Jesus Christ to save you be like that? You believe in Him, but you’re also keeping one foot in your good works to get you into heaven. Saving faith puts all its weight on Jesus Christ and His shed blood. It’s rooted in God’s grace, it rests on God’s promise, it revels in God’s glory, and it relies on His power. Make sure that your trust is in Christ alone.

Application Questions

  1. Some argue that if we are saved by grace through faith alone, it will lead to licentiousness. Your answer (with biblical support)?
  2. How can a person who struggles with doubt know if he has enough faith to save him?
  3. A skeptic asks, “If God is faithful, then why does He allow good Christians to be persecuted and martyred?” Your reply?
  4. Where is the balance between faith and using means? Are the two compatible? When do we cross the line?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

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

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 DesiringGod.org). He uses this illustration:

Suppose I say to Barnabas, my sixteen-year-old son, “Clean up your room before you go to school. You must have a clean room, or you won’t be able to go watch the game tonight.” Well, suppose he plans poorly and leaves for school without cleaning the room. And suppose I discover the messy room and clean it. His afternoon fills up and he gets home just before it’s time to leave for the game and realizes what he has done and feels terrible. He apologizes and humbly accepts the consequences.

To which I say, “Barnabas, I am going to credit your apology and submission as a clean room. I said, ‘You must have a clean room, or you won’t be able to go watch the game tonight.’ Your room is clean. So you can go to the game.” What I mean when I say, “I credit your apology as a clean room,” is not that the apology is the clean room. Nor that he really cleaned his room. I cleaned it. It was pure grace. All I mean is that, in my way of reckoning—in my grace—his apo­logy connects him with the promise given for a clean room. The clean room is his clean room. I credit it to him. Or, I credit his apology as a clean room. You can say it either way. And Paul said it both ways: “Faith is credited as righ­teousness,” and “God credits righteousness to us through faith.”

So when God says … to those who believe in Christ, “I credit your faith as righteousness,” he does not mean that your faith is righteousness. He means that your faith connects you to God’s righteousness.

Thus Paul is saying that a Christian personally applies the lesson of Abraham’s faith so that the righteousness of Christ is credited to him. Have you done that? It is essential!

2. A Christian believes that God delivered over Jesus to pay the penalty for our sins.

Here we are focusing on the phrase, “He who was delivered over because of our transgressions” (4:25). “Delivered over” is passive, meaning that God delivered Jesus over to death. There is a sense in which Jesus voluntarily gave Himself over to death (John 10:18), but there is another sense in which the Father delivered over the Son (Rom. 8:32). Romans 4:25 is not a quotation, but it relies in substance on Isaiah 53:12 (LXX), which states of Messiah, “his soul was delivered to death: and he was numbered among the transgressors; and he bore the sins of many and was delivered over because of their iniquities.” Or, as it says just a few verses earlier (Isa. 53:6), “The Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.” Or, again (Isa. 53:10), “But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, …” The last two phrases refer to the resurrection, which we will look at in a moment.

Peter mentions God’s delivering Jesus over to be crucified in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:23): “This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.” He goes on to affirm that God raised Him up again.

But the point is, our salvation, which includes at its center Jesus’ death on the cross, was not an unfortunate moment in history when evil men gained the upper hand. Although they were fully responsible for their sin, the crucifixion was God’s prede­termined plan to give His eternal Son to pay the penalty for our sins. A Christian believes that salvation is from the Lord so that it all is “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (Eph. 1:6). Finally,

3. A Christian believes that God raised Jesus bodily from the dead to confirm our justification.

Paul emphasizes Jesus’ resurrection from the dead twice here: “Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (4:24); and, Jesus “was raised because of our justification” (4:25). As Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is central to our faith and our forgiveness. And, it is based on solid, varied eyewitness testimony. He says there (1 Cor. 15:17), “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” In Romans 1:4, Paul says that Jesus “was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead.” The resurrection puts God’s stamp of approval on the death of Jesus as payment in full for the sins of all who believe.

The phrase, “Jesus our Lord,” emphasizes both His deity and His humanity. Jesus took on human flesh so that He could bear our sins, but He did not give up His deity. He is the Lord. But as I said, we must trust in Him as our Lord personally.

The phrase, “raised because of our justification,” is a bit difficult. It is parallel with the phrase, “delivered up because of our transgressions.” Perhaps the simplest way to understand it is that Jesus was delivered up to death as a consequence (“because”) of our sin; He was raised as a consequence (“because”) of our justification, which He achieved by His death (Rom. 5:9). In other words, when God raised Jesus, He put His seal of approval on Christ’s death as obtaining our justification (Murray J. Harris, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. by Colin Brown [Zondervan], 3:1184). So the resurrection confirms that our justification was valid and acceptable to the Father.

Conclusion

Note carefully that not everyone is justified. Jesus’ death only justifies “those who believe in Him who raised Jesus from the dead” (4:24). In other words, this truth that God delivered Jesus over to pay for our sins and raised Him from the dead to affirm our justification will save you only if you personally believe it. The pasteurizing machine only benefits you if you plug it in and actually use it to pasteurize your milk. This wonderful doctrine of justification by faith that Paul has spent an entire chapter hammering home was not written as a quaint history lesson about Abraham. It was written for your sake. God will credit the righteousness of Christ to your account the instant that you believe in Him. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead affirms that it is true!

So what is a Christian? A Christian is a person who personally believes in God who delivered over Jesus to pay for our sins and raised Him from the dead to confirm our justification. Make sure that you are a true Christian through faith in Jesus Christ!

Application Questions

  1. Much of the Old Testament is hard to read and understand. Why should we read it? How can we understand it better?
  2. Since it is possible to “believe in vain” (1 Cor. 15:2), how can we make sure that our faith is genuine?
  3. Why does doctrine matter? How can we hold to sound doctrine without being needlessly divisive? What guidelines exist?
  4. Is the substitutionary atonement essential for salvation? Why?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

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

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 ….”

Conclusion

So to conclude, I ask you three questions:

         Have you been justified by faith so that you enjoy peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ?

         Do you frequently utilize your access to God and the riches of His grace through our Lord Jesus Christ?

         Do you exult in your certain future of sharing God’s glory?

These are just a few of the blessings of being justified by faith in Jesus Christ!

Application Questions

  1. If peace with God is not primarily a feeling, but a fact, how can you know if you’ve got it?
  2. Why does justification by works (even in part) completely undermine the possibility of assurance of salvation?
  3. Some argue that if God’s grace is completely undeserved, it will lead to licentious living. How would you refute this?
  4. How can a Christian who does not exult in the hope of God’s glory grow in this area? Why should we?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

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

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.

Conclusion

James Boice (Romans: Volume 2: The Reign of Grace [Baker], pp. 533-534) concludes his sermon on these verses by telling about how the church in China grew exponentially during the terrible persecution under the Communists. An American student was going to Hong Kong to study the Chinese church. Before he left the States, a friend had asked him, “If God loves the Chinese church so much, why did he allow so much suffering to come upon it?” The student had no answer.

But after he had traveled to China and had talked in depth with many Chinese Christians, he decided to go back to America and ask his friend this question: “If God loves the American church so much, why hasn’t he allowed us to suffer like the church in China?”

It is a good question because trials are not to harm us. Rather, God uses them to shape us into the image of Christ. He uses them to strengthen our hope of heaven. Trials are a part of the “all things” that He works “together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (8:28). Even as strange as it may seem, we can exult in them.

Application Questions

  1. How can a Christian who is a perpetual grumbler break this sinful habit? What steps would you advise?
  2. If we feel depressed and discouraged in our trials, should we just accept it or fight it? How would you fight it?
  3. If a Christian tells you that she doesn’t feel loved by God, how would you counsel her? Are her feelings important or should she just ignore them and “trust God in spite of them”?
  4. How can we know that our hope of heaven will not disappoint? What anchors our hope to make it sure?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

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

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.

Conclusion

Years ago, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth visited the United States. At a question and answer session, someone asked him, “Dr. Barth, what is the greatest thought that has ever gone through your mind?” The questioner probably expected some deep, incomprehensible answer, as if someone had asked Einstein to explain his theory of relativity. Barth thought about the question for a while and then replied, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so” (from James Boice, Romans: The Reign of God’s Grace [Baker], p. 539).

While Barth was off on some of his theology, he was right on that answer! The apostle Paul wants us not only to know intellectually, but also to feel experientially the great love of God as seen in the fact that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

Application Questions

  1. Why does the popular teaching on self-esteem and self-love militate against our experience of God’s great love?
  2. Some argue that while we were sinners before conversion, now we should not view ourselves as sinners, but only as saints. What Scriptures would you use to refute this?
  3. Is it right to lead off an evangelistic presentation by telling lost people that God loves them? Is there any biblical basis for this? What biblical guidelines apply here?
  4. How does any form of works salvation undermine a person’s experience of God’s amazing love in Christ?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

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

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.

Conclusion

Paul states it as a given that those who have received this reconciliation now exult in God. But do we? Have you spent any time this past week exulting in God because of all that He has freely given to you through the Lord Jesus Christ? I encourage you to make time each day to open God’s Word and pray, “Lord, show me today some of the unfathomable riches of Christ so that I may exult in You. Thank You that I have been justified by Christ’s blood! Thank You that while I was Your enemy, You reconciled me to You through the death of Your Son!” The fact that you are saved for sure—justified by Christ’s blood, saved from God’s wrath, reconciled to God although you once were His enemy—ought to cause your heart to exult in God.

The early church father, Chrysostom, wrote (cited by Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 314), “And so the fact of his saving us, and saving us too when we were in such plight, and doing it by means of his only-begotten, and not merely by his only-begotten, but by his blood, weaves for us endless crowns to glory in.”

Application Questions

  1. Why is it important that believers feel assured of their salvation? What practical benefits come from this assurance?
  2. Since false assurance is a real possibility, how can we guard ourselves from it? What is the basis for true assurance?
  3. Should we try to give assurance to a person who professes to know Christ, but who is living in disobedience? What are the biblical guidelines here?
  4. Since glorifying God (or, exulting in Him) is the chief end of man, how would you counsel a Christian who rarely does this?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

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

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 desiringgod.org.) explains and applies this:

That is the all-important parallel. The deepest reason why death reigns over all is not because of our individual sins, but because of Adam’s sin imputed to us. So the deepest reason eternal life reigns is not because of our individual deeds of righteousness, but because of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us by grace through faith.

O how much light this sheds on why Paul embarked on this paragraph at all! He did it for the sake of our faith and our assurance and our joy. He did it to underline the fact that our right standing with God and our freedom from condemnation is not based on our righteous acts but on Christ’s righteous acts.

One other thought before we look at the rest of our text: Outside of Christ, the human race is still under the reign of death. As George Bernard Shaw wryly observed, “The statistics on death are quite impressive: one out of one people die!” We try to put it out of our minds, but then it hits someone close to us and we realize, “I’m going to die someday, too.” We try to preserve our bodies through exercise and health food, and AARP magazine perpetuates the myth by showing us old geezers who compete in triathlons, as if they will live forever. But the fact is, those old geezers are going to die. Plastic surgery may allow us to leave a young looking corpse, but it’s still a corpse! And, contrary to popular mythology, death is not a natural part of the life cycle. Death is God’s penalty for Adam’s sin, imposed on all his posterity. Death reigns if you are still in Adam. How do we escape the curse?

2. If you are in Christ, you will reign in life because Christ’s gift is greater than Adam’s sin (5:15-17).

These are also very difficult verses, and I can only skim them. Paul is making a comparison between Adam and Christ, but even more, a contrast. He’s showing why Christ is far superior to Adam, as seen by his twice-repeated phrase, “much more” (5:15, 17). Adam’s sin resulted in condemnation and death to the human race, but Christ’s obedience unto death resulted in justification and life to those who receive it. Let’s look briefly at each verse:

A. The work of Christ is greater than Adam’s sin because it displays and dispenses the abundance of God’s grace (5:15).

Romans 5:15: “But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many.”

Paul contrasts the devastating effects of Adam’s transgression—the many died—with the glorious effects of God’s free gift and grace, which abounds to the many. “Many” is not viewing the affected groups numerically, but qualitatively. It has two different ranges here. In the first instance, it refers to the devastating effects of one man’s sin on many, which means, the entire human race. It’s like one little campfire left untended which starts a forest fire that destroys the entire forest. One man sinned, but many died. In the second instance, it cannot refer to the whole human race, but only to those who “receive the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness” (5:17). It would be wrong to interpret the second “many” to mean that salvation is offered to all, because in 5:16, the second group is actually justified. Rather, it refers to the many who actually receive the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ.

The “much more” refers to the superlative nature of salvation over judgment. Paul piles up words like “grace,” “gift,” and “abound” to emphasize how wonderful God’s gift of salvation is, provided freely to us at Christ’s expense. It is an undeserved gift and it abounds to us through the grace of God and through the grace of Christ, who are linked in this verse. How much sin have you piled up? God’s grace in Christ is more abundant! How great is your guilt and debt? God’s free gift and abounding grace is greater!

B. The work of Christ is greater than Adam’s sin because it overcame many sins to freely bestow justification (5:16).

Romans 5:16: “The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification.”

The main contrast here is that one sin resulted in condemnation of the entire human race, but the many sins of that fallen race resulted in justification for all who believe. The word believe is not here, but it’s implicit because from 3:24-5:1 Paul hammered home that justification is received by faith alone. Condemnation and justification are judicial terms. Christ’s work is greater than Adam’s sin because it overcame the great devastation that resulted from Adam’s sin. Adam lit the forest fire that devastated the human race, but Christ not only put it out, but planted a new forest, an eternal one, for all who will receive His gracious gift.

C. The work of Christ is greater than Adam’s sin because rather than bringing the reign of death, it causes those who receive it to reign in life (5:17).

Romans 5:17: “For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.”

How do we escape the awful reign of death? By receiving “the abundance of grace” and “the gift of righteousness” through Jesus Christ! Again Paul refers to the abundance of grace to let us know that there isn’t any chance that God’s supply will run dry on the sinner who is in line before you. The gift is righteousness, Christ’s righteousness credited to your account, which is the meaning of justification. God does not just forgive your sins; He also bestows the positive righteousness of Christ to you, so that you stand before God not in your own righteous deeds, but in the righteousness of your representative, Jesus Christ.

And, not only do you escape the reign of death. Also, you will reign in life through Jesus Christ. This begins now as you live in victory over sin (Romans 6). It also means that the sting and fear of death are removed, so that we are more than conquerors in Christ (Rom. 8:36-37; 1 Cor. 15:56-57; Heb. 2:14-15). But it also means that throughout eternity we will reign with Christ (Rev. 1:6; 3:21; 1 Cor. 6:2, 3). He is the King of kings. Who are the kings that He is King over? We are (Lloyd-Jones, p. 265)!

Then Paul sums up verses 12-17:

3. To sum up: Through Adam’s sin all were condemned as sinners, but through Christ’s righteousness all in Him are justified (5:18-19).

Romans 5:18-19: “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.”

Verse 18 completes the idea that Paul began, but broke off, in verse 12: One man’s sin brought death and condemnation to all, but One Man’s righteousness brought justification of life to all. Paul is not teaching universalism, that all people will be saved. That would contradict what he teaches elsewhere, that sinners will face judgment and eternal condemnation (2:5, 8, 9). Also, in 5:17 he has just stated that it is those who receive the gift of righteousness who will reign with Christ. Rather, the two “alls” relate to their representative heads. All who are in Adam are condemned. All who are in Christ are justified. The same limits apply to the “many” in verse 19: Through one man’s disobedience, the many (the entire race) were made sinners. Through One Man’s obedience at the cross, the many (believers) will be made righteous.

The word made means to appoint, but it must be interpreted here in light of the forensic context. Douglas Moo (p. 345) explains, “To be ‘righteous’ does not mean to be morally upright, but to be judged acquitted, cleared of all charges, in the heavenly judgment.”

So Paul is summing up 5:12-17 in verse 18 and repeating it in slightly different language in verse 19. The main point is: If you are in Adam, you’re under the reign of sin and death, headed for eternal condemnation. But if you are in Christ by faith in His sacrifice on the cross, you are free from sin and death and will reign in life through Him, because Christ’s gift is greater than Adam’s sin.

Conclusion

These difficult verses have required a lot of explanation, but let me wrap it up by restating some of the practical applications:

(1) Fathers, your behavior and choices greatly affect your children, so live prayerfully and carefully. Thankfully, our sins won’t affect the entire human race, as Adam’s sin did. But we never sin in isolation. Think about how your conduct will affect your children.

(2) Since the universal problem of the human race is sin, the universal solution is the gospel. From primitive tribes to educated professors, the need and the solution are the same. Don’t be intimidated by someone with a Ph.D. He is a sinner and he needs the Savior. You can point him to Christ.

(3) If the universal problem is guilt by identification with Adam’s sin, then salvation cannot be through adding our good works. This text is all about how sinners can be put right with God. We must be identified with Christ’s righteousness by faith. We must receive God’s gift through Christ.

(4) If we are in Christ, our salvation is secure not because of anything in us, but because we’re in Him. You won’t be saved by your performance, but rather by Christ’s obedience on the cross and the fact that you’re trusting in Him alone. Are you in Adam, under the reign of death? Or, by faith are you in Christ, reigning in life?

Application Questions

  1. Is the doctrine of our identification with Adam in his original sin unfair? Why/why not? Why is this doctrine important?
  2. Discuss the implications of the twice-repeated “death reigned” (5:14, 17). What does it mean with regard to unbelievers (Eph. 2:1-3)?
  3. Discuss what it means for believers to “reign in life” through Jesus Christ. How does this apply to daily life now?
  4. Discuss the four practical applications given in the conclusion. What other applications can you think of in this text?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

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

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: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moralistic_therapeutic_deism)

Sadly, I think the authors are largely on target: much of what goes under the banner of Christianity is moralistic in that it believes that good people will go to heaven (although often the standards for “good” are not in line with the Bible). It is therapeutic in that feeling good about yourself is the main reason to go to church and believe in Jesus. He can help you succeed in your goals. And it is deism in that you don’t really need a Savior from sin because you’re a good person. God is there when you need Him, but the rest of the time, just believe in yourself and pursue your dreams. God, His glory, and the cross are not at the center of this belief system.

I hope that you can see how far moralistic therapeutic deism is from the gospel that Paul sets forth in Romans. After stating the theme of Romans, that he is not ashamed of the gospel, which reveals the righteousness of God (1:16-17), Paul shows that every person has sinned and is under God’s condemnation (1:18-3:20). He then shows that by His death on the cross, Jesus Christ satisfied God’s righteous demand so that He can be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (I hope that you can see how far moralistic therapeutic deism is from the gospel that Paul sets forth in Romans. After stating the theme of Romans, that he is not ashamed of the gospel, which reveals the righteousness of God (1:16-17), Paul shows that every person has sinned and is under God’s condemnation (1:18-3:20). He then shows that by His death on the cross, Jesus Christ satisfied God’s righteous demand so that He can be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (3:21-4:25). Then Paul sets forth some of the blessings of being justified by faith in Christ (

Then (5:12-19) Paul re-emphasizes why we must be justified by faith: When Adam sinned, we all sinned in him. His sin was our sin; the fact of universal death proves it. But the last Adam, Jesus Christ, more than overcame the devastating effects of Adam’s sin. Adam’s sin resulted in death for all who are in him, but Jesus Christ’s obedience in going to the cross resulted in justification of life for all who are in Him. Adam’s sin was credited to all his descendants, but Christ’s righteousness is credited to all who are His descendants through faith in Him.

But, Paul anticipates a question that anyone familiar with the Old Testament would have: Why, then, was the Law given? What was its purpose? Didn’t God give the Law through Moses so that people could keep it and live? So in 5:20-21 Paul contrasts the Law and its result with God’s grace in Christ and its result. He is saying,

Through the Law, sin reigned in death, but through Christ super-abundant grace reigns in righteousness to eternal life.

Paul’s words in 5:20 would have been utterly shocking to his Jewish readers: “The Law came in so that the transgression would increase ….” The average Jew would have thought that the Law came in to restrain sin, not to cause its increase (Thomas Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment [Baker], p. 73). We’ll consider in a mo­ment what Paul meant by this statement, but for now just note that most Jews would do a double-take and say, “Did I read that correctly?” Paul’s assertion definitely would have gotten their attention! He is saying:

1. Outside of Christ, the Law causes sin to increase and to reign in death.

There are several things to consider here:

A. The Law does not restrain sin at the heart level.

There is a sense in which both civil law and God’s Law restrain sin externally. The speed laws cause us to slow down, especially when we see a police car. Laws against theft, murder and other things may restrain people who would otherwise do those things. But the law cannot restrain the evil desires of the fallen human heart. I still want to speed. Greed makes me want to steal. The law cannot bring my sinful heart into willing submission.

Jesus hit the Pharisees with their hypocrisy in these things. Outwardly, they practiced obedience to the Law so that others would think that they were righteous. But in their hearts, Jesus said that they were full of self-indulgence, uncleanness, and lawlessness (Matt. 23:25-28).

B. The Law actually increases sin.

“The Law came in so that the transgression would increase ….” Paul isn’t just describing what actually happened, but rather God’s intent or purpose for giving the Law. This was not God’s only purpose or ultimate purpose, in that the increase of sin under the Law magnified the splendor and power of God’s grace (Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 295). But, in the sense that I am going to explain, the Law actually increases sin. It didn’t make the human race as fallen in Adam better; it made it worse.

The verb translated came in (5:20) points to the Law’s subordinate role in God’s economy (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 347). The idea is that the Law came alongside the existence of human sin, not to provide salvation, but to increase sin in several ways:

(1). The Law increases sin by turning our imputed sin in Adam into actual sins of deliberate disobedience.

This is Paul’s main point, as seen by the words, the transgression. He has just used this word to describe Adam’s disobedience (5:15, 17, 18). Adam disobeyed an explicit commandment of God. By way of contrast, those living from Adam until Moses sinned, but not in the same way that Adam sinned, in that they did not have God’s explicit commandments (5:14). They violated their con­sciences (2:12, 15). But when God gave the Law, the transgression of Adam increased, in that now sinners violated God’s explicit commandments. And so the Law of Moses turned those it addresses into “their own Adam” (Moo, p. 348). Each sinner, like Adam, now broke an explicit law. As Paul says (3:20), “for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (also, 7:7).

Maybe you’ve had the experience of doing something that didn’t quite seem right, but you were not aware of any law against it. But then you learned that the law specifically forbids doing what you were doing. If you do it again, the law has caused your sin to increase, because you are now deliberately disobeying.

(2). The Law increases sin by imputing our guilt to our account.

In Romans 4:15, Paul said, “Where there is no law, there is no violation.” In 5:13 he added, “For until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law.” Sin existed before the Law, in that sinners instinctively knew that what they were doing was wrong. But that sin was not specifically charged to them unless God had expressly forbidden it. So when the Law came, the transgression increased by imputing guilt to every sinner.

(3). The Law increases sin by exposing the utter sinful­ness of sin and removing all excuses for disobed­ience.

Paul says (7:13) “that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.” It’s one thing to do something wrong when you are not aware of any law against it. But when the law is posted on the wall or it is verbally explained to you, and then you go out and break that law, you have no excuse. Your deliberate disobed­ience reveals your sin to be utterly sinful.

(4). The Law increases sin by stimulating our sinful flesh to disobey it.

This is not Paul’s primary meaning in 5:20, but in light of what he goes on to say (7:7-11), it cannot be completely absent from his thought. The Law, which is holy, combines with our rebellious flesh to entice us to sin. Paul says that when the Law said, “You shall not covet,” it produced in him coveting of every kind (7:7-8). It’s like the little old lady who told the preacher that she wished he would stop quoting the Ten Commandments every week, because he was putting wrong ideas into people’s heads! We’ve all had the same experience. I wouldn’t have thought about walking on the grass if that sign had not said, “Do not walk on the grass”!

So the Law does not restrain sin at the heart level. Rather, the Law actually increases sin. But this raises the question: By giving the Law, was God causing us to sin? I hope that the very question causes you to say, “God forbid!” God cannot tempt anyone to sin (James 1:13). Rather, sin comes from our own lusts (7:5, 11-14). But that leads to a third observation about how the Law operates:

C. The Law is necessary to expose our self-righteousness and to convict us of our sin.

Outside of Christ, the tendency of the proud human heart is to trust in our own goodness and good works. We think that by our own efforts, we can commend ourselves to God. But the problem is, like the Pharisees, we focus on the outside of the cup, but conveniently ignore that the inside of the cup is filthy. And so God graciously sends the Law to tear down our self-righteousness and convict us of our sin so that we will be driven to the Savior.

Jesus did this with the Pharisees in the Sermon on the Mount. They took pride in never having murdered anyone, but Jesus said that if they had ever been angry, they were guilty of murder. They prided themselves on their morality, but Jesus said that if they had lusted after a woman, they were guilty of adultery in God’s sight. Jesus did the same thing with the rich young ruler. He took pride in having kept all the commandments, or so he thought. But by telling him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, Jesus showed him that he had not kept the first commandment, to have no other gods before the living God. His money was his god.

Thus the Law comes in, not just to increase the transgression, but also to reveal to us how guilty we are of violating God’s holy standards. This is actually gracious on God’s part, because in our self-righteousness, we don’t see our need for a Savior. But when the Law exposes our self-righteousness and convicts us of our sin, it drives us to the cross where we find grace. But not only does the Law cause sin to increase; also …

D. The increased sin reigns in death.

We saw this last week: sin led to death and “death reigned from Adam to Moses” (5:14); “death reigned through the one” (5:17); but, he repeats it again (5:21): “as sin reigned in death.” Two brief thoughts:

(1). Sin reigns as an evil tyrant in those who are not under Christ’s lordship.

In other words, sin doesn’t just move in as a polite houseguest; it takes over. It’s like bringing home a pet tiger kitten. It’s so cute and playful at first. But pretty soon, it grows into a vicious predator that kills you. Sin does not come in to work with you to accomplish your cherished objectives. It does not cooperate with you to help you be happy. It comes in pleasantly enough at first. It seems like a nice little pet. But invariably, it grows into an evil tyrant that reigns in death. If you do not conquer it, it will conquer and kill you (Gen. 4:7).

(2). Sin does not lead to a better, happier life, but to temporal and ultimately eternal death.

Sin reigns in the sphere of death, which refers both to physical and finally to spiritual death, which is eternal separation from God in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14-15). At first, sin always puts on a positive look: “You will be like God.” The fruit is good for food and a delight to the eyes (Gen. 3:5-6). Why not give it a try? It will bring you what you’ve always wanted! But that’s how sin deceives us. It did not bring Eve what Satan promised. It led her and the entire human race into death. Her oldest son murdered his brother out of jealousy. Sin is always ugly and leads to death. Remember that the next time you are tempted!

It’s a bleak picture, isn’t it! Outside of Christ, God’s holy Law causes sin to increase, so that it reigns in death. But thankfully there is some very good news:

2. Through Jesus Christ our Lord super-abundant grace reigns through righteousness to eternal life.

Romans 5:21 stands in contrast to 5:12. In 5:12, there are Adam, sin and death; in 5:21, we see the new Adam, Jesus Christ our Lord, righteousness, and eternal life. The new factor that makes the difference is super-abounding grace (Alva McClain, Romans, the Gospel of God’s Grace [BMH Books], p. 139).

The backdrop of sin displays the glory of God’s grace all the more (Schreiner, The Law, 242). F. Godet (Commentary on Romans [Kregel], p. 228) points out that Golgotha, “where human sin displayed itself as nowhere else, was at the same time the place of the most extraordinary manifestation of divine grace.” I once read about a master gem salesman who watched a rookie salesman fail to make a sale. With the next customer, the master showed the rookie how to display the gem on a background of black velvet to bring out the beauty and luster of the diamond. Even so, the glory of God’s manifold grace shines even brighter against the blackness of human sin. Note three things here:

A. God’s response to increased sin is super-abundant grace.

The Greek verb translated “increase” and “increased” has the idea of numerical increase. But the root of the word translated “abounded” means “to overflow,” or “to have more than enough.” But then Paul adds the Greek word, hyper, so that it means, “abounded all the more.” So we can translate, “where sin added up, grace super-abounded.” Donald Grey Barnhouse paraphrased it, “Where sin reached a high-water mark, grace completely flooded the world” (cited by James Boice, Romans [Baker], 2:618).

James Boice develops two points regarding God’s super-abundant grace. First: Grace is not withheld because of sin. Second: God’s grace is never reduced because of sin (pp. 619, 621). He points out that we do not usually operate this way. If someone wrongs or offends us, we withdraw from that person and do not treat him graciously. But God is not like this. Sinners crucified His Son who came to save them. After the resurrection, Jesus easily could have instructed the disciples, “Get out of this evil city of Jerusalem. It does not deserve to hear the gospel.” But instead, He told them (Luke 24:47) “that repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations,” and then He added, “beginning from Jerusalem.”

John Bunyan, who titled his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, also wrote a little book called, The Jerusalem Sinner Saved (both in The Whole Works of John Bunyan [Baker], vol. 1). His point was that Jesus Christ would have mercy offered, in the first place, to the biggest sinners.

B. God’s grace reigns through righteousness to eternal life.

Paul does not just say that in contrast to sin reigning in death, now grace reigns in life. He adds that “grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life.” Righteousness here refers to “the gift of righteousness” (5:17), which is the justification that all sinners receive when God imputes the righteousness of Christ to them by faith. As sinners who have been declared righteous, we are not made perfectly righteous in actual conduct until we see Jesus and become like Him (1 John 1:8; 3:2-3). We grow in godly behavior, but when we do sin, we have “an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). So our sins do not cut us off from God because His super-abundant grace reigns through the righteous standing that we have before Him through Christ.

This grace reigns “to eternal life.” In 5:17, Paul says that grace causes us to reign in life, but here he says that God’s super-abundant grace reigns to eternal life. This means that God’s grace takes us beyond where Adam was before the fall. He did not possess eternal life before the fall. We do. He did not have permanent, perfect righteousness credited to his account. We do. This should give us solid assurance of salvation. What God began in us when He graciously credited Christ’s righteousness to us as ungodly sinners (4:5), He will complete unto eternal life.

John Piper (“The Triumph of Grace Through Righteousness,” on desiringgod.org) points out that Romans 5 begins and ends with two infinite realities: eternal life at the end, and the hope of the glory of God at the beginning (xistence needs to be eternal so that we can experience more and more of the infinite glory of God (Eph. 1:6, 18; 2:7; Rom. 9:23). This also insures us that heaven will not be boring, because God’s glory is infinitely beautiful and enjoyable. He puts it this way:

Any amount of time short of eternity would be inadequate for a finite creature to experience the glory of God. It will take forever for us to see all there is to see and admire all there is to admire and enjoy all there is to enjoy of the glory of God. Therefore God ordains that there be eternal life for us.

There is one last thought that I can only mention in passing:

C. God’s grace is mediated to us through our Lord Jesus Christ.

All blessings come to us as believers through Jesus Christ our Lord, who graciously came to this earth and bore the penalty that we deserved on the cross. He mediates God’s blessings to us. Since we deserve nothing from God except judgment, this is pure grace. Throughout this chapter, Paul has repeated this so we won’t miss it: “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1). “We shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him [Christ]” (5:9). “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (5:10). “We also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation” (5:11). “Much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (5:17). And here (5:21), grace reigns “through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

All spiritual blessings are to be found in Christ (Eph. 1:3). Do you have Him? If so, His super-abundant undeserved favor will keep flowing and flowing to you unto eternal life!

Conclusion

In the center of Bath, England, stands a stone marker in honor of the city’s medicinal waters that have blessed so many people. It reads: “These healing waters have flowed on from time immemorial. Their virtue is unimpaired, their heat undiminished, their volume unabated. They explain the origin, account for the progress, and demand the gratitude of the City of Bath.” (From “Our Daily Bread,” Aug., 1982.)

That’s like God’s super-abundant grace for sinners who have trusted in Jesus Christ! The gospel of God’s grace is decidedly not moralistic therapeutic deism! Rather, through the gospel God’s enemies are reconciled to Him through “the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness” (5:17). His super-abundant grace reigns in us through Christ’s righteousness unto eternal life! A godly pastor who was about to die said, “I’m gathering together all my prayers, all my sermons, all my good deeds, all my evil deeds; and I’m going to throw them all overboard and drift to glory on the plank of Free Grace” (ibid.). Amen!

Application Questions

1.      Is it necessary to experience deep conviction of sin before coming to saving faith? If so, how should this affect our pre­sentation of the gospel?

2.      Someone may reason, “If the Law causes sin to increase, why not just throw out God’s commandments?” Your response?

3.      Discuss: Self-righteousness is one of the biggest hindrances to a person’s reception of the gospel.

4.      Someone objects: “You say that sin reigns in death, but I’ve been much happier since I started yielding to my lusts.” How would you respond?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

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

Related Topics: Grace, Soteriology (Salvation)

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