Lesson 48: Adopted Heirs of God (Romans 8:17)Related Media
Adoption is a beautiful thing to behold. I often look around at this congregation and see families that have adopted children from other countries and think about where those kids would be if they had not been adopted into a loving family. They had no family to love them or provide for their needs. They had no caring dad or mom to listen to their problems or put their arms around them and assure them that things would be all right. Many of them were malnourished and sick. They had no instruction even about basic matters in life such as hygiene, let alone spiritual instruction.
Then one day a couple with love and kindness in their eyes chose them and went through all of the legal and financial matters necessary to bring that needy child into their home. For the first time in their lives, those kids heard prayers and felt kisses before drifting off to sleep. When they awoke frightened or sick in the night, they had the comfort of loving parents to calm their fears or nurse them back to health. They had nutritious meals and nice clothing. They learned what it was like to be a part of a loving, caring family where God is worshiped, His Word is read, and needs are brought before His gracious throne in prayer.
The Bible uses adoption as a picture of what God has done for us. We were dirty, diseased, impoverished street urchins, with no one to care for us. We were not there as helpless victims, but rather because of our deliberate rebellion against God. But one day He showed up at the cardboard shack that we were sleeping in and in love chose us to be in His family. He cleaned us up, removed our rags, clothed us in the righteousness of Christ, fed us with the nourishing truth of His Word, and guided us in His paths of righteousness and wisdom. He brought us into His family, where we have brothers and sisters to share our burdens and our joys. And He made us His heirs, so that throughout eternity we will enjoy the unfathomable riches of Christ.
But these wonderful truths raise a question: If we are God’s beloved children, then why does He allow us to suffer? As an earthly parent, I did everything that I could to protect my children from suffering and to alleviate their pain, whether physical or emotional. If God is an all-powerful and all-loving Father, then why doesn’t He do the same with His children? While many books have been written to deal with that issue, Paul here and through the rest of the chapter shows that our suffering is not at odds with God’s love for us as His children. Just as our Savior had to suffer first and then enter His glory (Luke 24:26), so too, our path to glory goes through the valley of suffering.
Romans 8:17 is transitional: it sums up what Paul has been saying and it introduces what he will go on to say. Spurgeon (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 51:541) describes Paul’s style here as building a sort of Jacob’s ladder that takes us up from one step to the next. First (8:14) he says that all who are being led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God. We saw that in the context this does not refer to the Spirit’s leading us in matters of guidance about life’s choices, but rather to the Spirit’s leading us to kill our sin. If the Holy Spirit is prompting and enabling you to fight against and kill your sin, it’s an evidence that should assure you that you are a child of God.
The next step up the ladder is that if you are a child of God, then you are an heir. Then he goes higher—you are an heir of God Himself and a joint-heir with Christ. The uppermost rung of the ladder is that we will be glorified with Him. Spurgeon applies this by saying (51:542) that every grace we receive should lead us to seek after something higher still. We should never be complacent or think that we have arrived spiritually. We should seek to be filled more and more with all the fullness of God.
With that as an introduction, let’s explore some of the riches of our text. I’m convinced that Paul does not just want us to think about these things intellectually and walk away saying, “That’s interesting!” Rather, he wants us to feel emotionally the wonderful grace and love of being an adopted child of God and all of the glorious riches that God has stored up for us in eternity so that we can joyfully persevere in our present sufferings. He is saying,
As God’s adopted children, we are His heirs and fellow-heirs with Christ, which includes suffering now and future glory.
1. Through God’s gracious adoption, we have become His children.
As we saw (8:15), we “have received a Spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’” As I explained, “spirit” should be capitalized, referring to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the seal or pledge of our inheritance as adopted children of God (Eph. 1:13-14).
In a wonderful chapter in Knowing God (“Sons of God” [IVP], pp. 181-208), J. I. Packer says (p. 187) that adoption is the highest privilege that the gospel offers, even higher than the blessing of justification, because it brings us into a richer relationship with God as our loving Father. He goes on to say (p. 190, italics his) that “the entire Christian life has to be understood in terms of it” [adoption]. He illustrates from the Sermon on the Mount (pp. 190-193) how adoption is the basis of Christian conduct, as we imitate the Father. It’s at the root of glorifying the Father, as people see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. It’s at the heart of pleasing the Father, who sees our hearts, rather than being hypocrites who practice our righteousness before men. Adoption is the basis of Christian prayer, since Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father who is in heaven.” Adoption is also the basis of a life of faith, as we trust the Father to provide for our needs.
Then (pp. 194-207) Packer elaborates on how adoption gives us the deepest insights into five other matters: (1) It shows us the greatness of God’s grace and love; (2) the glory of the Christian hope; (3) the ministry of the Holy Spirit; (4) the meaning and motives of what the Puritans called “gospel holiness”; and, (5) the clue we need to see our way through the problem of assurance.
Does the doctrine of God’s gracious adoption of you as His child make your heart well up with thanksgiving and joy as you realize what the Father has done for you? He picked you out of the gutter of sin, cleaned you up, clothed you with the perfect righteousness of Christ, and lovingly brought you into His family as His child, where you enjoy the inexhaustible riches of His grace, both now and for all eternity! Meditate on that truth every day and it will give you strength to resist sin and grace to endure trials.
But, make sure that you are His child! The Bible is clear that by nature because of our sin we all are children of wrath, not children of God (Eph. 2:3). How do we become children of God? Paul explains (Gal. 3:26), “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” Instead of trusting in yourself or your good works to get into heaven, trust in Christ, who died to pay the penalty of sin for everyone who believes in Him. And lest you boast in your faith, keep in mind that salvation is totally from the Lord. As Paul writes (Eph. 1:5-6), “In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”
If by God’s grace through faith in Christ you are a child of God, then it follows:
2. As God’s children, we become His heirs.
Have you ever daydreamed about what it might be like to be an heir of a wealthy family, like the Rockefeller’s or the Kennedy’s or the Getty’s? From what I’ve read, many of those heirs are not happy people. They fight and take each other to court, trying to grab or protect their portion of the inheritance. But as children of God, the Creator and Lord of the entire universe, we never need to fear that someone else will get our portion. God is “abounding in riches for all who call upon Him” (Rom. 10:12). Note four things about our inheritance as God’s children:
A. We are heirs of God Himself.
“And if children, heirs also, heirs of God…” At the very least, this means that we will receive all that God has promised to us as His children. But it probably also means that God Himself is our inheritance. This truth was taught in the Old Testament. When Israel conquered the land of Canaan, it was divided up among the various tribes. But the priestly tribe of Levi got no land, because “the Lord is their inheritance, as He promised them” (Deut. 18:2; Josh. 13:33). Do you suppose that any of the Levites looked with envy at the other tribes and their fertile pastures and grumbled, “Where’s my inheritance?” And when they were told, “The Lord God of Israel is your inheritance,” they complained, “Bummer, I’d rather have some land!” I hope not!
The psalmist knew the joy of having God as his inheritance. For a while, he was envious of the wicked as he saw their prosperity. But then he got his bearings and realized that they would die and face God’s judgment. So he affirmed (Ps. 73:25-26), “Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
The prophet Jeremiah also knew this wonderful truth. He had witnessed the awful destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, along with the slaughter of many of his people and the deportation into slavery of many others. It was far, far worse than the 9-11 tragedy in our country. In the midst of his grief, he affirmed (Lam. 3:22-24), “The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I have hope in Him.’”
If God Himself is our inheritance, then our salvation is secure because He is eternal and unchangeable and His promises never fail. The reason we have Him for our inheritance is because He first chose us and predestined us to adoption as His children.
B. We are fellow heirs with Christ, who is the heir of all things.
Hebrews 1:2 declares, “In these last days [God] has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.” “All things” is fairly comprehensive! Paul puts it this way as he rebuked the bickering Corinthians (1 Cor. 3:21-23), “For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.”
Again, if we are co-heirs with Christ, our inheritance is secure because there is absolutely no doubt that Jesus will inherit all that the Father has ordained to give Him. In Psalm 2, the nations rage against God and seek to throw off the lordship of His anointed king. But God, who sits in the heavens, scoffs at these proud earthly kings. And then Messiah responds (Ps. 2:7-8), “I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord; He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You. Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance, and the very ends of the earth as Your possession.’” It is certain that Jesus will inherit all that the Father has promised to Him. And since we are fellow heirs with Christ, our inheritance is secure. Our right to the riches of heaven is not because of anything in us, but because we are in Christ. But, what does our inheritance look like?
C. Our inheritance includes the unfathomable riches of Christ.
In Ephesians 3:8, Paul describes his ministry as “to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ.” I preached an entire message on that verse when we worked through Ephesians, so I can only refer you to it now. But in Ephesians 2:7, Paul says, “So that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” It’s going to take the ages and ages of eternity to reveal to us all that God has prepared for us and given to us in Christ!
These riches include our being heirs of the world. In Romans 4:13, Paul said, “For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants (lit., “seed”) that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith.” Abraham did not inherit the world in his lifetime. The only piece of real estate he owned was the burial cave of Machpelah. But God has promised a new city whose architect and builder is God (Heb. 11:10). Abraham was looking for that heavenly city (Heb. 11:16), and since we are fellow heirs with Christ, who is the seed of Abraham, we will inherit the new heavens and earth with Him.
Also, we are heirs of the kingdom of God. James 2:5 declares, “Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?”
And, included with these promises, we are heirs of eternal life, which is the joy of knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent (John 17:3). In Titus 3:4-7, Paul exults, “But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” Wow!
I’ve already mentioned the fourth truth about our inheritance:
D. The fact that we are heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ makes our salvation absolutely certain.
In Galatians 3:29, Paul says, “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants [lit., “seed”], heirs according to promise.” Who made the promise? God, who cannot lie, did! Then in Hebrews 6:17-18 we read, “In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us.” The two unchangeable things were God’s word of promise and His oath when He swore by Himself to Abraham, “I will surely bless you and I will surely multiply you” (Heb. 6:14). God wants us who are His children to know that our inheritance is “imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:4). It’s absolutely certain.
But, then, why does God allow His children to suffer now?
3. If we have these promises and assurance from the Spirit, then we can endure present suffering as the path toward future glory with Christ.
Paul adds (Rom. 8:17b), “if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.” After meditating on all of the glories of being children of God and heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, the mention of suffering hits us out of nowhere. Why does Paul throw that in here? Well, Paul was a realistic pastor who wanted his people to apply these glorious truths about our future inheritance to the present reality of life in a fallen and hurting world.
Paul himself suffered terribly (2 Cor. 11:23-29). He knew that many of his readers were suffering, some more than others. Some were being persecuted for the sake of the gospel. Some had lost loved ones to martyrdom. But all of God’s children go through trials from the world, the flesh, and the devil. We all go through trials in our families, trials with other people, trials at work (or with being out of work), trials because of our sins and the sins of others against us, health problems, disappointments, heartaches, and grief.
But, why does God allow His children to suffer? I can’t be comprehensive, because the Bible contains much on this subject. But, first, if Jesus, God’s beloved Son in whom He was well-pleased, had to suffer before entering His glory (Luke 24:26), then why would we expect to be exempt? The popular teaching that it is God’s will for His children all to be healthy and wealthy and that we need to claim it by faith is heresy! Have you ever noticed that none of the false teachers proclaiming this nonsense are over 100 and going strong? They’re deceiving people for the sake of their own sordid gain.
Also, if Jesus Himself, who was sinless, learned obedience through the things that He suffered (Heb. 5:8), then why would we think that there is an easier course for us? God disciplines all of His children so that we might share His holiness (Heb. 12:5-11). Furthermore, as Philip Melancthon put it, “Where there are no cares, there will generally be no prayers” (cited by J. C. Ryle, “Are You an Heir?” in A New Birth [Old Paths Gospel Press], p. 241). Or, as Paul put it (2 Cor. 1:9), “Indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.” Trials drive us to dependence on God. They purify the dross from our lives. They produce perseverance, proven character, and hope (Rom. 5:3). They keep us from loving this world more than we should. And, they fix our hope on eternity (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
Paul here says that we will be glorified with Christ. Our adoption is a present reality, but there is still a future fulfillment of it, when we receive our new resurrection bodies (Rom. 8:23) and we will be in the presence of the Lord forever (1 Thess. 4:13-18).
J. C. Ryle (ibid., pp. 224-228) whets our appetite for this future glory by asking a series of questions and then expounding on the perfections of heaven. “Is knowledge pleasant to us now?” In heaven, we shall know all things and there will be no disagreements among believers. “Is holiness pleasant to us now?” Is sin causing us trouble now? In heaven there will be no sin! “Is rest pleasant to us now?” Are we often weary and faint? In heaven we will enjoy God’s perfect rest. “Is service pleasant to us now?” We will serve God perfectly in heaven, without any of our present limitations. “Is satisfaction pleasant to us now?” In heaven, our joy will be perfect and permanent. “Is communion with the saints pleasant now?” In heaven, we will enjoy perfect fellowship with God’s people. “Is communion with Christ pleasant to us now?” In heaven, we will see His face and our fellowship will never be broken by our sin.
How does this apply to us now? In many ways, but consider this illustration from John Newton, the converted slave-trader turned pastor and hymn-writer (cited by John Piper, “Children, Heirs, and Fellow Sufferers,” on DesiringGod.org):
Suppose a man was going to New York to take possession of a large estate, and his [carriage] should break down a mile before he got to the city, which obliged him to walk the rest of the way; what a fool we should think him, if we saw him ringing his hands, and blubbering out all the remaining mile, “My [carriage] is broken! My [carriage] is broken!” (Richard Cecil, Memoirs of the Rev. John Newton, in The Works of the Rev. John Newton, Vol. 1 [Banner of Truth], p. 108.)
Your carriage may be broken, but keep going—there’s a rich inheritance and eternal glory just ahead!
- Do you think often of your adoption as God’s child? How could this help your daily battle against depression or discouragement or sin?
- Do you often think of God as your loving, caring Father? Would doing this more often keep you from sinning? How?
- Why is the “health and wealth” teaching heretical? How does it damage people?
- How can we keep our eternal inheritance more in view in our daily lives?
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
Lesson 49: Present Suffering, Future Glory (Romans 8:18-25)Related Media
“Mom, why are there mosquitoes that give people malaria? Why are there germs that make us sick?”
“Mom, I saw on the news a bad flood that killed a lot of people. Why are there floods and earthquakes and hurricanes and tornadoes? Why are there famines where people starve to death?”
“Mom, why did my friend at school get cancer and die? Why did Grandma get sick and die?”
“Mom, why do people set off bombs to blow up other people? Why do people do bad things to hurt each other?”
Maybe your kids have asked you questions like these. Probably you’ve wrestled with them yourself. Some become agnostics or atheists because they cannot come up with satisfactory answers to the question of how a loving, all-powerful God can allow the terrible suffering that is in the world. Since none of us are exempt from suffering and death, it’s important that we understand what the Bible teaches on this difficult topic.
Philosophers, theologians, pastors, and others have written scores of books on the subject. Some of these books are helpful, while some are heretical. Job, the oldest book on the Bible, is devoted to this problem. And in our text, Paul gives part of the biblical perspective that we need to persevere through the suffering that we surely will encounter. It’s not comprehensive, but it is helpful and practical if we will struggle to understand and practice what the apostle teaches us here. He’s saying,
To persevere in present sufferings with hope, keep your eyes on the future glory that God has promised us.
Maybe right off you’re thinking, “That just sounds like ‘pie in the sky when you die.’” As I’ve often said, my response is, “Yes, you are going to die. Would you like pie with that or no pie?” The statistics are not fuzzy: We all are going to die (unless Jesus returns in our lifetimes). Materialists argue that when you die, that’s it—your body decomposes and your soul ceases to exist, just like an animal. Paul deals with that mistaken view in his defense of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15), where he says that if the dead are not raised, then eat and drink, because tomorrow you may die. But if Jesus was raised, then the dead will be raised. And if the dead are raised, then we should “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that [our] toil is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).
In our text, Paul wants us to understand two certainties and a practical conclusion that flows from them: First, the present time is marked by sufferings because of man’s fall into sin. Second, the future will be marked by glory for believers as God fulfills all His promises to us. The practical conclusion is, if we keep our eyes on the future promised glory, then we can endure present sufferings with perseverance and hope.
1. The present time is marked by sufferings because of man’s fall into sin.
Paul mentions “the sufferings of this present time” (8:18). He was not referring to an especially difficult period in history, but to the entire present age. The whole history of creation since the fall is marked by suffering. The history of nations is marked by struggles and catastrophes—wars, natural disasters, internal conflicts, power struggles, and crimes. The history of individuals is also in large part a history of trials—the trials of growing up, figuring out what to do with your life, whom you will marry, rearing children, working through struggles in your marriage, providing for your needs, growing old and facing declining health and death.
But, why? Why do we suffer? How should we as Christians think about these difficult matters? Four observations:
A. The whole creation suffers because of man’s fall into sin.
Romans 8:19-22: “For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.”
Paul personifies creation groaning as it anxiously awaits the culmination of salvation for God’s people, because that will trigger the release from corruption to which all creation has been subject since Adam and Eve fell into sin. At that time, God’s judgment on Adam included a judgment on creation (Gen. 3:17b-18a): “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you ….”
Not only the botanical world, but also the animal world, came under the curse. In either the millennial kingdom or in the new heavens and new earth (depending on your view of prophecy), Isaiah (11:6-9) gives us this vision:
And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little boy will lead them. Also the cow and the bear will graze, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah pictures in poetic language a vision of a restored creation, where there will not be any violence or death. We’ve watched the magnificent DVD series “Planet Earth,” which has a spectacular scene in slow motion of a great white shark leaping out of the ocean, grabbing a seal in its mouth, and plunging again beneath the water to consume its meal. In another stunning scene filmed at night, a group of lions bring down an elephant for their next meal. Such movies portray this as the natural order of the world, in which the fittest survive by preying on the weaker species.
But the Bible teaches that this is not natural. Violence and death, even in the animal kingdom, are the result of the curse on man’s sin. Death was not a part of the original creation, which God pronounced as good. And in the future, when believers receive the full redemption that has been promised in Christ, all of creation will be restored at least to its original state, if not to an even greater level of glory.
Two observations before we move on: First, this text assumes that God is the creator of all that is. It did not evolve by chance or random mutations over billions of years. Right out of the starting gate the Bible presents God as the creator (Gen. 1:1), “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It doesn’t put it up for debate or discussion. It hits you before you can duck with the fact that God miraculously created all that is by the word of His power. Psalm 33:6, 9 declares, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all their host…. For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast.” The psalmist sandwiches his practical application between these verses (33:8): “Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him.” God alone is the rightful Lord of creation and Lord of your life. The fact of creation should make you bow in wonder and worship before Him (see, also, John 1:1-3; Heb. 1:2; 11:3).
Second, even though the creation is fallen, it still bears witness to the majesty and glory of the Creator. David marveled (Ps. 19:1), “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.” Here in Flagstaff at 7,000 feet elevation, with the city’s efforts at restricting light pollution, we often can see what David must have seen in those dark Judean skies. The Milky Way stretches across the sky. The constellations beam their light from trillions of miles away. Sometimes with binoculars, I have located Andromeda galaxy, 2.5 million light years away, with one trillion stars. It makes you feel properly small and God properly big!
Last weekend, Marla and I went to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Standing on the rim and gazing at the vastness of that great geologic wonder always takes your breath away. Every evening a large group of visitors gathers on the patio of the North Rim Lodge to watch the spectacle in the sky. The sunsets are gorgeous and we watched lightning from the thunderstorms across the canyon. But, sadly, I would guess that very few of those watching this spectacular show even gave a passing thought toward the greatness and glory of the Creator! But those of us who know Him should revel in His creation. If the fallen creation is this beautiful, just think how spectacular the new heavens and earth will be!
So the first observation from these verses is that all creation suffers because of man’s fall into sin. It is presently enslaved to corruption and death. But, also,
B. All believers suffer because of man’s fall into sin.
This needs to be stated because, as I mentioned in our last study, there is a pervasive false teaching that God wants every Christian to be healthy and wealthy. They say, “If you’re sick or poor, then you need to claim your healing or your wealth by faith.” Those who teach these lies are preying on people’s greed and their natural longing to be in good health. But as I also said, I’ve never seen one of these false teachers live to be 120. They all succumb to disease and death at about the same age as the rest of us. Do not follow their teaching!
Paul himself suffered terribly. When he got saved, the Lord told Ananias the prophet whom He sent to open Paul’s eyes (Acts 9:16), “for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.” Paul often mentions the trials that he endured, which would have driven most of us to despair (see 2 Cor. 11:23-28).
Our Lord Himself was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3). He came to this world of suffering to bear our sins through His own suffering and death. So why should we think that somehow we will be exempt from suffering? In the sovereign purposes of God, some suffer more and some suffer less. But none are exempt. It’s a part of living in this fallen world. This leads to a third observation:
C. We need to think biblically about suffering so that we will grow through it rather than be destroyed by it.
Note Paul’s opening phrase (8:18), “For I consider ….” The word means to reckon, think about, consider, or ponder. In other words, this paragraph is the result of Paul’s careful, biblical thinking about suffering. It’s important to think biblically about suffering because when it clobbers you or those you love, you will be engulfed by a wave of powerful emotions. I’m not suggesting that you should suppress or deny your emotions, but I am saying that you need to process them through the grid of biblical truth, so that you are not devastated by your trials.
Peter indicates that it is especially in a time of trials that the devil prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us. But we must resist him by being firm in our faith and by understanding the biblical perspective on trials (1 Pet. 5:8-10). In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Paul does not deny that believers grieve when they lose loved ones, but he does say that in light of the promise of the Lord’s coming and the resurrection of our bodies, we should not grieve as those who have no hope.
The Bible gives us far more perspective on suffering than I can comment on briefly here. As you read it, ask God to instill His wisdom in your heart for how to handle suffering. But here in our text, Paul wants us to think about four things: First, our present sufferings are relatively short compared to our eternal sharing in the glory of God. Second, the weight of our present trials is like a feather on the scale, which can’t compare with the tons of gold of the glory that will be revealed to us. He expresses the same thought in 2 Corinthians 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.
A third thing to think about to endure present, temporary suffering for future glory is that our future glory with God is absolutely certain. God has promised it and He cannot lie. Christ promised to return in power and glory to bring final redemption to His people and to judge His enemies. Either He was mistaken or it is our certain future. And in the rest of the chapter Paul unfolds a fourth reason that we need to think biblically about suffering, namely, that God is using it to conform us to the image of Christ. Not even torture or martyrdom can separate us from His great love (8:35-39). There is a fourth observation from our text:
D. The fact of suffering does not undermine the fact that God has a plan and that He will accomplish His plan.
Often people observe the terrible suffering in the world and doubt God’s love or His power. The argument is especially emotional when we consider little children suffering physical or sexual abuse or the horrible effects of war or natural disasters. We think, “It’s one thing if wicked people suffer such things, but how could a God of love and power allow these precious little children to suffer such things?”
But Paul shows that such things stem directly from man’s fall into sin. As we saw in chapter 5, when Adam sinned, the whole human race sinned in him. If you say, “That’s not fair,” you’re on dangerous ground, to accuse the Sovereign God of being unfair! And you’re arrogantly implying that you would have done better than Adam did, so you don’t deserve to be penalized for his sin. So you’d best not accuse God of being unfair for imposing suffering on the human race because of sin.
Pastor John Piper (“Subjected to Futility in Hope,” part 1, on DesiringGod.org) points out that if you think that somehow the suffering in this world is out of proportion to what is deserved, then you do not grasp the infinite holiness of God or the unspeakable outrage of sin against this holy God. God’s judgment on the entire creation as seen in all of history’s horrible tragedies reveals how horrific our sin is to Him. Piper adds, “But in fact the point of our miseries, our futility, our corruption, our groaning is to teach us the horror of sin. And the preciousness of redemption and hope.” Thank God, He sent the Savior!
But the fact of terrible suffering does not undermine the fact that God has a plan and that He will accomplish His plan. Paul says that the creation was subjected to futility “in hope” (8:20). He also uses the analogy of birth pains (8:22). The outcome of birth pains is the hope of new life. And even so, God is moving history toward a goal that includes our future glory:
2. The future will be marked by glory for believers as God fulfills all that He has promised us.
I can’t elaborate due to time constraints, but I want to include this in this message to convey Paul’s flow of thought. God’s final purpose both for fallen creation and for His adopted children is the glory of complete salvation. Note four things about this glory:
A. The future glory is not totally revealed to us yet, but it includes the revealing of all that God has promised for us.
J. B. Phillips (The New Testament in Modern English [Geoffrey Bles], p. 324) paraphrases 8:19, “The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the sons of God coming into their own.” In Colossians 3:4, Paul says, “When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.” In 2 Thessalonians 2:14, he says, “It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (See, also, Heb. 2:10; 1 John 3:2.)
“Glory” is a hard concept to get your brain around, but it includes all of God’s promises to bestow on us the “unfathomable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). Streets of gold and gates of pearl and mansions prepared for us are limited analogies that say, “You can’t imagine how wonderful it will be!”
B. The future glory includes the full renewal of creation to its original perfection and purpose.
The new heavens and earth will probably be even more glorious than the Garden of Eden was. With new, glorified bodies we will live on a new earth and enjoy God’s creation as it was before sin entered this world.
C. The future glory includes our freedom from sin and its corruption, including the full redemption of our bodies.
“Freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:21) means at the very least, freedom from sin. We now enjoy the privileges of being God’s adopted children (8:15-16), but we haven’t yet come into our full inheritance, which includes the redemption of our body (8:23). Now, by God’s Spirit, we are able not to sin; but in glory we will not be able to sin. Hallelujah!
D. The future glory is guaranteed by our present possession of the Holy Spirit, the first fruits of our redemption.
The indwelling Holy Spirit gives us a taste of what it will be like to be holy, as Jesus is holy. But we’re still living in these fallen bodies that are prone to temptation and sin, with all of its terrible consequences. But the Holy Spirit is the promise that God will not abandon us to our sin. He’s the down payment that signals that God will complete the purchase. The practical conclusion follows:
3. Keep your eyes on the future promised glory and you will persevere in present sufferings with hope.
Paul anticipates us thinking, “But, I can’t see this future glory.” His reply is, “Yes, that’s the very nature of hope.” If you can see it all, then it’s not hope. Our salvation includes hope because we don’t receive it all in this life. The hope of our salvation is not uncertain, as when we say, “I hope it doesn’t rain on my picnic tomorrow.” Rather, it is absolutely certain because of the many promises of God, who cannot lie. But we hope for it because we have not yet received all that has been promised. So Paul concludes (8:25), “But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.” The key to persevering in suffering with hope is to keep your eyes on the promised future glory.
If you’ve ever watched your favorite team play in the Super Bowl, you were anxious as the game progressed, especially if it was close. If your team fumbled or threw an interception, you groaned because you didn’t know the outcome. You hoped they would win, but your hope was uncertain. Maybe you even got depressed when they were far behind.
But if your team came from behind and won in the last seconds of the game and later you watched a replay of the game, your whole attitude was different. You didn’t despair when they fumbled or fell behind, because you knew how it all would turn out. Knowing the certainty of the future glory gave you hope to persevere through the setbacks.
If we become anxious or depressed in trials and lose hope, it’s because we’ve forgotten the absolutely certain outcome: Future glory forever with Christ! Yes, there is present suffering because we live in a fallen world. But God has promised future glory. Keeping that in view will enable you to persevere any suffering with hope.
- Think about someone who has lost hope and perhaps his faith in Christ because of trials. How would you use the truth of this text to help such a person?
- Why is the “health and wealth” teaching heresy? How does it damage people? How can you refute it biblically?
- What are some practical ways to gain a clearer vision of the future glory promised to us so that it affects your daily walk?
- Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: The Final Perseverance of the Saints [Zondervan], p. 14) argues that believers should not be shaken or cast down by suffering. Is this realistic? Where is the balance between acknowledging despair and yet trusting in God? See 2 Cor. 1:8-10.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Lesson 50: The Spirit Helps Us Pray (Romans 8:26-27)Related Media
In a message at the 2011 Desiring God Pastor’s Conference, Francis Chan told of many answers to prayer that he has received. He said that for those who know the living God, this should be the norm. We should have such frequent answers to our prayers that we’re surprised when an occasional one goes unanswered.
If you can relate to what Chan was saying, perhaps you should be the one giving this message on prayer, because to be honest, my experience is almost the opposite of Francis Chan’s. I don’t keep detailed records, but I seem to strike out in prayer so often that it’s a big deal when I connect for a hit. My batting average wouldn’t get me into the minor leagues, much less the majors! So maybe before you ask me to pray for you, you should shop around!
Seriously, I need all the help I can get to learn how to pray rightly. And so our text, while it has some puzzling details, overall is a great encouragement. Paul is saying,
Knowing that the Holy Spirit tenderly prays for us in our weakness should encourage us to pray.
Paul Miller, who also spoke at the same Desiring God conference, estimates from surveys that he has taken at his prayer seminars that about 90 percent of evangelicals do not have a meaningful daily prayer life. (I would encourage you to listen to his message and read his helpful book, A Praying Life [NavPress].) If you find prayer to be difficult, then Romans 8:26-27 should encourage you.
Douglas Moo (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 526) summarizes Paul’s thought in these verses:
Paul is saying … that our failure to know God’s will and consequent inability to petition God specifically and assuredly is met by God’s Spirit, who himself expresses to God those intercessory petitions that perfectly match the will of God. When we do not know what to pray for—yes, even when we pray for things that are not best for us—we need not despair, for we can depend on the Spirit’s ministry of perfect intercession “on our behalf.”
As I said, Paul’s overall intent is clear: He wants to encourage us, especially when we feel our own weakness, because the Holy Spirit is praying for us. Even though we do not know how to pray as we should, we should be encouraged to keep praying. But there are a number of details in these verses that are difficult to understand. I’ll try to explain them as best as I can as we work through the text and hope that the explanatory detours do not distract from the overall encouragement for your prayer life.
The first difficulty is to determine what “In the same way” refers to. Some authors connect it to the theme of “groaning.” In 8:22, the whole creation groans; in 8:23, we ourselves groan as we wait for the completion of our adoption as God’s children. So, “in the same way,” the Holy Spirit “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”
Others say that “in the same way” links 8:26-27 with the other references to the Holy Spirit in chapter 8 (2, 4, 5, 9, 11, 13, 14, 15, & 16). “In the same way, the Spirit also helps our weakness” (8:26).
Still others argue that the connection is with hope. We can be encouraged in our trials because of the hope of future glory (8:18-25); in the same way, we can be encouraged in our weakness by the Spirit’s intercession for us (8:26-27). I am inclined to either the second or third view. Either Paul is connecting 8:26-27 with all the other references to the Spirit in this chapter, or he is linking it with the encouragement and hope of 8:18-25. But either way, he wants us to feel encouraged by the fact that the Spirit is praying for us, so that we will be encouraged to keep praying. Note two things:
1. All of us are weak, which is why we need to pray.
A. A sense of our weakness will drive us to pray.
Sometimes a small pronoun in the Bible can make a lot of difference. Paul did not write, “… the Spirit also helps your weakness,” but rather, “the Spirit also helps our weakness.” Paul did not set himself on a pedestal as an example of spiritual strength. Rather, he included himself with us as one who was weak. A main reason that we do not pray as frequently or as fervently as we should is that we do not recognize how weak we really are. If we knew ourselves to be weak, we would constantly be coming to the Lord and crying out for His strength. Jesus did not say, “Without Me, you can get along with all of the everyday stuff. But when you get hit with something really big, call on Me.” Rather, He said (John 15:5), “… apart from Me, you can do nothing.”
We tend to look at the spiritual giants in the Bible and think, “Wow, they were strong!” Look at Elijah! What a guy! He called down fire on his sacrifice and then slaughtered 400 prophets of Baal. Twice he called down fire to consume a commander and fifty armed men who were sent to arrest him. Don’t mess with Elijah! And yet James (5:17) tells us, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed ….” Elijah was weak, just like we are. But he prayed to the God who is strong.
Or, consider Moses. He stood up to the most powerful monarch in the world by calling down miraculous plagues on him and his kingdom. He parted the Red Sea so that the Israelites could pass through on dry ground and then he brought the sea back over the heads of the pursuing Egyptian army. He brought water from a rock in the barren desert. At his word, the ground opened up and swallowed alive those who challenged his leadership. He seemed to be a rock of spiritual strength! And yet in the mournful Psalm 90, he laments the frailty and shortness of life. The psalm ends with his pathetic plea (Ps. 90:17), “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us; and confirm for us the work of our hands; yes, confirm the work of our hands.” I’ve often thought, “If Moses needed to beg God to confirm his labors, how much more do I!” Moses was aware of his own weakness, which is why he prayed.
Or, look at the Lord Jesus Himself. He alone lived a sinless life on this wicked earth. He boldly confronted the religious leaders without fearing their threats. He overturned their money tables and pronounced woes on their hypocrisy. If anyone seemed to be strong, it was Jesus. And yet He said (John 5:19), “The Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing.” He often slipped away to the wilderness for prayer (Luke 5:16). In His humanity, Jesus knew that He must depend on the Father for all things. He is a model for us of praying at all times and for all things (Luke 18:1). Our weakness should cause us to cry out to God in prayer.
Hudson Taylor said (source unknown), “All God’s giants have been weak men who did great things for God because they reckoned on God being with them.” We fail to pray because we think that we’re strong enough to handle life without God. It’s encouraging here in Romans 8:26 that God doesn’t confront us or condemn us for being weak. Rather, He sends His Spirit to help us in our weakness.
So, if you say, “I don’t have the strength to resist the temptation to look at porn,” then flee to Jesus in your weakness. Cry out to Him for deliverance. “But, I don’t have the strength to overcome my angry temper.” The next time you’re about to explode, run to Jesus. Every time you feel your weakness and inability, call out to Jesus. But, maybe you’re thinking, “But that’s the problem—I’m not strong in prayer.” Paul says that…
B. Our weakness extends to our prayer lives.
Part of the weakness that Paul refers to is weakness in prayer: “for we do not know how to pray as we should.” Again, I’m glad he said we, not you. Paul himself didn’t know how to pray as he should. He gives us a glimpse into this in 2 Corinthians 12. He tells about his own experience of being caught up into Paradise where he heard inexpressible words, which he was not permitted to speak. Because of that great revelation, to keep Paul from exalting himself, God gave him what he calls “a thorn in the flesh.” We can speculate on what this was, but the bottom line is, no one knows for sure because the Bible doesn’t tell us.
But Paul says that three times he implored the Lord to take away this affliction. But the Lord replied (2 Cor. 12:9), “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Paul concluded (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.”
Paul didn’t know what he should pray for in that trial. And that’s the sense of Romans 8:26. He is not talking about the method or technique of praying, but rather the content. Paul wrestled with the same thing in Philippians 1:22-24, where he couldn’t decide whether to pray that the Lord would take him home, which was Paul’s desire, or preserve his life for further ministry. Moses entreated the Lord to let him enter the Promised Land, but that was not God’s will (Deut. 3:25-26). Elijah, man of prayer that he was, asked the Lord to take his life (1 Kings 19:4). Even Jesus, in His humanity, prayed that if possible, the Father might allow Him to escape from the cross, if it would be God’s will (Matt. 26:36-46). The point is, we’re all weak in many areas, including prayer. We often don’t know how to pray as we should. But, thankfully, God doesn’t leave us to ourselves:
2. God graciously gives the Holy Spirit to help us by interceding for us in our weakness.
Romans 8:26b-27: “The Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Again, while many of the details are difficult to understand, Paul’s overall intent is to encourage us with the fact that God has not left us alone in our weakness. Rather, His Spirit helps us by praying for us. I’ll try to explain this with five observations:
A. The Holy Spirit is a person, the third member of the Godhead.
The Holy Spirit is a person, not an impersonal force. He helps us in our weakness by praying for us, which an impersonal force cannot do. God is one God who exists eternally as three distinct persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Deut. 6:4; James 2:19; Matt. 28:19). The fact that the Spirit prays for us shows that He is distinct from the Father, to whom He prays. Also, the Father knows perfectly the mind of the Spirit and the Spirit prays perfectly in accord with the will of the Father. The Holy Spirit indwells everyone who belongs to Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:9). And so His ministry of prayer comes from within us, while Jesus’ ministry of intercession (8:34) takes place at the right hand of the Father.
B. The Holy Spirit helps us.
The word “helps” occurs only here and in one other place in the New Testament. The meaning is, someone is carrying a heavy load and another person comes alongside to take the other end and bear the burden with him. The other use of “help” is in Luke 10:40, where Jesus is in the home of Mary and Martha. Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet, but Martha was distracted with all her preparations. Finally, she burst out, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” She wanted her sister to help bear the burden of preparing and serving the meal.
The word implies that the Holy Spirit doesn’t do everything, while we sit back and do nothing. Rather, we are to keep praying and, if appropriate, keep working or obeying or whatever the Bible may tell us to do about our situation. But as we pray, the Spirit says, “Let Me grab the other end. Let me help you by picking up your burden and taking it before the Father’s throne. I know what to pray for when you don’t.” So the Spirit helps us by praying for us in our weakness. What an encouragement!
C. The Holy Spirit helps us by interceding for us on an emotional level.
“The Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” What does this mean? We don’t have anything to compare it with, since this is the only reference to such a thing in Scripture. But, first, we can say with certainty that it does not refer to speaking in tongues, as some argue. That subject is totally foreign to the context here. Also, if speaking in tongues is a valid gift today, it is only for some, whereas the ministry of the Spirit in verse 26 is for all believers.
As you can predict, there are differing views of what this phrase means. Some argue that since it is inconceivable that God would groan, this must refer to our groans, which the Spirit translates into specific requests before the Father (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: The Final Perseverance of the Saints [Zondervan], pp. 135-136). In line with this, Thomas Schreiner (Romans [Baker], pp. 445-446) understands it to refer to groanings that originate from the Spirit, but are experienced by believers. The Spirit burdens us with inexpressible longings to know and do the will of God. He then takes those burdens to the Father in an articulate form on our behalf.
Others argue that the wording of the sentence implies that these are the groans of the Spirit Himself, of which we are not aware. John MacArthur puts it (The MacArthur Study Bible [Thomas Nelson], p. 1676), these groans refer to, “Divine articulations within the Trinity that cannot be expressed in words, but carry profound appeals for the welfare of every believer.”
While I’m not dogmatic (and I did not find any commentators who suggested this), my understanding is that the Spirit’s groaning on our behalf is an anthropomorphism, or more correctly, an anthropopathism, which is to attribute human emotions to God. For example, when the Bible says that God repents or changes His mind, it is speaking from a human point of view. To us, it seems as if God changed His mind, although His counsel is fixed from all eternity (1 Sam. 15:11, 29). In one of the most outrageous anthropomorphisms in the Bible, the psalmist compares God to a warrior who awakes from being drunk (Ps. 78:65)! Obviously, God is not sleeping off a hangover when He does not answer our prayers, but that’s how the psalmist portrays Him.
So here, I suggest that Paul pictures the Holy Spirit groaning on our behalf to convey that He takes up our needs at the deepest emotional level and conveys our hurts and cares to the Father’s throne, all in line with the will of God. This should encourage us to pour out our hearts before Him (Ps. 62:8).
D. The Holy Spirit helps us by interceding for us according to the will of God.
Romans 8:27: “And He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” “He who searches the hearts” most likely refers to the Father. Paul’s point is, if the Father understands all human hearts, then He must know the unspoken groans of the Holy Spirit on our behalf. In other words, the Spirit takes our deepest feelings and unexpressed needs to the Father, who understands everything perfectly. Nothing leaves God scratching His head, wondering what our real needs are.
Since God searches and knows every heart, our prayers should come from the heart. You can impress others with spiritual-sounding prayers, but those prayers don’t impress God. Pour out your heart honestly to Him. But maybe you’re thinking, “But what if my prayers are not in line with God’s will?”
E. The Holy Spirit’s prayers for us are always according to God’s will and thus are always answered.
The last phrase of 8:27 seems to say that the Holy Spirit makes corrections for any misdirected prayers that we make by praying for us according to the will of God. Part of our weakness in prayer is that we’re not able to know God’s sovereign will, in the sense of His decree, until after it has happened. We can know His moral will, as revealed in Scripture. We should never pray for anything contrary to Scripture. You don’t need to pray about whether you should marry an unbeliever or have sexual relations outside of marriage or whether you should steal to meet your financial needs. Those things are always wrong.
But there is a mystery here that we cannot fully understand. Samson’s parents rightly exhorted him not to marry a Philistine woman. But they did not know that God wanted to use Samson’s wrong desires to bring judgment on the Philistines (Judges 14:1-4). Jeremiah was right to pray that God would spare His people from the Babylonians for His name’s sake. But God’s sovereign will in that situation was to judge them (Jer. 14:19-15:2). Or, Satan demanded permission to sift Peter like wheat by tempting him to deny Christ. If I had heard that demand, I would have prayed that God would keep Peter from sinning. But Jesus, who knew the will of God perfectly, did not pray that Peter would not sin, but rather that his faith would not totally fail and that after he was restored, he would strengthen his brothers (Luke 22:31-32).
So I understand Paul’s point to be that we should pray according to God’s will as best as we can, but if God’s decreed will differs from our prayers, the Spirit will correct our requests to line up with God’s sovereign will. And so even if to us it seems that our requests are denied, in God’s sovereign plan, they will be answered.
One well-known example of this is that Augustine’s godly mother, Monica, prayed for years for the salvation of her wayward son. He told her that he was going to move to Italy. She prayed that he would not go, because she thought that he would be led into further sin there. But he went and got saved there. The Spirit took her deepest desire, re-directed it before God’s throne, and her son got saved and became the most influential theologian for the next one thousand years.
So while there are difficult details in these verses, the bottom line is pretty clear: We should be encouraged to pray. We won’t fully understand the mystery of prayer in this life, but we know that the Lord commands us to pray. He has ordained prayer as the means through which we cooperate with Him in bringing about His sovereign will. He encourages us with the truth that the Holy Spirit, who dwells in us, tenderly takes our prayers and directs them according to God’s will before His throne. Here are three final applications:
*Don’t let the fact that you don’t know how to pray as you should discourage you from praying. Paul didn’t know how to pray as he should, but he told us to “pray at all times in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18). So keep at it even when you don’t understand it.
*Don’t let the fact that prayer isn’t easy discourage you from praying. Paul told the Colossians (4:12) that Epaphras was “always laboring earnestly for [them] in his prayers.” Prayer is often hard work. It isn’t easy. But keep working at it. Finally,
*Don’t let the fact that your prayers don’t seem to be answered keep you from praying. Make sure that to the best of your understanding you are praying in accord with God’s will. But if you are praying unknowingly for something that is not His will, you can trust that the Spirit will take your prayers and line them up with God’s perfect will. This gracious truth, that the Holy Spirit tenderly prays for us in our weakness, should cause us to persevere in prayer, especially in times of trial.
- Discuss: Paul Miller suggests that our lack of prayer is not due to a lack of discipline, but rather a lack of feeling our need.
- What is your main hindrance to prayer? How can you overcome it?
- If God knows our needs and the Spirit is praying for us, why do we need to pray? (See Matt. 6:8ff.)
- If God has determined His sovereign will, does prayer really change things? If so, how? If not, why pray?
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
Lesson 51: All Things for Good for Us (Romans 8:28)Related Media
One of the most helpful things that you can learn with regard to your Christian life is how to handle the trials that inevitably will come your way. Jesus explained that there are some who receive the word with joy, but their faith is only temporary. When affliction or persecution because of the word hits them, immediately they fall away (Matt. 13:20-21). They didn’t expect affliction or understand how to handle it. They signed up for success, not suffering. They wanted prosperity, not persecution. So they fell away when the trials hit. It is especially in times of suffering that Satan, whom Peter describes as a roaring lion, seeks to devour you (1 Pet. 5:8-10). So it is essential for your spiritual survival that you know and apply what the Bible teaches about trials.
Romans 8:28 is one of the most familiar verses on this subject. The NASB reads, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Due to a textual variant, the ESV translates it slightly differently and, I think, more accurately: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” But either way the sense is the same. All things don’t just happen to work out for good on their own. Rather, God providentially works all things together for good for His people according to His purpose.
But while Romans 8:28 is a source of great comfort when it is properly understood, it is often misunderstood and misapplied. Some think that it teaches a Pollyanna positive outlook on life, that everything will turn out for our happiness in this life. But this denies or greatly minimizes the reality of suffering and evil. It insensitively says to those who are suffering: “Don’t worry, be happy, your loss isn’t really so bad.” But the verse isn’t saying that.
Sometimes well-meaning Christians recite Romans 8:28 to a person in the throes of grief, trying to help or comfort. But at the moment of loss, the grieving person mostly needs your presence and your help with practical matters. Later, if need be, you may be able to help him understand and apply this verse. But it will help us all to weather suffering better if we understand this verse before the storm hits.
In the context, Paul has given us encouragement and hope with the truth that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us (8:18-25). He has also encouraged us with the truth that the Holy Spirit is helping us in our weakness by praying for us according to the will of God (8:26-27). But that raises the question, “If the Spirit is praying for the saints according to the will of God, then why do we suffer? Why are we persecuted, sometimes to death? Can such suffering be according to God’s will?” In response, Paul affirms,
God works all things together for good for those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.
Note the contrast between (8:26), “for we do not know how to pray as we should,” and (8:28), “we know that God causes all things to work together for good….” In our weakness, we often do not know what to pray for, but we can know, even in such times, that our sovereign God is working all things together for our ultimate good. Paul goes on to explain how this is so in 8:29-30. Douglas Moo (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 530) paraphrases the flow of thought in 8:28-30 as follows:
“We know that all things are working for good for those of us who love God; and we know this is so because we who love God are also those who have been summoned by God to enter into relationship with him, a summons that is in accordance with God’s purpose to mold us into the image of Christ and to glorify us.”
To understand and apply this verse, we need to think through four truths:
1. God has an eternal purpose and He is able to accomplish His purpose.
This truth is foundational to the truth of Romans 8:28. If God doesn’t have a purpose, then He couldn’t work all things according to that purpose. Or, if He has a purpose, but He’s not able to pull it off, then your trials might be sabotaging His purpose. A heretical view held by some professing evangelicals called Open Theism argues that God is not sovereign over the terrible things that happen in the world. They’re trying to get God off the hook for suffering, but they rob Romans 8:28 of its comfort for us in times of suffering. We must affirm three things about God’s purpose:
A. God has an eternal purpose that cannot be thwarted.
If a man is going to do anything of significance—build a house, found a company, or take a trip—he has a purpose and a plan to accomplish that purpose. It’s unthinkable that the Sovereign God created the universe with no purpose or no plan to achieve that purpose. But we don’t need to infer this by logic; the Bible often affirms that God has a purpose that can’t be thwarted.
In the oldest book of the Bible, after all his suffering, Job replies to the Lord (42:2), “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.” In Isaiah 14:24, with regard to the eventual downfall of Israel’s enemy, Assyria, the prophet states, “The Lord of hosts has sworn saying, ‘Surely, just as I have intended so it has happened, and just as I have planned so it will stand.”
Later, regarding God’s purpose to raise up Cyrus to free Israel from captivity, Isaiah (46:10-11) cites the Lord as saying, “For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure’; calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of My purpose from a far country. Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it.”
Or, in Ephesians, after stating how God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world and predestined us to adoption as sons (1:4, 5), Paul adds (1:11), “In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.” (See, also, Eph. 3:11.)
Thus God has an eternal purpose to glorify Himself by saving a people through His grace, so that Christ would be preeminent in all things. And nothing can thwart His purpose. This means that…
B. Sinful people are not able to thwart or frustrate God’s purpose.
After speaking of God as the almighty Creator, who spoke the universe into existence, the psalmist adds (Ps. 33:10-11), “The Lord nullifies the counsel of the nations; He frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart from generation to generation.” So, rather than sinful people frustrating God’s purpose, God frustrates their purpose!
This truth is all through the Bible, but let me give you two examples. Genesis 37-50 unfolds the moving story of Joseph and his brothers. Their father Jacob favored Joseph, which caused his brothers to hate him. They sold him into slavery in Egypt and lied to their father that a wild beast had killed him. In the providence of God, Joseph rose from prison to the position of second in command to Pharaoh. In that role, he was able to save his extended family during a long famine. He later explained to them (Gen. 50:20), “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” Joseph’s brothers’ sin could not thwart God’s greater purpose for His people.
The New Testament tells of the greatest evil that has ever been committed, when sinful men crucified the sinless Son of God. But did these evil men, acting under Satan’s influence, thwart God’s plan? In Acts 4:27-28 we read the prayer of the early church when they faced persecution: “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.” The wicked men were responsible for their sin, but their sin fulfilled rather than thwarted God’s plan.
This means that no sinful person can thwart God’s purpose or plan for your life. The sinful mate who left you for another woman didn’t ruin God’s plan for your life. The drunk driver who killed your loved ones can’t frustrate God’s purpose for their lives or your life. The evil person at work who lied about you and got you wrongfully fired didn’t divert God’s purpose for your life. But maybe you’re thinking, “But, what about free will? God gave everyone free will, didn’t He? Couldn’t these people mess up God’s plan by their free will?”
C. “Free will” does not thwart or frustrate God’s purpose.
I don’t like the term “free will,” because it’s misleading. No one has perfectly free will. You were not free to choose when or in what country you were born, to whom you were born, what gender you were born, or what genetic traits you were born with. All of those factors, which greatly influence your choices, were determined apart from your will. If you had been born to a Muslim family in Afghanistan 500 years ago, you would not have been “free” to choose Christ because you never would have heard of Him. And even if a missionary had come to your village and preached the gospel (and survived!), there would have been tremendous social pressure to keep you from turning against your family by believing in Christ. The will is not totally “free.”
In addition, as we’ve seen all through Romans, you were born “in Adam,” with a fallen sin nature. You did not seek for God because you hated Him. You were not able to submit to God’s holy law, but rather suppressed the truth in unrighteousness. Sin has blinded all of us toward the things of God. As Charles Wesley put it, our will is “fast bound in sin and nature’s night.”
But this invokes the question, “If God is absolutely sovereign and our will is not totally free, then are we puppets or robots? Aren’t we free to make choices for which we are responsible?” The Bible is clear that God is sovereign and people make choices for which they are responsible. We must affirm both. But the point is, no choice of the worst sinner, even of a man like Hitler, can thwart God’s purpose to save and glorify His people. Romans 8:28 only works if God has an eternal purpose that He is able to accomplish in spite of sinful people and their so-called “free will.”
2. God’s eternal purpose includes calling to salvation a people for Himself.
In 2 Timothy 1:9, Paul says that God “has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.” In our text, Paul describes those for whom God works all things together for good as “those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.”
Note that Romans 8:28 does not promise that all things work together for good for all people. It is not a verse for universal optimism. For those who hate God and are not called according to His purpose, the future holds condemnation and eternal punishment, if they do not repent. So the promise that God will work all things together for good is only for His elect, whom He purposes to save. Paul describes them in two ways:
A. Those for whom all things work together for good love God.
This is the human side of things, although God is behind it. None of us would love God if He had not first loved us (1 John 4:19; Eph. 2:3-7). But when we heard the gospel, that in love God gave His only begotten Son so that whoever believes in Him has eternal life (John 3:16), we responded in faith so that now we love Him. He changed our hearts from being hostile toward God to wanting to please Him because we love Him.
Also, loving God (in Rom. 8:28) is not a condition, but a description. In other words, Paul is not saying that as long as you really love God, He will work everything together for good for you, but if your love for God grows cold, He won’t work everything for good. That wouldn’t be much comfort! Although at times our love for God may need reviving (Rev. 2:4-5), it can still be said of every true Christian that we do love God. It’s the bent of our lives.
Paul only refers to our love for God in three other places (1 Cor. 2:9; 8:3; Eph. 6:24). So you have to ask, why did he mention it here? Perhaps he mentions it here in the context of trials because at such times we need to affirm our love for God. During trials the devil tempts us to doubt God’s love for us. We need to be reminded not only that God loves us, but also that because He gave His Son for us, we now love Him. He is our chief treasure.
Also, in a time of persecution, love for God (and His love for us) is the one thing that can’t be taken from us. This evil world can deprive us of our possessions. It can torture us and kill our bodies. But it can’t take our chief treasure. As Psalm 73:25-26 puts it, “Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” So those who have tasted God’s love through the gospel love Him. They are the ones for whom God is working all things together for good.
B. Those for whom all things work together for good are called according to God’s purpose.
This is the same group that loves God, but described from God’s point of view. Paul adds this description so that no one will mistakenly think that his own love for God is the primary thing. Rather, our love for God stems from His sovereign calling us. As Bishop Moule put it (Romans [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 237), “Not one link in the chain of actual Redemption is of our forging—or the whole would indeed be fragile.”
In the New Testament epistles, call (or, calling) always refers to God’s effectual call, which accomplishes His purpose. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (Answer 31) states, “Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.” When God effectually calls us to salvation, He does not drag us kicking and screaming, against our will. Rather, when we come to Christ, we come freely because He has made us willing by His grace (John 6:37).
How can you know whether God has called you? When you heard the gospel, that Christ died for sinners and that God offers forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who believe in Christ, did you believe? Did you come to Jesus? Did God change your heart? Before, you didn’t love God, but now you do. Before you didn’t care about the Bible, but now you treasure it as God’s very word. Before, you loved your sin and made excuses for it, but now you hate it and fight against it. If so, then be assured that God is working all things together for good for you. But, what does that mean? Are we supposed to view tragedies in our lives as good?
3. God’s purpose for those whom He calls to salvation is their ultimate, eternal good.
“All things” includes the good things that God gives us, but it also includes “the sufferings of this present time” (8:18), as well as tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword (8:35). It includes big catastrophes—tornadoes, tsunamis, wars, plane crashes, and terrible accidents. But it also includes the relatively minor frustrations of life—daily hassles, problems at work, car trouble, traffic jams, relational problems, and discouraging situations.
Does it include our sins? Hear me carefully: “Yes, in the sense that our sins cannot thwart God’s ultimate purpose of being glorified in our salvation and sanctification.” But, we should never sin with the thought, “God will work it together for good for me.” As David’s sin with Bathsheba shows, sin always results in terrible consequences for us and for others. But if we have sinned and we repent and submit to God’s loving discipline, He can use our sin to teach us not to trust in ourselves, as He did with Peter after his denials of Christ.
We need to be clear that the bad things that happen to us are not good in and of themselves. We shouldn’t call them good or pretend that they’re good. They’re difficult. If someone sinned against us, he did us evil (Gen. 50:20). The death of a loved one is hard. But in His gracious providence, God will work these terrible things together for our good as we submit to Him and trust in Him. He uses them to show us His grace and love in ways that we otherwise would not have known. He deepens our faith in ways that we never would have learned, except for the trial. In all of it, He is working for our ultimate good, to conform us to the image of His Son, who learned obedience through the things that He suffered (Rom. 8:29; Heb. 5:8). Though we may carry heartaches to our graves, we know that an incomparable glory awaits us for all eternity. The bottom line is:
4. Knowing that God is working all things together for our good brings great comfort in the midst of difficult trials.
Paul doesn’t say, “and we feel,” or, “and we hope,” in the sense of uncertainty, but rather, “and we know.” Why can we know that God is working all things together for our good? Because He has an eternal purpose that includes our salvation and He will accomplish that purpose. He has predestined us to be conformed to the image of His Son, and nothing can thwart His sovereign will.
Some say that the doctrine of God’s sovereign election is just divisive, impractical theology that we should avoid, because it upsets people. But God didn’t inspire Paul to write this to upset us! This truth is intensely practical, especially when you face trials. Whether it’s a minor irritation at work or a major, life-changing catastrophe, you can trust God to use it in His sovereign purpose to conform you to the image of Christ. There is no comfort in the view that God is not sovereign over the terrible things that happen to us. But there is great comfort in knowing that the sovereign God is working all things together for good for His people.
In a message on Romans 8:28 that he gave at the 2010 Desiring God National Conference, Randy Alcorn mentioned Scott and Janet Willis, who were driving behind a truck when a piece of metal flew off the truck and punctured their gas tank, causing their minivan to explode. They escaped, but six of their children burned to death in the inferno. Alcorn interviewed them 14 years later and they both affirmed that in spite of their great loss, God’s goodness and sovereignty are now more precious to them than before.
He also mentioned Joni Eareckson Tada, who was paralyzed from the neck down in a diving accident at age 17. Because of that accident, she has had a powerful ministry with disabled people. But now, in her sixties, she has breast cancer. She told Randy, “I’ve had a ministry to disabled people for many years. But now I have a ministry to people with cancer!” Do you believe that God is working all your trials together for your ultimate good and for the good of those to whom He has called you to serve?
- What are the most difficult trials that you have been through? How might God be working them for your ultimate good?
- Why does Romans 8:28 only work if God is sovereign over all the evil that happens? Why does denying that truth not help?
- Someone taunts, “If God predestined everything, then we’re just robots.” How would you respond biblically?
- What does it mean to love God? Is it primarily a feeling? If it includes feelings, how can we keep our feelings passionate?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.
Lesson 52: Why All Things Work Together for Good for Us (Romans 8:29)Related Media
Last week I had an email from some guy in Nigeria who wanted to give me $14 million. All I had to do was send him my bank account numbers and he would deposit the money. If I had counted on that promise as true and reorganized my life around the hope that I would receive that money, you’d rightly question my sanity. If we’re going to bank our lives on such promises, we’d better make sure that they’re true.
So how can you know that Paul’s promise in Romans 8:28, that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose,” is true? That verse explains why as believers we can endure present sufferings with hope in the future glory that is to be revealed to us (8:18), namely, because we know that God will work it all together for our ultimate, eternal good.
But, what if that promise is about as likely as the one from the guy in Nigeria to give me $14 million? You can only bank your life on Romans 8:28 if you know for certain that it’s true. So in 8:29-30 Paul explains why (“For”) you can know that verse 28 is true:
We know that God works all things together for good for us because our salvation is part of His eternal purpose to glorify His Son.
Verse 29 specifies what “good” in 8:28 means. The “good” that God is working toward through all our trials is that we be conformed to the image of His Son. But the ultimate reason that God is working all things together to conform us to the image of Jesus Christ is not about us. It may shock you to hear this, but God didn’t save you to make much about you. Rather, He saved you so that Christ would be the firstborn among many brethren. God saved you so that you will make much about His Son. Our salvation is all about the supremacy of Jesus Christ.
And since our salvation is bound up with God’s eternal purpose to make much of Jesus Christ, it’s secure. If His purpose to glorify Christ could fail, then our salvation could fail. But if His purpose to make Jesus the firstborn among many brethren is sure, then our salvation is sure. And that means that you can build your life on the promise of Romans 8:28, that God is working all the trials in your life, great or small, together for your ultimate good.
Verses 29 & 30, plus 8:33 and much of chapter 9, plunge us into some deep doctrines that have caused a lot of confusion and controversy: foreknowledge, predestination, effectual calling, and election. It’s important to approach these truths by remembering that Paul didn’t write Romans as a textbook for theologians to write difficult treatises about and seminary students to debate.
Rather, his aim was pastoral and practical. Romans was aimed at common people in the church of Rome, some of whom were uneducated slaves. Paul wanted to give these saints the understanding of God and His salvation that they would need to be comforted and filled with hope in the midst of some very difficult trials. Some of them would face severe persecution and even martyrdom. How could they not only endure, but “overwhelmingly conquer” (8:37) through such things? How could they trust God and believe in His love when terrible trials happened to them? Paul wanted them (and us) to know that we can bank our lives on the fact that God is working all of these things together for good for us because our salvation is part of His eternal purpose to exalt His Son. Since He will not fail to accomplish that purpose, our salvation is secure.
1. God’s eternal purpose is not ultimately about us, but about the preeminence of Jesus Christ.
How shocking is this? I thought that God loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life. He does, but that’s not the main reason that He sent His Son to die on the cross. But, doesn’t God want me to be happy? Yes, but my happiness isn’t the final goal. God sent His Son to save us and to make us happy in Him so that our lives will glorify Him, not only in this life, but through all eternity. As John Piper often says, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”
Here Paul says that our salvation, which results in our being conformed to the image of His Son, is “so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.” This does not mean that Jesus as God’s Son had a beginning or that there was a time when He was not. The main idea of “the firstborn” in that culture was that he had supremacy or preeminence over his brothers. The firstborn son inherited special rights and privileges.
In Colossians 1:15, Paul calls Jesus “the firstborn of all creation.” This does not mean that Jesus was created first (as the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim) because He existed before creation and He created all things, as Paul specifically explains in the next verse (Col. 1:16; see, also, John 1:3; Heb. 1:2). And in Colossians 1:17, Paul says that Christ “is before all things,” where the meaning is that He pre-existed all things. By “the firstborn of all creation,” Paul means that Jesus Christ has supremacy over all creation as its rightful Lord because He made it.
Paul goes on to say (Col. 1:18), “He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He himself will come to have first place in everything.” Jesus is the sovereign over the church, which has its origin in Him. His resurrection was the first of its kind. Others, like Lazarus, were raised from the dead, but they died again. But Jesus’ resurrection was the first in which the resurrected person received a new, indestructible body, which is a prototype of the bodies that we will receive. When we receive those new bodies, we will forever be singing the praises of Jesus, who died for us, whom God highly exalted (Phil. 2:9-11). God’s purpose, which He will achieve, is that Jesus will be the firstborn, supreme over all.
But Paul adds that Jesus will be the firstborn “among many brethren.” Charles Spurgeon (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 18:189-191) waxes eloquent on this for three pages of fine print in a way that I cannot, but let me summarize his insights. He says (18:189), “First, God predestinates us to be like Jesus that his dear Son might be the first of a new order of beings, elevated above all other creatures, and nearer to God than any other existences.” He goes on to explain that we will be closer to God than the angels are, because we are His sons and daughters.
Second (18:190), Spurgeon says, “The object of grace is that there may be some in heaven with whom Christ can hold brotherly converse.” The Lord saved us so that we can have fellowship with Him, not only for time, but also for all eternity. Spurgeon adds (18:191), “What bliss to know that he who is ‘very God of very God,’ and sits on the eternal throne, is also of the same nature with ourselves, our kinsman, who is not ashamed even amidst the royalties of glory to call us brethren.”
Third, Spurgeon explains (18:191), “God was so well pleased with His Son, and saw such beauties in him, that he determined to multiply his image.” We will be conformed to the image of His Son. This implies that Jesus, the second Adam, succeeded where the first Adam failed (Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 454). God created man to bear His image, but that image was defaced when Adam sinned. But throughout eternity, the perfect image of God will be restored and reflected in us who are in Christ, whom God predestined “to adoption as sons,” “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (Eph. 1:5, 6). So the important (and very practical) point to see is that God’s eternal purpose is not ultimately about us, but rather about the preeminence of Jesus Christ.
2. God’s eternal purpose to glorify Jesus Christ includes our salvation.
We must see our salvation in the context of God’s greater purpose to glorify His Son, a purpose that can’t fail because God is the author of it. God is the active subject in all of the verbs in Romans 8:29-30: He foreknew; He predestined; He called; He justified; and, He glorified. Leon Morris (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 332) observes, “Paul is saying that God is the author of our salvation, and that from beginning to end. We are not to think that God can take action only when we graciously give him permission. Paul is saying that God initiates the whole process.” In other words, God wouldn’t leave His eternal purpose to glorify His Son in the hands of fickle sinners. Rather, He takes the initiative and insures that the complete process cannot fail.
There are five links in what has been called “the golden chain of redemption”: foreknew; predestined; called; justified; and, glorified. But we can only look at the first two (in 8:29) today.
A. Our salvation began when God foreknew us.
This is the key term to understand, since it begins the entire process. But, unfortunately, there has been a lot of misunderstanding and controversy over the meaning of the word.
Some say that it means that God knows everything in advance (which is true) and thus God foreknew who would believe in Jesus and He predestined these to salvation. Some who hold this view say that God predestined individuals based on foreseeing their faith, while others say that it’s a group thing. God predestined the church as a group to salvation, but it’s up to the free will of individuals to join that group. But in either case, the process is triggered not by God’s sovereign choice, but rather by God’s knowledge of the choices that people would make by their own free will. Thus the initiative in salvation rests with man, not with God, except that God sent Jesus to make salvation available to all.
But there are huge problems with this interpretation. First, the theology behind that view is at odds with all of Scripture, including the context here. It would mean that God made up His eternal purpose based on what sinners would choose to do, rather than on what God would do. Thus it makes man sovereign, not God. Salvation would not be according to God’s call according to His purpose (8:28), but rather according to man’s will.
But God didn’t look down through history and see that Paul would choose to believe in Him, and say, “Whew! I’m so glad that Paul chose Me, because he will make a good apostle. Because he chose Me, I’ll make him one of the elect.” Read the story of Paul’s conversion and see if that interpretation fits! It is clear that God chose to save Paul because God had a sovereign purpose for Paul’s life (Gal. 1:15). If foreknowledge only means that God knew in advance who would believe, and thus He elected them, then He did not purpose to save a people for His glory. He just saw how the parade would go and jumped to the front of the parade. But the Bible is clear that God determined the parade route. As Everett Harrison puts it (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 10:98), “We are called according to purpose, not according to foreknowledge, hence foreknowledge is included in the electing purpose.”
Also, the view that “foreknowledge” simply means that God knew in advance who would choose Him goes against what Paul said in Romans 3:10-18, that no one seeks for God. “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8), which includes faith in Christ (Heb. 11:6). So if it were a matter of God foreseeing what men would do, He would see that none would believe.
The Bible repeatedly shows that all of salvation, including the spiritual understanding, repentance, and faith that accompany salvation, is God’s gift (Phil. 1:29; Eph. 2:8-9; Acts 11:18; 16:14; 2 Cor. 4:4-6; 1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Tim. 2:25, etc.). Grace is unmerited favor; if it were conditioned on our faith, it would be based on some good in us. If we could take credit for our spiritual insight or repentance or faith, we would have reason to boast over those who are not saved. So to say that “foreknow” means that God foresaw who, of their own free will, would choose to believe in Jesus, goes against the entire biblical theology of salvation.
A second reason to reject that interpretation is the biblical usage of this word. Granted, there are two times when men are the subject that the verb means “to know in advance” (Acts 26:5; 2 Pet. 3:17). But when God is the subject, to foreknow means to choose or determine before, often with the sense of, “enter into a relationship with before” (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 532). It means that before time began, God chose to set His love on some, whom He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son. He isn’t said here to foreknow what people will do, but rather to foreknow the people themselves.
In Romans 11:2, with reference to the Jews, Paul says, “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew.” In Amos 3:2 (ESV) God says to Israel, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth.” God obviously knows everyone, but He chose to set His love on Israel. In Jeremiah 1:5, the Lord tells the prophet, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.” There are many other references where the word “know” means to choose, especially with a view to entering into a relationship with the person (Gen. 18:19; Deut. 7:6-8; Ps. 1:6; Jer. 1:5; Hos. 13:5; 1 Cor. 8:3; Gal. 4:9). God knows in advance everyone who has ever lived; but some He chooses to foreknow in love. That is the meaning in Romans 8:29.
When God is the subject, foreknowledge has the implication of foreordaining or choosing. Geoffrey Bromiley explains (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology [Baker], p. 420), “What [God] knows, he does not know merely as information. He is no mere spectator. What he foreknows he ordains. He wills it.” In this sense, Peter (1 Pet. 1:20) says of Christ, “For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world….” In Acts 2:23, Peter says of Jesus, “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 doesn’t mean that God just knew in advance that Jesus, of His own free will, would offer Himself as the sacrifice for our sins. Rather, God chose and ordained Jesus for that role before the foundation of the world.
The same is true of biblical prophecy: God doesn’t just foreknow how history will happen to turn out and then report it to us. Rather, He ordains how history will turn out. If God only knows in advance how things will turn out, but He didn’t ordain it, then He would not be sovereign.
I thought it necessary to take so long on this because it is so often explained as if God just knew who would choose to believe in Christ and elected them to salvation based on their choice. But it is inconceivable that God would leave His eternal purpose of glorifying His Son through saving a people who would be conformed to His image up to the fickle choices of sinful people!
B. Our salvation stems from the fact that God predestined us to be conformed to the image of His Son.
Those who argue that “foreknowledge” does not mean to foreordain contend that if it did, the word “predestinate” would then be unnecessary. But as we’ve seen, Peter uses the two words together (Acts 2:23) and there is a nuance of difference. To foreknow connotes God choosing to set His love on certain individuals, while to predestine indicates the aim of God’s distinguishing love. It means that God determined in advance to save these people and conform them to the image of His Son, so that He would have supremacy over many brethren.
Many stumble over the doctrine of predestination, but at its heart, it is really a matter of letting God be God. Ichabod Spencer (A Pastor’s Sketches [Solid Ground Christian Books], 1:244), a 19th century pastor in Brooklyn, recorded a lengthy conversation that he had with a young man who had not yet believed in Christ, but was hung up over predestination. Spencer told him, “When you are entirely willing that God should be God, election will trouble you no longer.”
He goes on to explain to this young man that if God had not planned what He would do before He acted, He would be most unwise. If He created the universe with no plan or purpose, or ruled it haphazardly, according to whim, He would not be the all-wise God. Thus, Spencer says (p. 245), “Predestination is God’s eternal purpose to rule his universe just as he does rule it.” God’s decrees are “his wise, holy, and eternal purposes, wherein he has determined beforehand what he will do, and how he will do it” (p. 246). He points out to the young man that God didn’t ask his advice before He made these plans. And so, he says, “Just consent to let God be God.”
Spencer (pp. 236-238) points out three reasons that the Bible emphasizes the doctrine of predestination. First, it teaches us “the character of God—His grandeur, wisdom, and incomprehensibility.” It should cause us to bow in wonder and praise before Him. As Paul says in Ephesians 1:5-6, the fact that He predestined us to adoption as sons is “to the praise of the glory of His grace.”
Second, predestination represses “the audacity of the wicked.” It shows them that in spite of their evil schemes, they cannot thwart God’s eternal purposes. They can kill His Son, but they are only doing what His hand and His “purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:27-28).
Third, the main purpose of this doctrine is “to comfort God’s people.” In all our weaknesses and sins, we might despair of our salvation. How will we ever be conformed to the image of God’s holy Son? Answer: God predestined us to be conformed to the image of His Son, so it will happen! If we know that God began the good work of salvation within us, by giving us eternal life, then we know that He will perfect His work (Phil. 1:6). Through Jesus the Father will bring many sons to glory (Heb. 2:10-11). Properly understood, predestination will not lead us to kick back and think, “My sins don’t matter because God will eventually conform me to Christ.” Rather, it will motivate us to fight against our sins and to perfect holiness in the fear of God (2 Cor. 7:1).
Being conformed to the image of Christ means primarily to be progressively molded into the character of Christ in your heart. Of course, this inner transformation is seen in our outward behavior. But it begins in the heart (Matt. 6:1-18; Mark 7:21-23). We will not be perfectly conformed to the image of Christ until we see Him (1 John 3:2), but if we have experienced God’s saving grace, we should be growing in purity and obedience (1 John 3:3-10). The fruit of the Spirit should be increasingly evident in us.
The truth that God set His love on us and predestined us to become conformed to the image of His Son means that our salvation does not rest on our performance. Rather, God called us and saved us in connection with His eternal purpose to glorify Christ. Thus our salvation is secure. Nothing can separate us from God’s great love (Rom. 8:38-39). No one can snatch us from the Father’s strong hand (John 10:29).
It also means that the promise of Romans 8:28, that God causes all things to work together for our good, is solid. It’s not like the promise of the guy in Nigeria to send you $14 million. You can bank your life on God’s promise according to His purpose. Whether it’s the minor frustrations and problems of daily life or the major catastrophes, we can trust that God will use them in the process of conforming us to the image of Christ. That is your destiny as one who is called according to His purpose!
- Why is it crucial to understand that salvation is not primarily about us? What errors stem from the view that it is mainly about us?
- How does the view that God predestined us on the basis of foreseen faith undermine His grace? What are the practical results of this error?
- Does the doctrine of predestination mean that people do not have a choice to believe in Christ or not? Are we just pre-programmed robots? Why/why not?
- Discuss: When you are willing to let God be God, election will no longer trouble you.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.
Lesson 53: Why Our Salvation is Secure (Romans 8:29-30)Related Media
Throughout history, controversy has raged over the question of whether Christians can lose their salvation. In fact, in this church before I came (19 years ago), there was a difference of opinion among the leadership on that issue. If all the texts in the Bible were clearly on one side or the other, there would be no controversy. But there are texts that seem to support each side. I can’t deal with these difficult texts in this message. If you’re interested, Martyn Lloyd-Jones spends over 100 pages on many of them (Romans: The Final Perseverance of the Saints [Zondervan], pp. 263-366).
When you come to any difficult passage in Scripture, here are a few guidelines: Interpret the more difficult text in light of clearer texts. Also, consider each text in its context and in light of the purpose and flow of thought of the author. And, interpret individual texts in light of the overall teaching of Scripture on a subject, comparing Scripture with Scripture.
When it comes to the security of our salvation, I believe that the clear, unambiguous passages of Scripture come down strongly on the side that if God has saved us, He will keep us to all eternity. It’s easier to explain the texts that seem to say that you can lose your salvation in light of the clear texts that say you cannot, rather than vice versa. And, as our text here shows, the security of our salvation (or the final perseverance of the saints) flows out of Paul’s overall doctrine of salvation. Paul is showing that our salvation from start to finish is from the Lord and so it can never fail:
Our salvation is secure because God originated it, He effected it, and He will complete it.
These verses reveal our past, present, and future. Before the foundation of the world, God planned our salvation: He foreknew and predestined us to salvation. As a result of these sovereign decisions, at some point in our lives, He effectually called us and justified us, so that now He is working to conform us to the image of His Son. In the future, we will be glorified, fully conformed to Christ, who will be preeminent over all. The entire process comes from God and is sustained by Him. It’s all designed for His glory. If His sovereign purpose for the glory and supremacy of Jesus Christ is certain, then our future glory with Christ is certain.
Also, as I said last time, it’s important to understand that Paul’s purpose in writing these deep truths is pastoral and practical. He didn’t write about predestination to spawn arguments and debates. He wrote these things to comfort believers in Rome who either were facing persecution or probably would face it in the near future. They, like us, also had plenty of other trials in life that could have caused them to stumble if they hadn’t handled them from God’s perspective. And so Paul wants us to know that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (8:28).
As I also pointed out last time, that promise is only good if it’s true. How can we know that it’s true? How can we know that God will really work all our trials together for our good? Paul explains why in 8:29-30, where he shows us what “good” means, namely, that we will ultimately be conformed to the image of Christ and be glorified with Him.
But, how can we know that that is true? We know that it’s true because God’s purpose is certain. His purpose goes back to His decree before the foundation of the world to save a people for His glory. It reaches forward to our glorification in the ages to come, when we will be perfectly sanctified and not able to sin. It’s essential to see that salvation from first to last is totally of the Lord. If any part of it is due to us, it’s in jeopardy. If you’re saved, it’s because God determined to save you and planned it from start to finish. As I cited Bishop Moule (in my message on Romans 8:28, Romans [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 237), “Not one link in the chain of actual Redemption is of our forging—or the whole would indeed be fragile.”
1. Our salvation is secure because God originated it.
There are two parts to this, which I covered in more detail in our last study. So here I’m just reviewing.
A. God originated our salvation by setting His love on us before time began.
This is the meaning of “foreknow” (8:29). It does not mean that God looked down through history, saw who would believe in Him, and decided to predestine those people to salvation. That would make God’s eternal purpose depend on the fickle will of sinful men. It would make man sovereign, not God. It goes against the many Scriptures that show that apart from God’s initiative, none seek Him. It would give sinners reason to boast. And, it goes against the meaning of the word as used in other verses, where it means that God foreordained to set His love on someone so as to enter into a relationship with him.
Also, in Romans 8:29-30, God is the subject of all the verbs. He is taking the action. And the action of His foreknowledge is not simply that He knew in advance what people would do. In that sense, He foreknows everyone. Rather, He chose to set His love on some and He predestined these to salvation. If you want specific references and a more thorough defense of that interpretation, I refer you to the previous message. Paul’s point in saying that God foreknew us is that He originated our salvation by choosing to set His love on us before the foundation of the world.
B. God originated our salvation by predestining us to be conformed to the image of His Son.
Again, to review, predestination is God’s purpose and plan to rule His universe as He determined. Just as a man who builds a house follows a predetermined plan, so God predetermined His purpose and plan for history. Thankfully, our salvation is a part of God’s plan to glorify Himself through His Son, who will have first place in everything (Col. 1:18). As Paul writes (Eph. 1:11), “In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.” If we want God to promise salvation, then we must be content to let Him predestine it, because predestination is His determination and commitment to fulfill His promises (Ichabod Spencer, A Pastor’s Sketches [Solid Ground Christian Books], 1:250).
Also, we saw that our salvation is not primarily about us or our happiness, although we will be supremely happy throughout eternity. Rather, God predetermined to save us so that His Son “would be the firstborn among many brethren” (8:29). That means that Christ will have supremacy over all the redeemed, whom He is pleased to be associated with as His brothers and sisters.
God would not have left His eternal purpose of glorifying His Son up to the so-called “free will” of sinful people! If our salvation is bound up with God’s purpose of exalting His Son, then it’s a sure thing. God predestined us to be conformed to the image of His Son so that He will be the firstborn, preeminent over all. God will not fail in that purpose. The security of our salvation rests on God’s ability to fulfill His predetermined purpose.
So “foreknew” and “predestined” are the first two links in this divine chain of redemption. They took place before the foundation of the world. The next two links take place in time:
2. Our salvation is secure because God effected it.
By “effected it,” I mean that He made it happen in our experience. Paul mentions two aspects of this.
A. God effected our salvation by calling us.
We studied this briefly in 8:28, where Paul refers to us as “those who are called according to His purpose.” Called (or calling) is used in two senses in the New Testament. First, the general call of the gospel goes out to all people. Jesus mentioned this when He said (Matt. 22:14), “Many are called, but few are chosen.” He issued a general call when He said (Mark 1:15), “Repent and believe in the gospel.” Or, when He said (Matt. 11:28), “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” This general call is genuine on God’s part, but it is not effectual because of the hardened hearts of the fallen human race (John 3:19-20). Those who refuse the gospel call will be without excuse on judgment day.
But in the New Testament epistles, call (or, calling) is always used of God’s effectual call. It always accomplishes God’s purpose of giving life to the spiritually dead so that they respond to the call. Spurgeon somewhere compares the general call to sheet lightning that lights up the night sky, but doesn’t hit anything specific. But the effectual call is like the lightning bolt that hits its target.
We see an example of God’s effectual call in Jesus’ calling Lazarus from the tomb. Remember, Jesus had just said (John 11:25-26), “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.” The raising of Lazarus that followed was an unforgettable illustration of Jesus’ power to call the spiritually dead to spiritual life. When Jesus called, “Lazarus, come forth,” He imparted life with the call, so that Lazarus responded. God’s word is powerful to create new life (John 5:24-26; James 1:18).
Paul refers to the same truth (2 Cor. 4:4) when he says that Satan, “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.” How can such spiritually blind people ever see? Paul explains (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.” God’s word powerfully imparts light and life to all whom He calls to salvation. His effectual call cannot fail or be thwarted by our fallen, sinful wills. As Jesus said (John 6:37), “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me….”
God’s effectual call always comes through His general call. In other words, the gospel is preached or proclaimed to all. Some shrug it off or perhaps angrily resist it. Some, I might add, respond superficially by praying the sinner’s prayer or going forward after an altar call. For a while, it looks as if they’ve been converted. But they’re like the seed sown on the rocky ground that springs up quickly, but has no root. They may respond to the general call because they want God to help them out of a problem situation. But when suffering comes and their problems grow worse, they fall away. Or, they’re like the seed sown on the thorny ground, where the worries of life or the deceitfulness of riches choke out the word so that it does not bear fruit (Matt. 13:20-22).
But in the elect, God’s effectual call comes with power so that they are quickened from spiritual death to life. Their eyes are opened to the glory of Christ and what He did on the cross. They respond in faith and repentance. The difference between the two responses hinges on God’s effectually calling those whom He predestined to salvation.
B. God effected our salvation by justifying us.
“These whom He called, He also justified.” We studied this in Romans 3 & 4, so I will not spend much time on it here. There we saw that we are justified by God’s grace alone through faith in Christ alone (Rom. 3:24, 26, 28, 30). To justify means to declare righteous. Based on Christ’s paying the penalty we deserved, God declares righteous all who trust in Him. John Stott explains (The Cross of Christ [IVP], p. 190), “When God justifies sinners, he is not declaring bad people to be good, or saying that they are not sinners after all; he is pronouncing them legally righteous, free from any liability to the broken law, because he himself in his Son has borne the penalty of their law-breaking.” Our faith does not in any way merit justification; rather faith is the channel through which it is received as God’s free gift.
Paul does not mention faith in Romans 8:30 because he is emphasizing that salvation is from the Lord from start to finish. If we were to fill in the blanks, God’s effectual call to salvation results in spiritual life or regeneration. The first evidence of new life is faith in Christ, through which the sinner is justified. Those who are justified by faith inevitably begin to grow in holiness, which is called sanctification. Paul does not mention sanctification directly in this five-fold chain for the same reason he does not mention faith, namely, because we play a part in our sanctification and Paul is emphasizing that salvation is totally from the Lord. But, Paul alludes to sanctification in 8:29 when he mentions becoming “conformed to the image of His Son.” And, sanctification is implicit in “glorification,” which refers to our final state of total sanctification.
So Paul argues that our salvation is secure because in the past, God originated it. In time, He effected it, or brought it to pass.
3. Our salvation is secure because God will complete it.
This is summed up by “glorified,” which Paul puts in the past tense to show that it’s as good as done, because God has predestined it to occur in line with His purpose. In Romans 5:2, Paul stated, “We exult in hope of the glory of God.” The same focus is reflected in 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Consider two aspects of this:
A. God will complete our salvation by glorifying us.
To be glorified means that we will be completely conformed to the image of Christ, free from all sin and positively like Christ in His holy character. We will not become “gods,” as some false teachers proclaim. But in our character, we will be like Christ.
But, when does glorification take place? There is a sense in which the process begins at salvation, when we begin to be transformed into the image of God’s Son “from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). But we will never be completely sanctified in this lifetime (Phil. 3:13-14). There is another sense in which we will be glorified when we die and our spirits go to be with the Lord. At that point, we are free from all sin.
But the full sense of our glorification will not occur until Jesus Christ returns and our bodies are resurrected (Rom. 8:19-22). In Philippians 3:20-21, Paul states, “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.” Or, as 1 John 3:2 states, “We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.” The glorious return of Christ will result in the instant, permanent glorification of all believers living and dead, as we all receive our new glorified bodies.
B. God will complete our salvation because Christ will be glorified by glorifying us.
Jesus will be the firstborn, the preeminent One, among many brethren as the Father through Him brings many sons to glory (Heb. 2:10-17). Paul refers to the second coming as the time “when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day” (2 Thess. 1:10). He adds (2 Thess. 2:14), “It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” So the culmination of the gospel is that Christ will be glorified by our sharing His glory. He will be the firstborn, the preeminent One among many brethren. If God’s purpose to glorify His Son is sure, then our final glorification is secure.
These truths are wonderfully assuring, but they also raise a number of questions. I can only quickly touch on five questions here, but I hope to deal more thoroughly with these and other questions that will come up as we keep working through Romans.
Question 1: If God only set His love on some and predestined only these to salvation, then does He not love everyone in the world?
Answer: While God so loved the world as to give His only begotten Son so that whoever believes in Him will be saved (John 3:16), there is a sense in which He has a special love for His chosen bride, the church: “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). I love all my sisters in Christ, but I have a special love for my bride, Marla, that sets her apart unto me.
Question 2: If God is only going to save those whom He has predestined to salvation, does prayer for the lost do any good?
Answer: Prayer is part of the means that God uses to save His elect (2 Thess. 3:1; 1 Tim. 2:1-4). We can’t know in advance whom God has chosen, but when people respond to the gospel with faith, resulting in changed lives, we know that God chose them for salvation (1 Thess. 1:2-6; 2 Thess. 2:13). Before they respond, we should pray that God will open their hearts to the gospel (Acts 16:14).
Question 3: If God is going to save all whom He has predestined, then why should we evangelize?
Answer: Evangelism, like prayer, is God’s ordained means for saving His elect (Acts 13:46-48; Rom. 10:14-15). We know that there will be some in heaven from every tongue, tribe, and nation (Rev. 5:9-10). So we should proclaim the gospel to all nations, knowing that God will use it to save His elect.
Question 4: If salvation is totally of the Lord, then is there anything that an unbeliever can do to be saved? What if he’s not elect?
Answer: While all of salvation, including the repentance and faith to be saved, is of the Lord, He commands us to repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15). The Bible exhorts sinners (Isa. 55:6-7), “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” Paul (Rom. 10:13) cites the promise of Joel 2:32, “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Since “faith comes from hearing and hearing from the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17), those who have not trusted in Christ are responsible to hear the gospel preached and to read the Bible to learn how to be saved. There is a mystery here, in that sinners are unable and unwilling to seek God unless God is first drawing them to Christ (John 6:44, 65; Rom. 3:10-18). But at the same time they are responsible to repent and believe in Christ. They can’t blame God for not calling them.
Question 5: If our salvation is totally secure, won’t that lead to loose, careless living?
Answer: Paul’s critics accused him of this (Rom. 3:8). But the truth is that a proper understanding of God’s grace will motivate us to know Him better (Phil. 3:8-14), to grow in holiness (2 Cor. 6:16-7:1), and to serve God more fervently (1 Cor.
Every good parent wants his children to feel secure in his love. Our heavenly Father wants you to know that your salvation is secure because He originated it by setting His love on you and predestining you to salvation before the foundation of the world. He effected it by calling you to salvation and justifying you when He brought you to faith in Christ. He will bring it to completion when Christ returns and you are eternally glorified with Him. Your salvation is secure because it is bound up with God’s eternal purpose of glorifying His beloved Son.
Discuss further the five questions in the conclusion, along with appropriate Scripture references:
- If God only set His love on some and predestined only these to salvation, then does He not love everyone in the world?
- If God is only going to save those whom He has predestined to salvation, does prayer for the lost do any good?
- If God is going to save all whom He has predestined, then why should we evangelize?
- If salvation is totally of the Lord, then is there anything that an unbeliever can do to be saved? What if he’s not elect?
- If our salvation is totally secure, won’t that lead to loose, careless living?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.
Lesson 54: Enduring Opposition (Romans 8:31-32)Related Media
A main question that I wrestle with as I study the Bible is, “So what?” What difference is this text supposed to make in my life and in others’ lives? Sometimes, that question is difficult to answer. I’m currently reading through 1 Chronicles, which begins with nine chapters of genealogies. Why did God put that into Scripture? I can’t deal with that here, but when we study the Bible we always need to ask: “So what?”
Paul raises that question in Romans 8:31 with reference to the wonderful truths that he has just unfolded in 8:28-30: “What then shall we say to these things?” Many scholars say that “these things” refers back to everything Paul has written so far in Romans about the gospel of justification by faith alone, and that may be so. But it seems to me that his question in 8:31 refers especially to the great truths that Paul has just enunciated in 8:28-30:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.
As we’ve seen, verses 29-30 explain verse 28. The reason that all things work together for good for God’s people is that our salvation from first to last is from the Lord. He originated it before the foundation of the world by choosing to set His love on us and by predestining us to be conformed to the image of His Son. At a point in our lives, He called us and justified us. And He will bring our salvation to completion when we share His glory at His second coming. And this entire process is secure because it isn’t ultimately about us, but about Jesus Christ being the firstborn (= having preeminence) among many brethren. If God’s purpose to glorify His Son is secure, then our salvation is secure.
Paul then especially focuses on these wonderful truths when he asks, “What then shall we say to these things?” His answer is that God is for us, which is proved by the amazing demonstration of His love when He gave His Son to die for us on the cross.
These verses have widespread application to all our needs. But in the context, Paul is especially focused on how we as believers can endure opposition and hardship for the sake of the gospel. Note Paul’s repeated questions: “Who is against us?” (8:31); “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect?” (8:33); “Who is the one who condemns?” (8:34); and, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” (8:35). He is applying the truths of 8:28-30 to how we can stand firm in the face of opposition and hardship for the sake of the gospel.
That’s a topic that most of us know very little about firsthand. Maybe you’ve been ridiculed by family or friends or a university professor because of your faith in Christ. Maybe you’ve been discriminated against at work because you’re a Christian. But probably none of us have been thrown into prison or had our homes burned down or our families or our lives threatened or harmed because of our faith. That may soon change, as our religious freedom is under strong attack. Jesus predicted that His message would cause families to be divided against one another and even betray one another to death (Matt. 10:21-22; 34-38). So we need to be prepared to endure opposition so that we stand firm for the gospel. Paul is saying,
To endure opposition, focus on God’s great love as seen in His gift of His own Son.
Sometimes verse 32 is yanked out of context and misapplied: “God promises to freely give us all things! Do you need a nicer house or a new car? Claim it by faith in this verse! Guys, do you want a successful career and a supermodel wife who wants to bear your children and keep house and make delicious meals for you every night? Claim it all by faith!”
But that is not what verse 32 promises! The context is, “Do you want to endure faithfully tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword for Jesus’ sake (8:35)? God, who loved you so much that He sent His own Son to die for your sins, will give you the grace and strength that you need to bear up under every trial for the sake of the gospel. God, who has done the most for you by giving His own Son, will help you endure every trial that you go through for Christ’s sake. Because of His great love for you, He will bring you safely to glory. Paul applies three great truths to help us persevere:
1. The truth of God’s sovereignty in saving us demands a response of worship and total submission.
“What then shall we say to these things?” (8:31a). I get the impression that Paul was stunned and awed by the truths that he has just spelled out in 8:28-30. It’s staggering that God chose to save us before we were born, that He called us out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9), that He justified us apart from any works on our part, and that our future glorification with Him is a done deal (past tense, “glorified”)!
So the question is, “What then will you say to these things?” Will you say, “Predestination is just a controversial doctrine that doesn’t relate to my life”? Or, “That’s nice, but it doesn’t relate to my advancement in my career”? If you can just shrug off the glorious truths of 8:28-30, something is seriously wrong with your heart before God! Our response should be as Isaac Watts expressed it (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”), “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.”
2. The truth that God is for us in the gospel means that we must evaluate all opposition and difficulties in light of God’s grace.
“If God is for us, who is against us?” (8:31b). As many commentators point out, “if” does not indicate uncertainty about God’s favor. It could legitimately be translated, “Since God is for us, who is against us?” In light of the fact that God foreknew us, predestined us, called us, justified us, and glorified us, we know that He is for us. And, if God is for us, then who can be against us? To be against us would be to go against God Himself!
Paul is not denying the reality of strong opposition. In 8:35 he mentions tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword. In 8:36 he cites Psalm 44:22, “For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” In Ephesians 6:10-13 he mentions that we are wrestling against powerful spiritual forces of darkness in heavenly places. So he does not mean that we do not have any opponents, but rather that anyone who comes against us when we are standing for the truth of the gospel is actually going against God Himself. They may succeed in taking our lives (Matt. 10:28), but God will glorify us and judge those against us who do not repent.
But, how do we really know that God is for us? After all, some of the greatest atrocities in history have been justified because the perpetrator thought that God was on his side. Incredibly, Adolf Hitler interpreted the Japanese slaughter of Americans at Pearl Harbor as a sign that God was on his side as he exterminated the Jews (Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer [Thomas Nelson], pp. 390-391)!
But, on the other side of things, Jacob thought that the difficult circumstances in his life were all against him, which was far from the truth. He needed to know what Joseph knew, that although Jacob’s other sons meant these things for evil, God meant them for good (see Gen. 42:36; 50:20). Here are three steps to work through to evaluate your critics:
First, make sure that God is for you. Either God is for you or He is against you. He isn’t neutral! And if God is against you, then who can be for you? God is the worst conceivable enemy to have in the entire universe! And if you’re not in Christ then you’re under God’s righteous wrath and headed for eternal judgment (Rom. 1:18-32; 2:5). So make sure that your hope for escaping God’s judgment does not lie in your own good works, but only in Christ’s death on your behalf. Make sure that you’re standing for the gospel.
Second, examine your heart by asking whether God could be using the opponent or critic to get you to deal with some blind spot, shortcoming, or sin. In other words, don’t quickly blow off a critic by saying, “God is for me, so this critic is on Satan’s side.” Even if your opponent is motivated by selfishness or sin, God may be using him to get you to deal with an area in your life that needs attention. I’ve found that if more than one critic says the same thing, even if their attitude is wrong, I probably need to listen to their criticism.
Third, after you have honestly taken the first two steps, don’t take the attacks against you personally. If you’re catching flak because you’re standing for the truth, first make sure that you are doing so with gentleness, graciousness, and humility. If to the best of your ability you are, then your critic is probably opposing God and His Word of truth, not you. You’re just the messenger. Pray that God will use your gracious, loving response to bring the critic to repentance and faith (2 Tim. 2:24-26).
Also, before we leave verse 31, make sure that you apply the truth that God is for you to yourself, especially in times of failure, discouragement, or sin. Maybe you had a mean father who constantly put you down and when you messed up, he would backhand you in the face or beat you with a belt. Maybe now you’ve messed up as a Christian and you’re afraid that God is going to act like your dad did. You need to know that God never does anything that is against you. He will discipline you, perhaps severely, but it is always out of love so that you might share His holiness (Heb. 12:5-12). God never acts in a way to tear you down or reject you. He always acts in love, for your good, even when He corrects you.
So the first truth is that God’s sovereignty in saving us demands a response of worship and submission. The second truth, that God is for us in the gospel, means that we must evaluate all opposition and difficulties in light of His love and grace.
3. The truth that God has done the greatest thing for us in the sacrifice of His own Son means that He will supply us with all that is needed for life and godliness.
This is the wonderful promise of 8:32: “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?” Paul’s happy logic is, “God did the greatest thing imaginable when He gave His own Son for us on the cross. So don’t you think that He will graciously give you lesser things that you need?” As I said, this is not a prosperity gospel, where God promises to fulfill your greed or lusts. As verse 36 indicates, you may follow Jesus and get slaughtered!
Rather, verse 32 promises that God will give you the grace that you need to endure opposition and persecution when you stand for the gospel. Beyond that, it also applies in the sense of 2 Peter 1:3, that God “has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness.” The Puritan, John Flavel, put it this way (cited by John Piper, Future Grace, [Multnomah Publishers], p. 117): “Surely if he would not spare this own Son one stroke, one tear, one groan, one sigh, one circumstance of misery, it can never be imagined that ever he should, after this, deny or withhold from his people, for whose sakes all this was suffered, any mercies, any comforts, any privilege, spiritual or temporal, which is good for them.” Note first:
A. God has done the greatest thing imaginable for us by sacrificing His own Son.
The Greek word for “spared” is used in the LXX of Genesis 22:12 (& 16), when God tells Abraham, “I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld [“spared”] your son, your only son, from Me.” With Abraham, God intervened at the last moment and provided the ram for the sacrifice, so that Isaac was spared. But that emotional drama was the closest earthly picture that we have of what the Father went through in sending His eternal Son from heaven to bear the horrors of the cross on our behalf. Note four things about Christ’s death:
(1). Christ’s death was not ultimately a humanly caused tragedy, but a divinely ordained solution to our sin and guilt.
God delivered over His own Son for us. There is a sense in which Judas delivered up Jesus to die (John 18:5, Greek). Also, the Jewish leaders delivered up Jesus to Pilate (Matt. 27:2). The people of Jerusalem also delivered up Jesus (Acts 3:13). Pilate delivered up Jesus to death (Mark 15:15). Paul also stated that Jesus was “delivered over because of our transgressions” (Rom. 4:25), so we delivered Him up to death. Paul says that Jesus “gave Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20, same Greek word). As Jesus said, He laid down His life on His own initiative (John 10:18).
But behind all of these causes, it was the Father who delivered over His own Son for us all! Isaiah predicted this in his great prophecy when he said that Christ would be “smitten of God” (Isa. 53:4). “The Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (53:6). “But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief” (53:10). Or, as Peter put it (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.” It was God’s eternal purpose to glorify Himself by sending His Son to bear our sins. The cross glorifies God’s absolute righteousness and justice, in that He demanded that the penalty for our sin be paid in full. It also glorifies His great love, in that He gave His beloved Son, in whom He was well pleased.
(2). Christ’s death was substitutionary.
He gave Jesus “for us all.” He died in our place, taking the punishment that we deserved (Isa. 53:4-6, 8, 10). Paul says that God made Him to be sin on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21). Because Jesus paid the penalty, we can justly be declared righteous at His expense.
(3). Christ’s death was particular, personal, and effectual.
God delivered Him over “for us all.” Who is the “all” here? In the context, it is those whom God foreknew, predestined, called, justified, and glorified (8:29-30). It is those whom God is for (8:31). It is “God’s elect,” whom He justified (8:33). It is those for whom Christ is now interceding (8:34). Note that all whom God foreknew, He predestined. All whom He predestined, He called. All whom He called, He justified. All whom He justified, He glorified. No one falls through the cracks.
Christ did not die in the hope that maybe some would decide to respond to His offer and be saved. God is not in heaven, wringing His hands in desperation, saying, “I’ve done all that I can do. The rest is up to them. Please, someone respond!” Rather, Christ died effectually to save all whom the Father predestined to save. He died so that “of all that [the Father] has given Me, I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39). Or as Jesus prayed just prior to the cross (John 17:1-2), “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life.” A few verses later (John 17:9) He prayed, “I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours.” Jesus laid down His life for His sheep (John 10:11, 14, 15, 26-28). Christ “loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25).
(4). Christ’s death was the supreme demonstration of God’s love and grace for us as sinners.
Most modern translations leave out a small Greek particle in 8:32 that the lexicon translates, “who did not spare even His own Son” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Walter Bauer, William Arndt, F. W. Gingrich, & Frederick Danker [University of Chicago Press], 2nd ed., p. 152). “His own Son” emphasizes that Jesus is the unique Son of God in a way that we are not and never can be. We are God’s adopted sons by the new birth, but Jesus is the eternal Son of God. The Father and the Son enjoyed unbroken love in the Trinity from all eternity (John 17:24).
Thus for the Father to send “even His own Son,” and not to spare Him when it came to pouring out on Him the full measure of His wrath for our sakes, shows His great love for us. Parents often spare their children by not inflicting the full punishment on them for some wrong. Judges spare criminals when they impose a light sentence in view of mitigating circumstances. But God did not spare even His own Son, who became a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). Because Jesus bore God’s awful wrath against our sin, we now face no condemnation when we stand before Him (Rom. 8:1). Thus,
B. God will graciously supply us with all that is needed for life and godliness.
Do you see Paul’s logic? If God did the unimaginably greatest thing possible for us by not sparing His own Son, then won’t He do that which is far less demanding? Again, this doesn’t mean that He will give you a mansion, a fancy new car, a supermodel wife, and a successful career. The context deals with enduring opposition for the sake of the gospel. Paul means that when you face opposition or hardship for the sake of the gospel, through Christ God will give you all that you need to conquer overwhelmingly (8:37) as He brings you to share in Christ’s glory.
Thus the only reasonable response is that which Paul mentions in Philippians 3:8, to count all other things as loss “in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” I confess that my sufferings for Christ are mere trifles compared with what our brothers and sisters around the world are enduring. I’ve had to endure some criticism and slander. Big deal! A few have tried to get me fired, but so far no one has tried to kill me.
A recent Vision Beyond Borders newsletter told of a brother in an unnamed, closed Buddhist country in southeast Asia who is committed to take the gospel to every Buddhist monastery in that country. Several years ago, he and a friend were headed to a village to share the gospel when they offered a ride to a woman walking along the road. She invited them into her home for a meal. After dinner, they showed the Jesus film to her and some neighbors she invited over. Some of the neighbors called the police and this evangelist went to prison for seven months.
After he was released, he excitedly reported, “You’ll never guess what God did. He allowed us to go to prison to bring the gospel to the prisoners! We shared the gospel with 180 prisoners, led 20 to faith in Jesus Christ, and baptized 8 in prison.” One of the converted prisoners has now led 11 men to Christ in that prison. Later, he was arrested again and had many opportunities to witness, including sharing the gospel with the prison warden. He said that he feels that God has given him a prison ministry.
Where is your ministry? Have you encountered any opposition in it? If you stand for the truth of the gospel, even if you do so with grace and love, you will probably encounter opposition. You can joyfully endure it by focusing on God’s love as seen in His giving even His own Son to die for your sins.
- Why is the context vitally important in determining how to apply these verses? How could they be misapplied?
- What cautions must we apply when we say that God is for us? What comforts do we forfeit if we do not apply it?
- What is the practical value of understanding that Christ’s atonement was particular, personal, and effectual?
- Some have “suffered” for the gospel because they were rude or insensitive. How can we make sure that it is not we, but the gospel, that is the cause of offense?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.
Lesson 55: God’s Answer for Guilt (Romans 8:33-34)Related Media
Some years ago, a cartoon pictured a psychologist talking to a patient. “Mr. Figby,” he said, “I think I can explain your feelings of guilt. You’re guilty!”
While we may chuckle at the cartoon, it hits a nerve. Before God, we’re all guilty of violating His two great commandments, which sum up all of His commandments. We all have failed to love God with our entire being. What is worse, we’ve even deliberately shoved Him aside and replaced Him with things as our “gods.” And because we’re selfish, we have failed to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. And so we all have true moral guilt before the holy God of the universe.
How do you deal with your guilt? Many suppress or deny it. Others try to excuse their guilt by thinking, “I have my faults, but I’m a basically good person. I’ve never deliberately hurt anyone.” But however we may try to get rid of our guilty feelings, there is still the stubborn fact that we stand truly guilty of sin before God, who knows every wrong thought, word, and deed that we’ve done.
God’s answer for our guilt is the cross of Jesus Christ, where He bore the punishment that we deserve. As God in human flesh, His sacrifice satisfied God’s holy wrath against our sin, so that God could be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). Because He paid our debt, Paul proclaimed (8:1), “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
But even though Paul has made this wonderful truth crystal clear, he knew that guilt can be a stubborn, nagging problem even for believers. The Swiss commentator, F. Godet (Commentary on Romans [Kregel], p. 330), suggests that as Paul wrote these verses, he may have been remembering the cries of the believers whom he had dragged out of their homes and thrown in prison when he was persecuting the church. Perhaps he could still see Stephen just before he died, with his head bloodied from the stones, crying out (Acts 7:60), “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Whether Paul was thinking of those shameful events from his past or not, he knew that even those who have trusted in Christ for salvation often have to wrestle with guilt, whether from distant or recent sins.
Guilty Christians are not joyous Christians. They cannot enjoy close fellowship with the Savior. They cannot be bold in witness. They cannot confidently disciple others. They usually end up living as hypocrites, putting up a front in fear that the truth about their sin will be exposed.
And so as he applies the benefits of the gospel that he has summed up in 8:29-30, Paul asks two parallel questions: “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect?” And, “Who is the one who condemns?” In answering those questions he doesn’t tell us anything that he hasn’t already said. But he wants to hammer home God’s answer to guilt one more time so that we will know how to win the battle when guilt attacks.
God’s answer to guilt is that He justifies His elect through Christ’s mediation on our behalf.
First, let’s think about who charges us with guilt.
1. The world, the devil, and our consciences seek to condemn us with guilt.
A. The world charges us of being guilty of hypocrisy, intolerance, self-righteousness, and other sins.
All of us have heard unbelievers complain, “The church is full of hypocrites!” The answer is, “Yes, but what will you do with the claims of Christ?” We’re all prone to put on a false front so that people do not see what we’re really like. Sometimes, we may not deliberately deceive others, but at the same time, we don’t correct their misconceptions in our favor. “Pastor, what a man of prayer you are!” I should correct you by saying, “I struggle and often fail to be faithful in prayer!” If I don’t, I’m guilty of hypocrisy.
Unbelievers also frequently accuse us of intolerance and self-righteousness. We’re close-minded. We’re judgmental. We think that we’re right and everyone else is wrong. We say that our way is the only way to heaven. Often, of course, the charges are merely a smokescreen so that the unbeliever can dodge the truth. But, sometimes the charges are true and inwardly we wince in guilt.
B. The devil charges us as guilty when we fall short of God’s holiness.
“Satan” means adversary. “Devil” literally means “one who throws things against you.” He is called (Rev. 12:10), “the accuser of the brethren,” “who accuses them before our God day and night.” Job 1 & 2 gives us an example, where Satan accuses Job before the Lord of being righteous only so that he will enjoy God’s blessing and protection. There is another example in Zechariah 3:1, “Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him.” It goes on to say how Joshua was clothed with filthy garments: he was guilty as charged!
There is debate over whether Satan can inject accusatory or evil thoughts into our minds, or whether these thoughts originate within us. It seems to me that his role as accuser implies that somehow he is able to remind us of our guilt. Sometimes, you just can’t shake off those feelings, even after you’ve repented and confessed the sin to the Lord. At such times, it’s not the Holy Spirit convicting you, in that you have responded to His conviction by repentance. Rather, you’re under attack from the accuser of the brethren. You need to know how to put him to flight.
C. Our consciences charge us with guilt when we know that we have sinned.
Someone has called the conscience a faults alarm: It goes off to let us know our faults. The conscience by itself is not a reliable guide. Sometimes it may be overly sensitive. Some with a weak conscience feel guilty over things that the Bible doesn’t even label as sins, producing false guilt (1 Cor. 8:7-12). Or, sometimes a believer agonizes over something that is a sin, but he blows it way out of proportion.
On the other hand, some have calloused, insensitive, or seared consciences (Eph. 4:17-19; 1 Tim. 4:2). This person feels no guilt even though he is disobeying the clear commands of God’s Word. In some cases such people are ignorant of God’s commandments. For example, I’ve known professing Christians who are engaging in sexual relations outside of marriage, but they feel no twinge of guilt. Their consciences are insensitive or untrained.
The Bible teaches that it’s important to maintain a good conscience before the Lord (Acts 24:16; 1 Tim. 1:5, 19). If the Bible calls something a sin, so should we. If the Bible does not call it a sin, we do not need to either. But even mature believers, who have biblically-sensitive consciences, will have times when their consciences say, “You’re guilty. You sinned.” Maybe we did something that we know to be wrong or we didn’t do what we know to be right. How do we answer these charges?
2. After confession, answer charges of condemnation with God’s promise to justify His elect through Christ’s mediation on your behalf.
To correct some common errors, I begin with a point from other Scriptures. Then we’ll look at three lines of defense that Paul sets forth.
A. If you are truly guilty, confess your sin and turn from it.
Some argue that since God has forgiven all our sins and removed our guilt at the cross, we should never feel guilty (even if we’ve sinned) or confess our sins or ask God for forgiveness. It’s a done deal, so we should just shrug it off and move on.
I believe that such teaching is out of balance. While it’s true that our eternal standing before God is secure through the blood of Christ, at the same time, if we love the Savior who gave Himself for us on the cross, when we grieve Him by sinning, we should feel grief that prompts us to confess our sin, ask His forgiveness, and turn from the sin. It’s not a matter of our standing before God, but rather of our relationship with Him.
For example if I sin against my earthly father, I’m still his son; I know that he won’t disown me. But my sin has strained our relationship. I need to confess my sin, ask his forgiveness, and seek to restore the relationship. It’s the same with the heavenly Father. Although He will never disown me as His blood-bought son, if I sin, I need to be restored in my relationship with Him. I need to be forgiven relationally. I need my conscience to be cleansed by Jesus’ blood. That takes place when I repent, confess my sin, and ask His forgiveness (John 13:10; 1 John 1:7, 9).
Be careful! Even as believers, we’re prone to respond to our guilt by blaming others, or by denying, excusing, or covering up our sin. One of the most common marital problems to overcome is for a couple to stop blaming each other or excusing their own sins and for each one to confess his or her sins and to ask forgiveness from their mate. Also, one of the most common mistakes that Christian parents make is not to humble themselves and ask forgiveness of their children when they sin against them. If you don’t do that, your kids will see your hypocrisy and it will turn them off to the faith. Teach them verbally and by your example that when we sin as believers, we ask God’s forgiveness and we ask forgiveness from the one we sinned against.
Also, if you sin against an unbeliever, you’ll be prone to cover it up or ignore it so that he won’t think badly about you or about the Savior. But if you don’t own up to your sin, he will rightly think that you’re a hypocrite. When you as a Christian sin against an unbeliever, go to him, acknowledge your sin, and humbly ask his forgiveness. Do not try to use the occasion to witness to him. Just confess your sin and make restitution if it’s appropriate. That will be an adequate witness.
This point is from other Scriptures, not from our text, but I wanted to clarify it because I encounter so much confusion on it. In our text, Paul sets forth three answers to the charges of guilt and condemnation (B, C, and D below):
B. Answer charges of condemnation with the fact of God’s sovereign election.
“Who will bring a charge against God’s elect?” Why did Paul say that? Why didn’t he say, “Who will bring a charge against believers in Christ?” Why did he bring up election?
Paul emphasized election because when you’re feeling guilty over your sin, you’re prone to doubt your faith in Christ. “Maybe I’m not a believer. How could a true believer do what I just did?” If salvation rests on your faith or your choice of Christ, then it’s really going to be shaky when you sin. If the accuser can get you to focus on your feeble faith, he can condemn you.
But “God’s elect” means that the root cause of your salvation is that God chose you. Yes, you chose to believe in Christ, but the reason you did so is that He first chose you. If He had not done so, you would have happily gone on in your sin. Election does not mean, as many try to explain it away, that God foresaw that you would believe and chose you on that basis. If that were so, then it would not be according to grace, but according to something good in you, namely, your faith. Your faith would be a work that you originated and could take credit for (Rom. 11:6; Eph. 2:8-9).
Knowing that you’re saved because God first chose you in spite of your sin is essential in battling guilt. It means that no one can produce new evidence to get God to change His mind and disown you, because He chose you before the foundation of the world, knowing all about your sins that you would commit both before and after He saved you.
But, maybe you’re wondering, “How can I know that I’m elect? Maybe my sin shows that I’m not one of the elect.” It’s true that a lifestyle of disobedience and sin should make you question whether your calling and election are sure (2 Pet. 1:9-11). “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:3-4). John is describing a habitually disobedient way of life (1 John 3:7-10). God’s elect cannot be content living in sin.
Ask yourself these questions: Has God changed my heart? Has He shown me my sin and guilt and my desperate need for the Savior, so that I have abandoned all trust in my own good works to save me? Has He given me faith to believe in Christ as my only hope for heaven? Has He given me a love for Him and His Word and a hatred of sin? Am I growing in conformity to Christ? While we all have room to grow in these things, this should be the direction of our lives if we are one of God’s elect.
C. Answer charges of condemnation with God’s promise to justify the ungodly by grace alone through faith alone.
Paul does not mention here that we are justified by faith. Rather, in answer to the charges against God’s elect, he emphasizes God’s action (8:33b): “God is the one who justifies.” To learn how God justifies us, we need to go back to chapters 3 & 4, where Paul shows that we are justified by faith, apart from works. Romans 4:5: “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.”
Paul’s argument in Romans 8:33 is in legal language. God alone is the supreme and final judge of the universe. If He condemns you, you’re eternally condemned! If He acquits you, you’re eternally acquitted! So it’s essential to make sure that God is for you (8:31)! No one can go above God’s head to change His decision to justify the sinner who has faith in Jesus. If God has justified you, you’re justified! He’s the Supreme Court of all Supreme Courts!
Also, as we’ve seen, there is nothing meritorious in us to deserve being justified. God justifies the ungodly, not pretty good people. We are truly guilty and deserve to be condemned, but Jesus paid the penalty that we deserved. The cause of our faith that justified us was not because we were brilliant enough to figure it out or because we had an inclination toward God. Rather, our justification is rooted in God’s sovereign election. Because He chose us and justified us, we can answer any charges against us.
But maybe the enemy keeps hounding us. He keeps pointing his accusing finger, saying, “You’re not a Christian. You’re condemned!” So Paul gives another decisive answer to guilt:
D. Answer charges of condemnation with Christ’s effectiveness and sufficiency as your Mediator.
Romans 8:34b: “Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.” I considered taking an entire message on this, but I’m going to hit it briefly and hope that for most of you, this is just a review. Verse 34 gives the theological reason why God can justify sinners, namely, the work of Christ as Savior and Mediator. Paul mentions four aspects of Christ’s mediation on our behalf:
(1). Christ Jesus died for our sins.
Paul doesn’t add, “for our sins” here, which he has already covered (3:25; 5:6-9; 8:32). He states only that Christ died and was raised to put the focus on Him. Again, there is no security and no defense against guilt when you focus on yourself or even on your faith. Your focus must be on God who has chosen and justified you, and on Christ who died and was raised bodily from the dead. We see the same emphasis on God’s role in salvation in Zechariah 3, where Satan accuses Joshua, who was guilty. The Lord said to Satan (Zech. 3:2), “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! Indeed, the Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?”
Paul’s point in Romans 8:34 is that it would be absurd for Jesus, who came to earth to be the sacrifice for the sins of God’s elect, to condemn the very ones He died for! So when the enemy accuses you, point to the cross. “And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb…” (Rev. 12:11).
(2). Christ Jesus was raised for our justification.
Here, Paul simply adds, “yes, rather who was raised.” But as he stated (Rom. 4:25), He “was raised because of our justification.” Christ’s death satisfied God’s justice, thus providing the basis for our justification. But His resurrection was God’s stamp of approval, showing that God accepted Christ’s death as payment for our sins. Paul staked everything in the Christian faith on the bodily resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:17): “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” When you struggle with doubts or with guilt, go back to the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. It is a solid place to stand.
(3). Christ Jesus is now exalted to the right hand of God.
“The right hand of God” is figurative language to say that Jesus is now far above all rule and authority. He is over every power in heaven and on earth (Ps. 110:1; Eph. 1:20; 1 Pet. 3:22). This means that no one, not even Satan, can challenge Christ’s rule or His decisions, including His decision to pluck you as a brand from the burning in spite of your sin.
(4). Christ Jesus is interceding for us.
John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 325) says that Paul adds this so that we will not be terrified by the majesty of Christ’s absolute authority at the right hand of God. His purpose in that place of authority is not to condemn us, but to support us by His prayers, especially when we stumble and sin.
There are two helpful examples of this in the Bible. The first is when Jesus tells Peter that Satan has demanded permission to sift him like wheat, and then adds (Luke 22:32), “but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” The other is Christ’s wonderful prayer in John 17, just before the cross, where He prays for His disciples and He even prays for us, who would believe through their witness. For us, Jesus’ throne at the right hand of the Father is not a throne of judgment, but rather a throne of grace, where we are invited to find mercy and grace to help with all our needs (Heb. 4:16). But even when we feel too ashamed to pray because of our sin and guilt, we can be assured that Jesus is there praying for us!
In John Bunyan’s autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, he tells how he went through several years of wrestling with his guilty conscience. He shares this helpful and practical insight (The Works of John Bunyan [Baker], 1:35-36, paragraph 229):
But one day, as I was passing in the field, and that too with some dashes in my conscience, fearing lest yet all was not right, suddenly this sentence fell upon my soul, Thy righteousness is in heaven; and I … saw, with the eyes of my soul, Jesus Christ at God’s right hand; there, I say, as my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was a-doing, God could not say of me, He wants [lacks] my righteousness, for that was just before him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse; for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, the same yesterday, and today, and forever.
Bunyan saw that God’s answer to guilt does not lie with us, but with God and Christ alone. If God has chosen you and justified you through the effective mediation of the crucified, risen, exalted, and praying Savior, then you can answer any charge against you. If God, the sovereign Judge of all has said (8:1), “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” then you are not condemned!
- How can a believer distinguish between true and false guilt? How should we deal with each of these?
- Can Christians be overly obsessed with confessing every minor sin? If we don’t confess even minor sins, will our conscience grow more sensitive or more callused?
- How can a professing Christian know that he is one of God’s elect (2 Pet. 1:10-11)? Will this lead to pride? Why/why not?
- Are believers capable of committing seriously wrong sins? What is the unpardonable sin?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.
Lesson 56: The Triumph of God’s Love (Romans 8:35-39)Related Media
Our text, which is the summit of Romans 1-8, and perhaps the summit of the entire Bible, extols the eternal, unchangeable, unfathomable (Eph. 3:19), life-transforming love of God for us in Christ Jesus our Lord. James Boice (Romans: The Reign of Grace [Baker], 2:983) uses the analogy of a mountain climber, tied to his guide with a rope. Though the route is treacherous and he often slips, he doesn’t fall to his death because of the rope. Christ is our guide who never slips and the rope that ties us securely to Him is His great love for us, as seen in the cross.
No truth will transform your life more than God’s gracious love for you in Christ. To the extent that you understand it, feel it, and live daily with a deep sense of its reality, you will live in victory over temptation and sin and be able joyfully to persevere through trials. And so Paul brings us onto the summit of God’s love by asking and answering his sixth and seventh rhetorical questions:
(1) “What then shall we say to these things?” (8:31a)
(2) “If God is for us, who is against us?” (8:31b)
(3) “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?” (8:32)
(4) “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect?” (8:33a)
(5) “God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns?” (8:33b-34a)
(6) “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” (8:35a)
(7) “Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (8:35b)
Then Paul cites Psalm 44:22 to show that enduring trials and even death for Christ’s sake is nothing new for God’s people: “For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” Then he boldly affirms (8:37), “But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.” He concludes (8:38-39) with his firm conviction that absolutely nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” To sum up:
God’s great love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord enables us to be more than conquerors through every trial for His sake.
As I mentioned in a previous message, Paul is not writing these wonderful truths so that we can feel more secure as we pursue the American dream. Rather, he was writing to those who were suffering hardship, persecution, and even martyrdom because of their commitment to Christ and the gospel. Paul is equipping us with the knowledge that we need not only to persevere through trials for Christ’s sake, but to overwhelmingly conquer in all these difficulties.
Paul was not writing as a speculative theologian. His words here serve as a mini-biography, in that he had already suffered all of these trials (2 Cor. 11:23-29), except the sword (which he later would add to his résumé!). While we may not have to face martyrdom, we will face many trials and death, if Christ does not return. So we need to understand and apply Paul’s words about how God’s love enables us to be more than conquerors through every trial that we face for His sake. Four thoughts:
1. God’s great love for us is not diminished or terminated by our failures, shortcomings, or sins, because it goes back to God’s choice of us before the foundation of the world.
As we’ve seen, in the context Paul roots our salvation in God’s loving choice of us according to His plan before He made the world (see also, Eph. 1:4-5). At a point in our lives, He called us according to His purpose to conform us to the image of His Son, so that He would have the preeminence (8:28-29). In fact, He loved us so much that He delivered up His own Son for us on the cross (8:32). Since God did all of this for us while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8), His love for us is not conditioned on our worthiness or our performance. We can’t earn or deserve His love. Rather, it stems from His very nature, “for God is love” (1 John 4:8).
But, perhaps you’re wondering about Jesus’ words (John 14:21), “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.” That sounds as if God’s love is conditioned by our love for Him. How does that harmonize with God’s unconditional love for us while we were yet sinners?
Both John and Paul are clear that God’s love for us as sinners is at the root of why He sent Christ to die for us: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son….” (John 3:16). “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
But in John 14, Jesus is teaching those who already have responded to God’s love that a close relationship with God is reciprocal. Our obedience to Christ reflects our love for Him. And we will only experience the love of the Father and the Son as we obey Him. But when we as believers fall into sin, God’s eternal, unchanging love that sought us and bought us out of the slave market of sin is our safety net of security. If He saved us while we were yet sinners, knowing full well that we would sin after He saved us, then we can trust that He will not cast us off as His children, even when we disobey. He will discipline us as a loving Father (Heb. 12:5-11), but our sin will not cause Him to diminish His love for us. This is one practical value of the doctrine of election.
2. God’s great love for us is not threatened or undermined by all sorts of adversity, including martyrdom.
Verse 35 assumes that there are enemies that will try to separate us from the love of Christ. Paul may use the personal pronoun, who, to parallel his earlier questions (8:31b, 33, 34). Or, he may be personifying the trials that he goes on to enumerate, which seem like personal enemies trying to separate us from God’s love. As Satan did with Job, he uses terrible trials to try to get us to doubt God’s love. But Paul is showing that no matter how difficult the trial, even to the point of martyrdom, God’s love for us is a rock solid foundation. Whatever the trial, by faith, not by feelings, we must come back to God’s love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Let’s look at Paul’s list: First, he mentions tribulation, a general word for difficult trials. It has the nuance of pressure from without. Jesus used this word when He said (John 16:33), “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” Paul used it when he taught new believers (Acts 14:22), “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”
Distress has the nuance of a narrow or confined place. It may point to the inward feelings that we battle when we go through tribulations. R. C. Trench (Synonyms of the New Testament [Eerdmans], p. 202) illustrates tribulation by an old English method of execution, where a prisoner had increasingly heavy weights placed on his chest until he was crushed to death. He illustrates distress by another ancient form of punishment, where prisoners were put into cages or cells where they did not have room to stand, sit, or lie at full length. We have already encountered both words in Romans 2:9, where Paul describes the eternal punishment of the wicked as “tribulation and distress.” But in our text he is saying that believers often suffer trials from without or within because of Christ.
Persecution literally means to pursue someone to harm him. It refers to the verbal or physical abuse that we suffer because of Christ. Jesus said (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; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Paul promised (2 Tim. 3:12), “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” While God has so far spared most of us in America from physical persecution for our faith, that is not so with thousands of our brothers and sisters in other countries who are being tortured and killed for their faith. We may yet see the same here.
Famine and nakedness both point to extreme poverty and deprivation, especially (in this context) because of our commitment to Christ. In some countries, if you’re a Christian you can’t get a job to provide for your family’s basic needs. And in some places, famine is a reality that believers suffer. Again, it could happen here.
Peril means “danger.” Paul uses this word eight times in 2 Corinthians 11:26 to describe the many dangers that he had faced in his labors for Christ. Sword refers to execution or death, which Paul finally suffered for his faith. The quote from Psalm 44:22 (8:36) shows that it is for the Lord’s sake that His people suffer martyrdom. The world just considers believers as “sheep to be slaughtered.” And it shows, as I said, that such suffering is nothing new. God’s people have experienced it down through the centuries.
Thus it is not correct to think that because you’re a child of God, He will protect you from trials. You may think, “But I was serving the Lord! Why didn’t He protect me?” But read the Bible and read church history. In His sovereign purpose, God often allows His faithful servants to be persecuted unto death. He even has a specific number of martyrs who must die before He brings final judgment on the wicked (Rev. 6:10-11)! Those who teach that if you have enough faith God will heal all your diseases and give you a pile of money to live in luxury are false teachers. By faith God delivers some, but by the same faith, others are destitute or tortured or sawn in two (Heb. 11:33-39).
As if his list in 8:35 were not enough, Paul adds a series of contrasts to reinforce his conviction that absolutely nothing can separate us from God’s love (8:38-39): “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” As J. I. Packer points out (Knowing God [IVP], pp. 251-252), Paul here is countering our fears.
First, neither death nor life can separate us from God’s love. If Christ has saved you, death ushers you into His presence (Phil. 1:23; 2 Cor. 5:8). While we do not receive our resurrection bodies until Christ returns (Rom. 8:23; 1 Cor. 15:50-54), the moment we die our spirits go to be with the Lord. There is no such thing as “soul sleep.” As Jesus told the repentant thief on the cross (Luke 23:43), “Today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
At first, it may seem strange that Paul says that life cannot separate us from God’s love. But life can be a bigger threat than death. In the parable of the sower (Luke 8:14), Jesus identifies the thorny ground as “the worries and riches and pleasures of this life,” which choke out the word so that it does not bear fruit. Paul laments the desertion of Demas, who “loved this present world” (2 Tim. 4:10). C. H. Spurgeon commented on our text (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 42:558), “I am not so much afraid of dying as I am of sinning; that is ten times worse than death.” But as God’s children, if we fall into sin or worldliness, His love will discipline and restore us. Life cannot permanently separate us from God’s love.
Then Paul mentions neither angels, nor principalities. Some argue that angels here must refer to fallen angels, since the holy angels would never try to separate us from God’s love. But I think they miss the point. Paul is citing extreme contrasts to show that absolutely nothing can separate us from God’s love. In Galatians 1:8, Paul says that even if an angel from heaven preaches a gospel contrary to the gospel that Paul had preached, he is to be accursed. It’s not possible that an angel from heaven would do that, but Paul is stating an extreme hypothetical situation to make his point. So in our text, he is saying that there are no spiritual powers, good or bad, that could possibly separate us from God’s love.
Neither things present, nor things to come, could refer either to our present circumstances as contrasted with things that will happen to us before we die. Or, it could refer to things in the present age as contrasted with the age to come. But either way, Paul is referring to everything that can possibly happen to us. No bad circumstance now or in the future can separate us from God’s great love.
The King James Version follows a textual variant that moves powers from the end of verse 38 to join it with angels and principalities, but it seems to be a copyist’s attempt to arrange the terms in a more logical order. The best manuscripts put it at the end of the verse. Powers most likely refers to spiritual powers, not to miracles. It’s not clear why Paul felt the need to add it, since he’s already mentioned angels and principalities, or why he put it by itself at the end of the verse, when he groups everything else in pairs.
Neither height nor depth has been variously explained, but it probably means that nothing in heaven or in hell can separate us from God’s love (C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [T. & T. Clark], 1:443). Or, it may have a spatial connotation: However high or low you go, you can’t get away from God’s love (see Ps. 139). It’s everywhere!
Then, as if Paul were afraid that he had missed something, he throws in a catch-all: nor any other created thing. He is saying, “Name anything that you can conceive of. God will work it together for good for His saints, and so it cannot separate us from His love.”
But, all of the terrible things that Paul has listed certainly don’t feel like God’s love when they happen to us. So how can we really know that these terrible trials cannot separate us from His love? To make it personal, how can I know that He loves me when I go through horrible suffering or perhaps even face martyrdom?
3. God’s great love for us is supremely demonstrated in Christ Jesus our Lord, who gave Himself for us on the cross.
Paul points us to the cross in two ways. First, in 8:37 he says that “we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.” He uses the aorist (past) tense, not the present. This points us back to the greatest demonstration of love ever given, where the Father delivered over His beloved Son on our behalf (John 3:16). Second, in 8:39 Paul says that the love of God “is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The cross shows the love of the Son of God, who willingly laid down His life for us (John 10:18; 15:13).
William R. Newell (Romans Verse by Verse [Moody Press], p. 344) has an interesting insight on Paul’s use of the past tense. He says that the devil hates this “past tense gospel,” because the word of the cross is the power of God. Then he adds (italics his), “Let a preacher be continually saying, ‘God loves you, Christ loves you,’ and he and his congregation will by and by be losing sight both of their sinnerhood and of the substitutionary atonement of the cross, where the love of God and of Christ was once for all and supremely set forth,—and in righteous display!”
You will not experience God’s great love until you come as a guilty sinner to the cross and trust in God’s provision for your sin in the death of His Son. Or, to put it another way, you will not know God’s great love unless Jesus Christ is your Lord. There is no group plan of salvation that you can get by joining the church or growing up in a Christian family. It must be personal for you, as it was for Paul, who wrote, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20).
Thus God’s great love for us is not diminished or terminated by our failures, shortcomings, or sins, since it is rooted in God’s choice of us before the foundation of the world. His love is not threatened or undermined by the worst adversities or trials imaginable. The greatest proof of His love was at the cross. Finally,
4. God’s great love for us will be consummated in heaven, but we should experience it now as the foundation for victory as we face trials for His sake.
I’m focusing here on 8:37, “But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.” Throughout eternity, we will discover “the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7). But we begin to taste His grace and love now through the cross. And to the extent that we know the love of Christ at the cross now, we not only can persevere through trials, but overwhelmingly conquer in them.
Several fine expositors suggest numerous ways in which we are more than conquerors in Christ (Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 13:283-285; Boice, 2:992-997; Newell, pp. 343-344. I can’t develop these without a separate message.) But I’ll just mention one insight from Alexander Maclaren (Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker], on Rom. 8:37, p. 206), who asks, “Has the world helped me to lay hold of Christ? Then I have conquered it. Has the world loosened my grasp upon Him? Then it has conquered me.” He adds (p. 207), “The worst of all afflictions is a wasted affliction, and they are all wasted unless they teach us more of the reality and the blessedness of the love of Jesus Christ.”
So the way to conquer overwhelmingly is to stay focused on God’s great love as seen in the cross of Christ, who suffered and died so that you can live with Him in heaven forever.
In Knowing God (p. 115), Dr. Packer applies his chapter, “The Love of God,” by asking some convicting questions:
Why do I ever grumble and show discontent and resentment at the circumstances in which God has placed me?
Why am I ever distrustful, fearful, or depressed?
Why do I ever allow myself to grow cool, formal, and half-hearted in the service of the God who loves me so?
Why do I ever allow my loyalties to be divided, so that God has not all my heart?
… Could an observer learn from the quality and degree of love that I show to others—my wife … husband … family … neighbors … people at church … people at work—anything at all about the greatness of God’s love to me?
Martyn Lloyd-Jones (The Unsearchable Riches of Christ [Baker], p. 219) wrote, “Indeed, our chief defect as Christians is that we fail to realize Christ’s love to us.” He added (p. 223), “How important it is that we should meditate upon this love and contemplate it! It is because we fail to do so that we tend to think at times that He has forgotten us, or that He has left us.”
To grow in God’s love, I would encourage you to do three things: (1) Meditate often on the cross, where God demonstrated “His love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). (2) Read the Bible, especially the Psalms, to see how God’s saints processed their trials through the grid of God’s love. (3) Read Christian biographies, especially missionary biographies, to see how God’s people have more than conquered through Christ’s love as they have suffered for the gospel. May we all overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us!
- Love causes me to protect my family from every possible hurt or danger. If God is love, then why doesn’t He do this for us?
- A skeptic asks, “How can a God of love allow innocent children to suffer?” How would you respond biblically and evangelistically?
- We must recognize the depths of our sin to appreciate the heights of God’s love. How does this undermine the current popular emphasis on “self-esteem”?
- Why is the “health and wealth” teaching so patently false and damaging? What Scriptures refute it?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.
Lesson 57: A Burden for the Lost (Romans 9:1-5)Related Media
I need to begin by letting you know that this is a difficult sermon for me to preach because I fall so far short of the example of Paul’s deep burden for lost souls that we see here. I can’t fathom ever making a statement like Paul makes here, that he would be willing to be eternally damned if it would result in the salvation of his countrymen, the Jews! C. H. Spurgeon (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 24:410-411) reported how John Bunyan said “that he often felt while preaching that he could give his own salvation for the salvation of his hearers.” Then Spurgeon stuck the knife in: “And I pity the man who has not felt the same.”
Well, Spurgeon would pity me! For many years I’ve had on my prayer list that God would give me a deeper burden for the lost. I pray often for lost people to come to salvation. I try to preach the gospel faithfully. But I don’t understand how anyone could say what Paul says here. You hear about people giving up a kidney for someone who needs a donor, which is a noble sacrifice. But giving up your eternal salvation! To be honest, I’m just not there! So I’ve got a lot of room to grow! Maybe you do, too.
The mood of Romans shifts dramatically in chapter 9. Paul ends chapter 8 rejoicing in the glorious fact that absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. But then he abruptly shifts gears, telling of his great sorrow and unceasing grief, even to the point of wishing that he could be separated from Christ, on account of the sad spiritual condition of the Jews. In spite of their great spiritual privileges, for the most part they were alienated from their Messiah.
This abrupt change of mood signals that we’re moving into a new section of Romans that runs from chapter 9 through chapter 11. It’s a difficult section in many ways. Some of it is difficult to understand and even if you understand it, some of it is difficult to accept. Romans 9 is one of the strongest statements on the sovereignty of God in the Bible, and many struggle with that doctrine. They don’t like what it seems to imply with regard to human “free will.” And so they try to explain away Paul’s strong statements in this chapter. Others get so carried away with God’s sovereignty that they end up practically denying human responsibility. But the Bible is clear that sinners are responsible to repent and believe in Christ. But when they do repent and believe, it is totally due to God’s sovereign grace, so that none may boast.
But it may surprise you to hear that God’s sovereignty is not the main theme of Romans 9. Rather, Paul brings up that topic to support the main theme. Here’s why Romans 9-11 is crucial to the argument of Romans and to your life: In Romans 8, Paul has given us the wonderful, reassuring truth that all whom God foreknew (“decided beforehand to enter into a relationship with”) and predestined to salvation will be saved and glorified for all eternity, so that Jesus will have the preeminence. He ends the chapter with the strong assurance that absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God.
But if you know anything about the Old Testament, that raises a huge problem. The Old Testament is clear that the Jews were God’s chosen people (Deut. 7:6; 14:2). God promised to bless them and to bless all nations through them. But when Paul wrote Romans, most of the Jews were rejecting Jesus as their Messiah. And many of them were also persecuting those (like Paul) who claimed that Jesus was their Messiah.
So the problem is: In light of the Jews’ rejection of Christ, has God’s purpose to bless the Jews failed? And, if God’s purpose for them failed, then how do we know that His purpose to save us will succeed? How do we know that nothing can separate us as His chosen people from His love in Christ, when in fact the Jews are separated from Christ? That question governs Romans 9-11.
Here’s Paul’s flow of thought: In 9:1-5, he affirms his heartfelt concern for the salvation of the Jews. He does so in part because many Jews accused Paul of abandoning his own people for the sake of the despised Gentiles. Paul affirms also the privileged spiritual position of the Jews.
But this raises the question (9:6), “Has the word of God then failed?” Paul’s answer (9:6-13) is, “No, because God has always worked through a remnant according to His sovereign choice.” He chose Isaac, not Ishmael (9:6-9). Then He chose Jacob, not Esau (9:10-13). But this raises the question (9:14), “Is God then unfair?” Paul answers (9:15-18) by asserting God’s sovereign right to show mercy to whom He desires and to harden whom He desires.
But this raises the further question (9:19), “If God is totally sovereign, then how can He find fault with anyone, because who can resist His will?” Paul answers by saying, in effect (9:20-24), “Who do you think you are to question the Sovereign of the universe, whose glorious purpose is far bigger than you imagine!” Then (9:25-29), he backs up what he has just said with Old Testament Scripture to show that he isn’t making this up. He ends the chapter (9:30-33) by showing why Israel failed to receive the promise, while the Gentiles did receive it.
Next (10:1-4) he says that the Jews were zealous to establish their own righteousness, but they missed Christ, who “is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (10:4). Salvation is available to all who will believe (10:5-13). But in spite of God’s invitation, Israel has largely rejected it, while many Gentiles have accepted it, as the Old Testament affirms (10:14-21).
Does this mean that God has permanently rejected the Jews (11:1)? No, just as God in the past worked through a remnant, so He is doing now (11:2-10). But, this is not the final picture, since God has promised a glorious future for Israel. Their present rejection of the gospel has opened the door to the Gentiles, to make Israel jealous (11:11-16). But the Gentiles need to be careful not to become proud. If God broke off Israel for their unbelief, He could do the same with the Gentiles (11:17-24). In fact, He will again show mercy to Israel, so that “all Israel will be saved” (11:25-32). Thinking about God’s sovereign mercy over the course of history causes Paul to erupt in a final burst of praise for God’s unfathomable wisdom (11:33-36).
With that as a preview, let’s focus on 9:1-5, where Paul shows us his heart for the lost. The lesson is:
We should be burdened for the salvation of lost souls because the love of Christ and the love of God’s truth impel us.
1. We should be burdened for the salvation of lost souls because the love of Christ impels us (9:1-3).
You may say, “I don’t see any mention of the love of Christ in 9:1-3.” But for three reasons I believe that this was behind Paul’s burden for his lost kinsmen. First, he has just finished (8:35-39) extolling “the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The gracious love that Paul had received while he was yet a sinner (5:8) impelled him to want his countrymen to experience that same love.
Second, in 1 Corinthians 11:1 Paul tells us to imitate him just as he imitated Christ, and it was Christ’s love that moved Him to lay down His life for His sheep (John 3:16; 10:11-15). Paul’s hypothetical willingness to be damned if it meant the salvation of the Jews reflects Christ’s actual willingness to bear the wrath of God so that His sheep would be saved.
Third, in 2 Corinthians 5:14, in an evangelistic context, Paul states, “For the love of Christ controls us….” Thus, Christ’s love that reached down to us in our sin should impel us to reach out to other sinners with the good news that if they will trust in Christ, He will save them. Note four things:
A. It is possible to have great sorrow over the lost at the same time that we have great joy in Christ.
Paul has just exuberantly told of God’s great love for us in Christ, but now he tells of his “great sorrow and unceasing grief.” He wasn’t bi-polar, going from a super-high to a super-low! Rather, he was “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10). It’s possible to be both sorrowful and yet rejoicing at the same time. It’s interesting that the shortest verse in the English New Testament is John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” The shortest verse in the Greek New Testament is 1 Thessalonians 5:16, “Rejoice always.”
If I focused on the sad condition of lost people to the extent that I had only great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart, I would be very depressed. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. I wouldn’t reflect the joy of the Lord. On the other hand, if I were so filled with the joy of my salvation that I never felt any sorrow or grief for the lost, I would be very self-centered and calloused. I need both the joy of salvation that moves me to want others to know the same joy, along with sorrow over the sad condition of the lost, so that I reach out to them with kindness and compassion.
B. We should be especially burdened for the salvation of those with whom we share a natural affinity.
This is not to say that we should not cross social, cultural, linguistic, or national barriers to share the good news. How will such people hear unless someone goes to tell them (10:14-15)? After all, Paul the Pharisaical Jew was called to be the apostle to the Gentiles. But it is to say that God has given us a natural affinity with some around us. Paul the Jew had a great burden for his fellow Jews. Cross that natural bridge to share the good news with your “kinsmen according to the flesh.”
Pastor Tom Mercer (Oikos: Your World Delivered [Professional Press], revised as 8 to 15: The World is Smaller Than You Think; oikos is the Greek word for “household”) says that each of us has 8 to 15 people that God has placed in our relational world. Through us He wants to get the gospel to these people. Identify those 8-15 people in your life, begin to pray for them, and ask God for opportunities to show His love and grace to them either in deed or word.
But, maybe some of those 8 to 15 people have hurt you or treated you badly. What then?
C. We should be burdened especially for the salvation of those who have hurt us the most.
Who persecuted Paul just about everywhere he went? The Jews! Who was Paul most burdened for? The Jews! I could understand if he had said, “Let them go to hell! They deserve it!” But instead, his heart’s desire and prayer for them was for their salvation (10:1).
I’m not saying that if you’ve been physically or sexually abused you should put yourself in a situation that would expose you to further abuse. That would be unwise. But I am saying that you should pray often for the salvation of those who hurt you. Maybe you won’t be the one to share the gospel with them, but you can pray that God will bring someone into their lives to lead them to Christ. And, if you do have contact, you can respond to any verbal abuse or meanness with the kindness and love of Christ.
D. Lost people won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
I didn’t originate that phrase, but it captures a truth that oozes out of verse 3, where Paul says that he could wish himself accursed and separated from Christ for the sake of his fellow Jews. That is such a radical statement that Paul felt the need to say (9:1), “I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit ….” Some of his Jewish enemies thought that Paul had forsaken his Jewish heritage for the sake of the despised Gentiles. But before God, Paul testifies that he had such deep concern for the Jews that he would be willing to give up his salvation if it meant that they could be saved!
As I said, I can’t imagine saying such a thing! How should we understand it? Without going into various interpretations, I think that Paul is speaking hypothetically. He has just said that it’s impossible for anything to separate us from God’s love. But here he’s trying to convey how deeply he was burdened for the salvation of the Jews. C. E. B. Cranfield (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [T & T Clark International], pp. 456-457) translates, “For I would pray (were it permissible for me so to pray and if the fulfillment of such a prayer could benefit them)….” Paul knew that such a prayer was not permissible and would not result in the salvation of the Jews. But he’s showing us how much he cared about the salvation of his lost kinsmen, the Jews.
It’s hard to square Paul’s compassion for all the Jews with Exodus 33:19, which he cites in 9:15, where God tells Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” That statement implies that God does not have compassion on everyone, as the subsequent plagues on the Egyptians showed. But the difference is, God is God and we’re not God! He is free to show mercy to some and to harden others (9:18). But we need to show compassion to all, knowing that God will use the display of His love through us to save those who believe and to judge those who refuse to believe.
So pray that the love of Christ will control you to such an extent that you show His love even to those who mistreat you, who deserve His judgment. Ask Him to give you a burden for the lost. But, we need to focus briefly on 9:4-5:
2. We should be burdened for the salvation of lost souls because the love of God’s truth impels us (9:4-5).
Again, you may wonder, “Where do you see the love of God’s truth in these verses?” To give due credit, I got this insight from Douglas Moo (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 560). Paul desperately wanted to see the Jews saved not only because of his love for them, but also because he loved the truth of God’s promises to them. He didn’t want people to think that the word of God had failed (9:6). Three observations:
A. Our primary motive for seeing lost souls saved should be God’s glory.
Even beyond Paul’s compassion for his fellow Jews was his zeal for God’s glory, which is the driving force of chapters 9-11. These chapters are a defense of God’s word and His glory against a serious problem that seemingly could undermine His ability to fulfill His promises, namely, the widespread unbelief of the Jews. God’s main purpose for creating the world was not to save souls, but to display His infinite glory. That should be our motive as we bear witness of Christ.
B. We should be especially burdened for the salvation of those who enjoy the greatest spiritual privileges.
The Jews had unique spiritual privileges, but they were lost. Great spiritual privileges will not save anyone unless they respond to these privileges. The Jews’ rejection of Christ shows that salvation is not just a matter of considering the evidence and making a rational decision to choose God. The fallen human heart is spiritually dead (Rom. 3:10-18; 8:6-8). The difficulty with many lost people is that they trust in their religious privileges, not in the Savior. What a tragedy to be religiously zealous, but lost! Salvation is not a matter of spiritual privilege alone, but rather of God’s sovereign grace that imparts life to dead sinners.
Paul lists nine spiritual privileges that God gave to the Jews. First, they were Israelites. The name focuses on the descendants of Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel. Moo (p. 561) says that it “suggests a people chosen by God to belong to him in a special way and to be the vessels of his plan of salvation for the world.”
Second, they had the adoption as sons (Exod. 4:22; Jer. 31:9; Hos. 11:1). This does not mean that all Jews were saved; rather, it refers to God’s adoption of the nation.
Third, they had the glory. This refers to God’s glory being displayed in their midst on numerous occasions (Exod. 16:10; 40:34; 1 Kings 8:10-11). What an amazing privilege!
Fourth, they had the covenants that God made with Abraham, Moses, David, plus, perhaps, the New Covenant (Gen. 12:1-3; Exod.24:7-8; Ps. nter into such covenants with any other nation.
Fifth, they received the law (Exod. 20:1-17), which told them how to live in a manner pleasing to God.
Sixth, they received God’s pattern of temple service. God revealed the various feasts and sacrifices that Israel was to observe.
Seventh, they received God’s promises, which covers all of God’s covenant blessings.
Eighth, they were descended from the fathers of the Jewish faith, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Finally, they were the race that brought the Christ according to the flesh into the world.
This applies to you if you were raised in a Christian home and grew up in the church. Do you realize how privileged you are? There are billions of people in this world who are “separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). But your great spiritual privileges will become great spiritual liabilities that will testify against you at the judgment if you do not repent of your sins and trust in Christ.
There is also an application for those of us who have responded to God’s grace: Don’t assume that just because someone you know is a lifelong church member or grew up in a Christian home that he is saved. As great a privilege as it is to be exposed to these truths, each person must repent and believe for these privileges to become blessings. Make sure that your family or friends who grew up in the church truly know Christ as Savior and Lord.
C. The salvation of lost people requires that they come to know Jesus Christ as God in human flesh.
Paul ends verse 5, “the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.” There is debate over how to translate and punctuate that verse, because the original Greek did not have punctuation. Some argue that because it is uncharacteristic of Paul directly to call Christ “God,” the last phrase must be a separate benediction referring to God the Father.
But there are solid grammatical, logical, and biblical reasons to accept this as a direct statement of Christ’s deity. It balances the affirmation of His humanity in the preceding phrase. The Greek word order favors it. A joyful doxology seems out of place here and would be an abrupt change of subject. The early Fathers, whose native language was Greek, understood it this way. And, there are other texts where Paul clearly refers to Jesus as God (Phil. 2:9-11; Eph. 1:20-22; Col. 2:9; 2 Thess. 1:12; Titus 1:3-4; 2:13; Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 350).
The gospel is not, “Believe in Jesus however you may conceive Him to be.” Rather, it is, “Believe in the Lord Jesus revealed in Scripture, who is eternal God in human flesh, who offered Himself as the sacrifice for our sins, who was raised bodily from the dead.” The Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to believe in Jesus, but their “Jesus” is not the eternal Son of God. Salvation depends on believing in Jesus as Lord, which means, “God.”
Are you burdened for the salvation of lost souls? If you’re anything like me, you have to answer honestly, “Not as much as I should be.” Frankly, I may never be burdened to the degree that Paul was, where I would be willing to forfeit my salvation if it meant the salvation of lost souls.
But ask God to give you a burden for the lost. Pray for the lost, especially those you have frequent contact with. When God gives the opportunity, share the gospel with the lost. Pray for missionaries and give so that they can take the gospel to those who have never heard about Christ. And, perhaps some of you will sense that God is calling you to cross cultural and linguistic barriers to take the gospel to the lost. The love of Christ and the love of God’s truth should impel us to have a burden for lost souls.
- Do you give much thought or prayer to the horrible situation of lost people? How can you change this?
- Think about 8-15 people that you have a natural affinity with. Write down their names and begin to pray for their salvation.
- How practically can we show lost people that we genuinely care about their spiritual condition, especially when they don’t seem the least bit concerned?
- Is it necessary for a person to understand and believe that Jesus is God in order to be saved, or can this come later? Can a truly saved person deny the deity of Jesus?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.