Mysterious Ways

(Isaiah 40:12-14, Isaiah 59:15b-21; Romans 11:16-36)

If you’ve spent any great amount of time in the letters of Paul, you’ve probably realized that his letters to churches follow a consistent pattern: the first part of the letter is theology, and the second part is application of that theology to the life of the church and its members. Biblical scholars like to borrow terms from grammar and talk about this as the indicative and the imperative; for those who aren’t grammar geeks, the indicative mood in language is the basic form, telling you what is—this is a chair, that is a window, and so on—while the imperative is the command form: sit down! Shut that window! You get the idea. In these terms, Paul begins by laying out the indicatives of the gospel—what’s true about God and Jesus and us and our salvation—before moving on to the imperatives of the gospel—this being true, how should we then live?

This is important, for reasons we’ll talk about later in this series; for now, the important point is that this passage brings the theological arc of this letter to its close. The story Paul has been telling of the work of God in redeeming a people for himself comes to an end here, as the apostle turns to look forward to the grand conclusion of history; he turns from explaining what God has already done to proclaim what God is going to do. He’s been dealing with the problem of the Exile, with God’s rejection of Israel and his banishment of his people from the land of his presence; but as Paul has argued in the first part of chapter 11, the Exile was never going to be permanent, for God promised even before sending Israel away that he would bring them home.

Now, in hearing this, you need to understand that from the Jewish perspective, the Exile never really ended. Sure, they got back to Jerusalem, but that’s only part of what they expected—God made all sorts of other promises about what would happen when he brough his people back from exile, and most of those remained unfulfilled in Paul’s day, and still in ours. There was no great gathering of the nations to worship God, there was no return of the king of the line of David to the throne in Jerusalem, there was no return to glory for Israel—they weren’t even an independent nation, except for a brief period. Clearly, they had returned physically from exile, but the Exile wasn’t really over, and so many Jews came to believe that when Messiah came, that would be when all these promises would finally come true.

They were right in many ways, except for one major thing: when Messiah came, only a minority in Israel recognized him, and so the nation’s exile did not come to an end. Thus the question returned: was this the end for Israel? Was this the point when God finally gave up on them for good and turned them away forever? And as we saw last week, Paul says definitively: no. The Exile will be longer and worse than anyone expected, but there is still an end in sight. God has promised that in the end, he will come to Israel and take away their sins, he will banish their ungodliness and idolatry and redeem them, and that promise still holds.

As we saw last week, part of Paul’s purpose here is to warn the Gentiles in the church not to make the same mistake Israel had made before them. The Jews as a whole had fallen prey to spiritual pride, coming to believe that they were better than the rest of the world, and that because they were part of the nation of Israel, their salvation was guaranteed. They were wrong. Now Gentiles in the church were being drawn by that same temptation, coming to feel themselves superior to the Jews and to presume that because they were part of a Christian congregation, their salvation was guaranteed; to them Paul says, if God didn’t spare Israel for that, he certainly won’t spare you either. Just going to church won’t save you any more than just being a Jew will. Only Jesus.

Not all who look like Israel are part of the true Israel; not all who look like Christians are part of the true church. We can’t judge by external appearances who truly belongs to God; we can’t know in chapter 4 how anyone’s story will turn out, however great or lousy they may look at that point. Fortunately for us, we don’t need to, because that’s their story, not ours; it’s for us to look to our own story, and our own growth. What we do know is that it’s not about our merit, or anyone else’s: it’s about the grace of God, who freely chooses to save the undeserving—and everyone is undeserving.

This is why Paul can say that when God’s work among the Gentiles is completed, Jesus will come to Israel and they will turn in faith to him whom their ancestors rejected, and they will at last find his salvation. Given Paul’s quotation here from Isaiah 59, it seems clear that this will be when Christ returns—they missed him the first time, but when he comes again they will recognize him as Messiah and Lord. As Zechariah 12-13 says, they will look on him whom they have pierced, and they will grieve in deep repentance; and they will find his grace and forgiveness. At the end, God will bring Israel back to himself, and they will be saved—not every Jew throughout all time, and not by following the Law, but through Christ alone.

The key here is beautifully put by New Testament scholar Thomas R. Schreiner, who writes, “God has designed salvation history in such a way that the extension of his saving grace surprises those who are its recipients. Gentiles were elected to salvation when the Jews were expecting to be the special objects of his favor, and the Jews will be grafted in again at a time in which Gentiles will be tempted to believe that they are superior to ethnic Israel. By constructing history in such a way God makes it evident that he deserves the praise for the inclusion of any into his saving promises. Indeed, this theme matches beautifully with chapter 9, for there Paul argues similarly that God’s election inverts human expectations. He chose Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau; the Gentiles, not the Jews. Similarly, at the end of salvation history, when the Gentiles are in danger of becoming self-assured, confident that they are the special objects of God’s love, he will surprise them again by reinstating the people of his covenant promises.”

That’s the key: God has designed his plan so that his salvation takes us by surprise, so that we clearly see that the praise is to him alone. He doesn’t do what we expect, and he doesn’t call those whom we think worthy; instead—well, let me turn this over for a minute to a bunch of Cornish fishermen:

It’s not exactly the same, but that’s the gospel invitation: “Come all you no-hopers, jokers, and rogues.” Set aside your faith in the world and its ways; give up the idea that you can earn your way to heaven; realize just how much greater God is than you, how unfathomably vast and deep are his wisdom and knowledge and plans, stop trying to bargain with him or put him in your debt, and just worship him. In the end, all we can say is what Paul says here at the end:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay him?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.

A Remnant, Not an End

(Isaiah 6, Isaiah 29:9-16; Romans 11:1-15)

I’ve argued over the course of this sermon series that much of the book of Romans is a theological retelling of the history of Israel, and that in that theological story, chapters 9-11 retell the Exile—God’s judgment of Israel for their unfaithfulness to him. Paul’s insistence that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, even for Jews—and that Jews who reject Christ have no place in the people of God and no share in his salvation—raises the question of whether God’s promises have failed, but the Exile raised that question first, and the prophets grappled with it at some length.

Paul begins his own answer to this question by making the case that God’s choice of Israel as a nation had never guaranteed the salvation of every individual Israelite—and maybe not even close. His salvation was nothing they had earned, and it was nothing they could compel; God had freely chosen Israel, and if he wanted, he had every right to freely choose others. And even if they could have obeyed his law well enough to deserve salvation, they clearly hadn’t; rather, their disobedience and unfaithfulness were more than sufficient to justify God’s rejection of them.

And yet, Paul roundly declares that God has not rejected Israel; Paul himself is living proof of that, since he is an Israelite. God chose Israel as his people, and he chose them with full knowledge of everything that would happen—including their unfaithfulness and their rejection of their Messiah. God has not changed his mind, and there’s no reason he should, since nothing that happened was in any way a surprise to him. He hasn’t saved everyone in the nation, but by his grace, he has preserved a remnant for himself. It might look like nothing more than a twice-burned stump, but out of that stump, new life will come. No matter how great God’s judgment on his people, it will not be the end of them; he will always preserve some through it for himself.

Nor is this all there is to say. Israel rejected Jesus when they should have recognized him as their foundation stone, and so the promised Rock of their salvation was instead a stumbling block for them; but their stumble not only wasn’t the end of them as a people, it wasn’t the end of their place in God’s plan, or of God’s plan for them. Though God hardened most of Israel, saving only a remnant, he didn’t do so permanently; though they stumbled, it wasn’t his purpose for them to fall.

Instead, their stumble served a purpose in God’s plan for the world, and then ultimately for them as well. Their rebellion and rejection of God created the opportunity for the good news of salvation to come to the Gentiles; this in turn is designed to inspire jealousy among the Jews, and thus to provoke them to return to God and be saved. As the New Testament scholar Leon Morris put it, “the salvation of the Gentiles was intended . . . to arouse in Israel a passionate desire for the same good gift.” Out of Israel’s turning away from the Messiah, which was sin and failure and defeat, God brought great blessing for the world—but he isn’t going to stop there. His final purpose is the end of death, the resurrection of the dead and the renewal of the world, and that will involve the salvation of Israel. Their part isn’t over; God isn’t finished with them yet.

So what do we do with this passage? In the first place, obviously, we must recognize that Paul is turning here to address the Gentiles in the church to warn them—and us—against any feeling of superiority to their Jewish brothers and sisters, and indeed against the idea that they can be the people of God, that they can be the church, without the Jews. Christianity has too often down the centuries been used to justify anti-Semitism, and that’s absolutely forbidden here, because it’s absolutely contrary to the gospel, and to the will and character of God. It is, in fact, the same sin Israel committed in refusing to realize that God hadn’t chosen them so they could be better than the rest of the world, but so they could bless the rest of the world. It’s the refusal to understand that what God is doing isn’t all about us, and it isn’t all for us.

When we frame it this way, we see that there’s a deeper concern here—I don’t say a bigger concern than how we are to treat Jews, but a deeper one that underlies the temptation to anti-Jewish arrogance. It’s the temptation to spiritual pride. It may show itself in a conscious attitude of superiority to others, as it evidently was among the Gentile Christians in Rome; but it may not. That’s a symptom, not the disease itself. It’s the desire to make my faith all about me—indeed, to make it my faith; it’s the failure to admit and acknowledge our absolute and utter dependence on grace, both from God and from other people. It’s the belief that God chose me because I deserve it, because I’m good enough to earn my salvation. As Paul will go on to say later in this chapter, this attitude isn’t only sinful, it’s delusional and dangerous.

The bottom line here is the grace of God, and this is our hope. He has preserved a remnant of Israel for himself and his name’s sake, not because anyone or anything required it, but by his gracious choice—it’s all a part of his choice of Abraham, and the promises he made to Abraham beginning in Genesis 12. He has reached out beyond Israel to make us a part of his people, and that too is purely an act of grace, pure gift. And if in our day the church seems to be captured by the surrounding culture, as Israel was, and to demand that God conform to the supposed wisdom of the world, that won’t be the end of us, either, because it isn’t about our deserving, it’s about his choice, his will, his love—and they are all free of us, completely free.

Whatever may come, God’s plan has already included it, and though his people may stumble, we will never entirely fall; he will use it to his purpose, and there will always be a remnant. His choice never fails, for there is nothing that happens that he didn’t already know; his plan never fails, for everything that happens is already a part of it; his promises never fail, for there is nothing in all creation that could make him change his mind; and his love and grace never fail, for they are infinite beyond our ability to comprehend. Whatever may come, he is faithful. Let’s pray.


(Deuteronomy 32:18-21, Isaiah 65:1-3; Romans 10:12-21)

“There is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” That’s the bottom line for Paul when it comes to defining and understanding the church; that’s the thesis statement for everything he’s going to say later about how Jewish and Gentile Christians should relate to each other. “All” means all, and “everyone” means everyone, and that’s all there is to it; no one gets a special deal, no one gets a free ride, and no one is excluded from consideration.

This being so, then, how do we understand the failure of the Jews to call on the name of the Lord? Paul considers this question methodically, laying out the steps that lead, from a human perspective, to salvation. Verses 14-15 are often taken out of context and used to preach on the importance of evangelism and missions, and that’s entirely appropriate, because Paul is working here on the level of general principles which apply much more broadly than just his argument; but we also need to understand them in this context. This is the chain of human activity through which people come to salvation; where has it broken for Israel? The implied question here is, is it really Israel’s fault?

In verse 16 Paul answers that question—he actually interrupts himself, jumping ahead of his argument to say, “Yes.” Israel has heard the message of Christ, as Paul affirms in verse 18 with a little hyperbole, drawing on Psalm 19; they heard, because they were sent plenty of preachers, beginning with Jesus himself. They didn’t miss the good news: they refused it. The NIV blurs that a little; the Greek word they translate “accept” actually means “obey.” I don’t know why they didn’t use the standard translation, because Paul uses this word deliberately. He’s been linking obedience with faith since the very beginning of the book, so this is nothing new, but it is central to his argument here.

On the one hand, Paul’s understanding of faith is never purely intellectual; it’s never just a matter of agreeing that something is true. Faith is a commitment which produces action. I have faith that this chair will support me, and so I commit my weight to it—I don’t keep my muscles tensed just in case it falls apart. I have faith that this projector will work, and so I keep sending Dan the materials to produce the slides. I have faith that my daughter can run the slides, and as long as I’m smart enough to let her do it, everything goes well. When we have faith, it determines how we act.

On the other hand, Paul knows—and we know—that there are different kinds of unbelief. Unbelief can be a form of apathy: I just don’t care enough to bother thinking about it. It can be a response to a lack of evidence, as for instance my lack of faith in the Tooth Fairy. It can be accompanied by the willingness or even desire to believe, as when we go looking for evidence to prove a theory. But it can also be predetermined, the product of the refusal to believe. We see this, for instance, in the philosopher Thomas Nagel, who declared, “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

In declaring that not all Israelites have obeyed the gospel, Paul is saying that they don’t believe because they don’t want to. Their unbelief doesn’t arise out of skepticism, or confusion, or lack of knowledge; nor indeed are they apathetic—they are zealous for God, as long as he conforms to what they want to believe. The message of Christ does not fit what they want to believe, and it calls them to an obedience they do not want to give; they refuse to obey, and thus they refuse to believe.

And yet, God doesn’t stop loving them, and he doesn’t stop reaching out to them. His love and his grace are relentless, even in the midst of his judgment. The way Paul uses Isaiah 65 here is interesting, because in the prophet, verse 1 also refers to Israel; they are the first ones of whom God says, “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me.” This is the pattern of God’s dealings with his people from the very beginning: he reveals himself to us, not because we chase him down and find him out, but purely on his own initiative, as an act of his grace. Nor is that merely how our relationship with him begins—it’s all the way along. Our growth in holiness and spiritual maturity isn’t about our effort half so much as it’s about God continuing to reveal himself to us and to call us to himself even when we aren’t seeking him.

When Israel remained obstinate and refused the Messiah God sent them, he reached out beyond them and once again revealed himself to a people who did not seek him, and indeed in many cases didn’t know they should be looking for him. But in doing this, did he turn away from Israel? No, he continues to hold out his hands to them; and indeed, Paul says, when God called a people for himself from among the Gentiles, this was not only for the Gentiles, it was also for the Jews. Part of his purpose in calling the Gentiles was to provoke Israel to jealousy and thus, ultimately, to bring at least some of them back to himself; and as Paul shows, they were told this was going to happen all the way back to the time of Moses.

We see in this the relentless love and faithfulness of God. Paul asks in 9:23, “What if God has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?”—but in truth he hasn’t merely endured Israel in their rejection, he has continued to love them and call them back to himself. We see as well that our actions and decisions matter, that they have consequence—and hear me carefully here. It isn’t just that they have consequences, like my dad always told me just before he spanked me; our actions could have consequences and still be, at a deeper level, inconsequential. Our actions and decisions have consequence—they have weight, meaning, significance. What we choose and what we do matters because we matter.

And note this: they don’t just matter in the way we think, or expect, and they don’t just matter for us. What God is doing in us as individuals and as a congregation is in part about us (though even there, not subject to our expectations), but it isn’t only about us; he’s also doing things through us in the lives of others that are beyond us to know or predict. He adopted Gentiles into his people because his salvation is for the Gentiles—but also for the sake of the Jews.

God works through our choices and our deeds, but never just in one way or on one level; he’s always doing many things through everything we do and everything that happens, and often with very long-term goals in mind. To pull a story from the Catholic blogger Jennifer Fulwiler, if your car breaks down on the way to an important meeting, maybe it’s not about you at all—maybe it’s about the tow-truck driver. Or from my own experience, I ended up in counseling (and on ulcer medication) in seventh grade. I don’t know all the reasons God allowed that, but one of them was so that I would marry Sara.

Remember, this is God’s story—we’re just characters in it; much-loved characters, yes, but it isn’t our story, and it isn’t limited to what we can see. We see in part, but he sees the whole; and the theme of the story, and the power that drives it, is his “Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.”

Chasing Faith by Works

(Isaiah 8:13-15, Isaiah 28:14-18; Romans 9:30-10:13)

As we’ve seen the last two weeks, Paul in Romans 9 strongly insists on the sovereignty of God in salvation—God chooses his people, he chooses whom he wants to choose, and our salvation is his work from first to last; it’s only by his power that we can even desire to be saved, much less turn to him in faith. I noted last week that laying it out as baldly as he does is distressing to us, and I got some of that distress reflected back at me after the service. Does this mean that God could look at someone who wanted to know him and worship him and reject that person, send them to Hell? Does it mean that no matter what you do, you might find yourself chosen for damnation anyway?

No, it doesn’t, for a few reasons I’ve already mentioned, which lead us into our consideration of this morning’s passage from Romans. First, that fear rests on the assumption that God’s choice of his people is irrational, based merely on his whim; it views God as capricious, unreasonable, unfair, and untrustworthy. This isn’t true. Again, just because we can’t know the reasons why God chooses to save this person and not that one, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have reasons; and the Bible is very clear on this point: “No one who believes on him will be put to shame.”

Second, Paul’s point is not, absolutely not, that God chooses people with no regard to whether they want to be his people; the point, rather, is that no one is able truly to choose God unles God has already chosen them first. It isn’t, “Oh, I go seeking God, and then I hope he lets me find him”; no, it’s, “I sought the Lord, and then I realized that the only reason I went seeking him is because he moved me to do so.” His work is always first. The sincere desire for God is always the work of his Holy Spirit in our hearts, and he will never reject his Spirit whom he has placed in us. Anyone who truly desires the salvation of Christ need have no fear, for that desire is itself evidence of his saving work.

And third—though this is deep water, I know—to insist that God saves us entirely by his own choice and his own will is not to say that our own choices are not real, or not important. I wound up going into this a fair bit in each of the last two weeks, so I’m not going to do that again; the key point is that Paul insists on both the absolute nature and importance of God’s choice and on the importance of our own choices and actions. It isn’t obvious how both those things are true together, but it’s clear to Paul that they are, and must be. Lose the first, and the door is wide open to spiritual pride and judgmentalism, as our salvation becomes the product of our own work and thus reason for boasting; lose the second, and our lives become inconsequential, leaving us to drift into despair or dissipation; and lose either of them, and our view of God is diminished.

Thus in this passage, having passionately declared that God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy and will harden whom he will harden, Paul now turns to show that God’s rejection of Israel—not all Israelites, to be sure, but national Israel in general—is the result of their own rejection of him. He doesn’t try to say that one is the cause of the other, he just sets them together and holds them in tension: both are true, and we cannot diminish either one, or explain either one away.

His basic critique of Israel in these verses is that they got righteousness wrong, and then refused to let God put them right; he lays this out in one contrast which he repeats three times. On one hand, there is “a righteousness that is by faith” which is “the righteousness of God,” which he then describes again as “the righteousness that is by faith.” On the other, he says that Israel “pursued a law of righteousness,” seeking to “establish their own righteousness,” and thus to achieve “righteousness based on the law.” They understood that God was righteous—not at every point in their history, to be sure, but they eventually learned—and they wanted to be righteous, but they wanted to be righteous their own way, by their own efforts. When Jesus tried to tell them, and his disciples tried to tell them, that their way wouldn’t work, and that God had ordained a different way for them to be made righteous, they refused to listen.

That phrase “law of righteousness” is particularly telling. Grammatically, it’s more than a little out of whack—it doesn’t make obvious sense—because it’s describing an attitude that’s out of whack; the Jewish understanding of both righteousness and the law had become seriously skewed. To pursue a law of righteousness is to think that one can earn righteousness or make oneself righteous through effort in doing the law. The Old Testament law did indeed promise righteousness, but it didn’t actually guarantee that that promise could be reached purely through our own work; it was always predicated on faith in God. To believe that we can make ourselves righteous by our own work in keeping the law is to substitute faith in God with a different faith: faith in ourselves.

That may sound like a strange thing to say, but think about it. To commit ourselves to become righteous in God’s eyes by keeping the law is to put our faith in our own wits—that we can be smart enough to understand it well enough to do it right—and in our own commitment and endurance—that we can keep doing it right all the time, without ever giving up, backing down, breaking down, or wearing out—and in our own strength—that we can overcome all of our weaknesses and bad habits and temptations by sheer force of effort and will. It’s the faith that we are good enough, smart enough, strong enough, and committed enough to compel God to bless us and save us. That is the pursuit of salvation by a law of righteousness: we keep the law, and by our own efforts we keep it so well that God rewards us with salvation.

And you know, that’s religion; but that’s not God, and that’s not his way. Instead, he calls us to a righteousness that is by faith. He freely makes us right with him by his grace, through the sacrifice of Christ who took all our sin and all our guilt on himself, and paid the penalty for all of it. He gives us faith to receive his gift of salvation, to trust that he truly means it and he has really done it all, and that we truly don’t need to do anything at all to earn it—and indeed, never could. And then, yes, he calls us to live lives that reflect and illustrate his righteousness, not in order to earn anything from him or to make him do anything, but simply out of love for him and gratitude for all he has done for us. The outward behavior may look much the same; but the heart is completely different.

The thing is, this was really nothing new. One of the things Paul keeps pointing out to his opponents is that obedience to the law was never the basis for God’s choice of Israel. God’s choice of his people began with Abraham, and what does the Bible say about Abraham? Paul quoted it back in chapter 4: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Even from the beginning, what mattered was God’s choice; even from the beginning, the righteousness of God came not by law but by faith. The law came not so that Israel could earn their salvation, but so that they could respond in gratitude to the salvation they had been given by living in a way that pleased God.

The idea of earning salvation by outward obedience to the law was a misuse of the law from the very beginning; but because they’d gotten fixed on that idea, they failed to see that Christ was the end and purpose of the law. Jesus is the cornerstone of God’s work, the foundation of the people God has been building for himself all along; but because they refused to see, because they focused solely on the law, Christ became a stone over which they stumbled, on which they were broken.

In the Potter’s Hands

(Exodus 33:15-23, Isaiah 45:9-13; Romans 9:14-29)

If you were here last week as we began Romans 9, you remember that Paul is grappling here with the problem of the salvation of the Jews. He’s argued that Jews aren’t guaranteed salvation or exempted from God’s judgment just because they’re Jews; he’s insisted that they cannot be saved through the Law, no matter how hard they try. Salvation is in Christ alone, even for the Jews; if they reject him, they have no part in the kingdom of God. But if God can give their place in his kingdom to someone else, does that mean he’s gone back on his promises?

As I said last time, this is a vast, complicated, and critically important question. To be faithful to Jesus and his gospel, we must affirm both that salvation is indeed in Christ alone, even for the people of Israel, and that this truth doesn’t represent a betrayal of God’s promises to Israel, but their fulfillment. God has not failed to keep his word to his people; in Jesus, he has done exactly what he said he would do.

Now, we saw last week that Paul begins by arguing that this is really nothing new—God’s choice of Israel never meant that just being Jewish, or even being a reasonably good Jew, was a guarantee of salvation. He uses Genesis and Exodus to show that salvation has always been a matter of God’s free choice, not something guaranteed by birth or family; and he draws on the prophets, and particularly Isaiah, who faced the same question he’s facing: if God brings down disaster on his people and drives them away for their unfaithfulness, does that mean the end of his promises? Like them, he says, “No.” God will not save all of national Israel, but those within Israel who are truly faithful to him—the remnant, to use the language of Isaiah—will find his salvation and inherit his promises, in Jesus Christ.

Just in making this case, Paul was guaranteed to provoke his opponents; but he raises the stakes by the way in which he goes about it, because his argument in this chapter isn’t a comfortable one for us. He could have said, “Well, the promises of God were always contingent on Israel’s faith, and so Jews who decide not to put their faith in God naturally aren’t saved”; the Pharisees at least would have agreed with that, except of course for the whole Jesus thing. But he doesn’t do that. Instead he says, “God chooses his people, and he chooses whom he wants to choose, and we don’t get to determine what choices he has to make.” It’s God’s choice, it’s God’s work, it’s all God, it’s only God, and that’s all there is to it.

This sits pretty raw with us. There are a number of reasons for that, but I think the most basic one is pride. If our salvation is all God’s work, that leaves absolutely no credit to us; there’s not even a sop for our egos, nothing to give us any reason at all to boast. We resist that; we feel the pull to find a way to put our own works back into the picture.

To be sure, we don’t put it that way. We say it’s a matter of justice, by which we mean that no one who deserves salvation should be left out, and no one should go to Hell unfairly. Part of that is that we all seem to have at least one person whom we deeply desire to see come to faith, though why we should think that’s more likely to happen if it’s up to them rather than if it’s up to God, I’m not sure; maybe it’s because we don’t really trust God that much. At the same time, ego is also at work here: we want to believe that we’re saved because we deserve it. The truth is, no one does go to Hell unfairly; if it were a matter of justice and what we deserve, we would all be in Hell. The only injustice in God at all is that he shows mercy to anyone at all.

Still, some object that Paul makes us merely God’s puppets—we have no control over whether we’re saved or not, it’s all at God’s whim. If he’s right, they ask, how can we be held responsible for actions and decisions that aren’t really ours? What right does God have to judge anybody, if his judgments are based on things he made us do?

Paul doesn’t cite the book of Job here, but this is a question rather like those which Job hurls at God; and it’s worth noting that Paul’s response is rather like God’s response to Job. He doesn’t really answer the question—instead he says, “Who do you think you are? By what right do you think you can get away with filing charges against God?” He makes no effort at all to explain God’s reasons or justify God’s decisions; he doesn’t even attempt to show that God chooses whom he will save based on criteria that we find appropriate and acceptable. Not his the goal Milton sets out in Paradise Lost, to “justify the ways of God to man.” Instead, he reaches back to Isaiah to say, “God is as much bigger than you as the potter is bigger than the clay; he understands you and everyone else much better than you do; and he has every right to do whatever he knows to be best, and you have no right to say otherwise.”

Now, to our ears, that sounds harsh; Paul isn’t pulling any punches here, nor is he making any effort to soothe our wounded pride. But then, it’s amazingly arrogant of us to presume to judge God for not doing things the way we think best, as if we were somehow qualified to make that judgment; what Paul is going after here is sin, and a particularly insidious and dangerous kind. He doesn’t want to appease it, he wants to kill it. That, I think, is one reason he doesn’t dignify this question with an answer—that, plus the fact that he’s no more qualified to read God’s mind than any of us are. He does, however, say something very important here, in that he gives us the image of God as a rational actor who does what he does for good reason: a potter, who chooses what to make based on what kinds of vessels will serve his purposes.

This is key, not merely because it illustrates the power of God, but because it answers the implicit assumption which underlies the objection of verse 19. We talked about this last week—it’s the assumption that if we can’t know the reasons why God chooses to save this person and not that one, it must mean that he doesn’t have reasons. It’s the idea that if God won’t tell us why he does what he does (and let us tell him he’s wrong), it must mean he’s capricious, unreasonable, unfair, and untrustworthy. Paul’s point is that this isn’t true. God has his reasons, and they’re good reasons, because he knows what he’s doing—but we’re too small and too limited to fully comprehend them. We can’t expect God to explain everything to us, if only because we’d never understand the explanation.

Take that to heart. We aren’t going to be able to get answers to all of our questions that make perfect sense to us; God is far too big and far too great for that to be even conceivable, let alone possible. We should expect our faith to be paradoxical at some points; after all, we worship a God who is three and also one, and one of those three—Jesus Christ—is completely and totally human at the same time as he’s completely and totally God. How all of those things can be true together is beyond me to know; my brain is too small for that. Somehow, they are. God is that big and that marvelous, that in him all those things fit together.

Here, we affirm that at one and the same time, our salvation is entirely God’s choice and his work, and we are free actors who are responsible for our own choices, whether we turn to God or reject him. I can’t explain that; though if you were here last week, you may remember I offered an analogy to human authors to illustrate it. Every writer of fiction I’ve ever heard talk about the writing process speaks of their characters as real people with minds of their own, who sometimes do unexpected things and refuse to cooperate. Obviously, everything that happens in the story is the product of the author’s mind and will—and yet, at the same time, each character speaks and acts according to their own will, according to their own desires and concerns, according to who the author created them to be.

This is, I think, an aspect of the image of God in us; to borrow language from J. R. R. Tolkien, we are subcreators who create secondary worlds in imitation of God who made us and the world within which we live, and in so doing we relate to our creations in somewhat the same way he relates to us. Inside the great story of creation, we act of ourselves and our own will; God is the author of the story who has given us our wills and our characters, whose will sustains them every moment, and who writes every scene as he chooses. We affirm both the absolute authorship and authority of God who created all things and holds all things together, and our own freedom to choose as we will, even on matters of ultimate importance; it’s just a matter of whether you’re looking at the story from the inside or the outside.

But given that, why does God write the story the way he does? Why does he save some people and not others? I don’t know. We all, lost in our sin, begin by rejecting him as our enemy. Some of us, he shows mercy—he doesn’t allow us to reject him, but overwhelms us with his grace. Others, he allows to reject him, and hardens in their rejection—though he shows them great patience and lets them work their own way, so that they may have every chance to do otherwise. Why doesn’t he save them too? Why doesn’t he save everyone? He doesn’t tell us. But really, why does he save anyone? The only answer we get is love—and not just that he loves those whom he saves, but also that he loves those whom he doesn’t save, and is grieved by their death. God doesn’t explain himself to us; again, we probably wouldn’t understand if he did, and it really isn’t our place to demand an explanation. Instead, he points us to his Son, Jesus, who died for those who murdered him, and calls us to trust him: to trust that, as Abraham puts it in Genesis 18, the judge of all the earth will do right.

Children of the Promise

(Genesis 25:19-26, Malachi 1:1-5; Romans 8:38-9:13)

When I was laying out this sermon series last January, I was pleased to see the conclusion of Romans 8 landing on the last Sunday before my vacation. One of the signs I look for in planning the year’s messages is how everything fits together, and to have the timing fall into place like that helped confirm that I was on the right track. That’s partly because I didn’t want a three-week gap falling in the middle of Romans 8—or worse, Romans 9—but it’s also because a break right between those two chapters is entirely appropriate. I won’t say taking three weeks between them is necessarily best, but it’s entirely appropriate—because that break is right there in the text.

That’s why I included the last two verses of chapter 8 in our reading this morning, to underscore this fact. Chapter 8 ends with this ringing declaration of our victory in Christ, a great rocketing leap of praise for our confident hope and faith in him—but what goes up must come down, and Paul comes down like Evel Knievel in the Snake River Canyon, because everything he’s said in chapter 8 brings him back to the central problem he’s grappling with in this letter: what about the Jews?

In chapter 2, he lays out the case from Scripture that they deserve God’s judgment just as much as the Gentiles, and are just as dependent on the grace of God. In chapter 5, he establishes that the promises of God to his people apply in Christ beyond the Jews to the Gentiles. In chapter 7, he confronts the problem of the Law and its place in God’s saving work. But that still leaves the biggest problem of all: if Jews aren’t guaranteed salvation for being Jews—if God can reject them and give their place in his kingdom to someone else—then does that mean God has gone back on his promises to them?

It’s a vast question with broad implications for our understanding of the church—and one in which all the easy answers are wrong. Unfortunately, those easy answers were driving considerable conflict between Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome, and no doubt elsewhere in the first-century church, which we’ve seen was Paul’s great practical concern in writing this letter. As such, he’s going to answer it at great length and with great care, across three chapters of this book; and he’s going to do so in the full understanding that he really isn’t the first to grapple with this question.

If Paul in the first eight chapters has told the story of our salvation in Christ in terms of the salvation history of Israel, now he gets to the unhappy part. Now he gets to the exile, and he wrestles with the same basic issue as Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and Malachi: if God brings down disaster on his people and drives them away for their unfaithfulness, does that mean the end of his promises? Does it mean he’s changed his mind and abandoned them? Or is there, somehow, hope that they will be restored—and if so, how? The only real difference between Paul in his day and the prophets in their day is that he knows the full story of Jesus, while they only had bits and pieces; and he leans on them heavily, especially Isaiah, in these three chapters.

You see, as H. L. Mencken once observed, “For every complex problem there is a solution which is simple, easy to understand, and wrong.” Or in this case, two. One is to say, well, Jews are still saved just by being Jews and doing their best to keep the Law, just the way they thought—Christ is only for the Gentiles; but if that’s the case, why did he bother going to the Jews? And why did the Jews even need Messiah? Paul has pretty well debunked that idea over the course of this letter, and his conviction that his fellow Jews can only find salvation in Christ—and thus are reaping damnation in rejecting him—is clear in the agony he expresses in verses 1-3. Like Moses in Exodus 32, he expresses the wish that God might even condemn him, if only it would save his people.

Of course, that isn’t possible; Jesus has already died for them, and there’s nothing Paul’s sacrifice could do that Jesus didn’t. But that he even expresses the thought shows the depths of his love and concern for his people, and his grief that they have rejected their God. Clearly, the one simple answer will not stand. At the same time, though, Paul also rejects the other one, which is that the church has simply replaced Israel—the promises have been transferred, the Jews are out in the cold, and that’s that. Obviously, Paul doesn’t want to believe that, due to his desire that his people be saved; but more significantly, he recognizes that to draw this conclusion is to make God a liar who cannot be trusted to do as he says. The message of Christ is only good news if God is faithful to keep his word, and so Paul’s task is to show that the gospel is not the cancellation of God’s promises to Israel, but their fulfillment.

Now, the root assumption of Paul’s Jewish opponents is that God’s choice of Israel as his people obliged him to save every individual Israelite, as long as they didn’t flat-out reject him; as we talked about some weeks ago, it was the idea that their special status as the people of God exempted them from his judgment. Chapter 2 attacks this assumption by showing from Scripture that all people are under judgment for sin, Jews and Gentiles alike. Here, he counters it from a different direction, pointing out that God’s choice of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob never meant that mere physical descent from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was enough to guarantee salvation: God chose Isaac and rejected Ishmael, and he chose Jacob and rejected Esau. Just because someone belongs to the nation of Israel doesn’t mean they belong to God’s people Israel.

God has chosen his people, and we don’t get to determine or define the basis on which he makes his choice. There is absolutely nothing given to us to say that this person must be saved, or that person cannot be saved; there are no markers by which we can predict or decide the eternal fate of anyone. More, there is nothing that we can say controls or obligates God to do anything, and nothing that we can say must be the basis for his choice. His children are the children of the promise, not of any human effort or any human process, and he gives his promise to whomever he will.

At this point you might be thinking, “What about faith?” Certainly Paul argues quite strongly, earlier in Romans, that we are justified by faith alone; doesn’t that make our faith the basis of his choice? No. Even faith, even the desire for faith, is impossible for us apart from the saving work of God in our lives; faith is his gift to us as much as anything else. As St. Augustine put it, “God does not choose us because we believe, but that we may believe.” It all begins with God; it has to, because we were utterly powerless even to try to save ourselves—our salvation had to be his work from first to last.

The standard objection here is that this trivializes human faith and the human response to God, and makes us nothing more than puppets; and there are teachers in the church who have gone that way. I don’t believe it does, though. Paul tells us that we cannot insist on any basis for God’s choice of his people outside of God himself—whether descent from Abraham or our decision to pray the sinner’s prayer—but that doesn’t mean that God’s choice is random or capricious; that we cannot know the reasons for his choice doesn’t mean he doesn’t have reasons. It simply means we cannot know the mind of God, which isn’t really news. It means that here we stand at the edge of what we can comprehend, looking into the mystery of the grace of God.

Let me give you an illustration which I’ve found helpful over the years. I’ve spent a fair bit of time hanging around writers, and one thing I’ve found to be true of those who write fiction is that their characters are real people to them, with minds of their own. My friends created those characters, but they aren’t just puppets to be manipulated around the stage. They act out their own intentions according to their natures, sometimes doing things that their author didn’t expect, creating the story as they do so. And yet, it’s the mind and hands of the author that produce the story, and the author is in control. So in some sense, you see, everything that happens in the story is the product of two wills, of the author and the character; and authors will talk about their books that way, taking credit in one breath for writing a line of dialogue, but in the next crediting the character’s wit.

This is hard for us to understand; but I think it shows intuitively how it’s possible for our decisions to be the result both of our will and of God’s will. God is outside the story of creation, while we are within it. From within, we are free agents, willing our own actions; from without, he is the author, writing every scene as he chooses. And after all, as free agents we are acting out our characters—and he is the one who created our characters. There’s no contradiction here, it’s just a matter of which side you’re looking at; and it’s important that we emphasize both sides—both that our response to God in faith and our decision to follow him is absolutely crucial and deeply meaningful, and that our salvation is God’s work first to last, entirely his free gift to us.

What this all comes back to is the point Paul is determined to defend: our salvation rests, not on ourselves, not on our own efforts or abilities, not on where we were born or who our family is or what nation or race or tribe we belong to, but only and entirely on the infinite power and absolute faithfulness of God.

If God Is For Us

(Psalm 44:20-26; Romans 8:31-39)

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (Romans 5:1-5)

“The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 5:20-21)

“Sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” (Romans 6:14)

“Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:22-23)

“While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our bodies to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.” (Romans 7:5-6)

“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, be-cause through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:1-2)

“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he called; those he called, he justified; those he justified, he glorified.” (Romans 8:28-30)

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? God is for us. He has not abandoned us to our sin, he has not abandoned us to our enemies, he has not abandoned us to our failures, he has not abandoned us to those who would condemn us—he has given us his Son, Jesus Christ, and in Jesus he has given us new life. Whoever else may abandon us, whoever else may give up on us, whoever else may turn on us, God says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” God is for us; who can possibly be against us?

Of course, this doesn’t mean people won’t try. They try every day. But God is for us—God who is at work in everything for the good of his children. People may try to be against us, but they can’t outsmart God; in the end we will say with Joseph, “You meant this for evil, but God intended it for good.” In the end, even our enemies will be used for our blessing and growth.

People will still accuse us of things—sometimes even dreadful things. Some of them will probably be true, since we know we do still sin. Others won’t be, and those accusations will come precisely because we’re not guilty of anything. The more we follow Christ, the more we will make some folks uncomfortable, and some of them will deal with their discomfort by opening fire on us. One of the best ways to do that is by making an accusation, because people who hear an accusation will tend to start off assuming it must be true; it puts us in a bad light with our community whether it’s the least bit fair or not. Paul knew this well for the ridiculous array of charges that were hurled at him over the years. And yet he says, “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?” Why? “It is God who justifies; who is to condemn?” Remember, he says, who holds justice in his hand; whatever this world may say, the only verdict that ultimately matters is God’s, and it is God who has declared you innocent in Christ.

Indeed, Jesus is standing right there at the Father’s right hand as our great high priest, bringing our prayers to the Father and interceding on our behalf; the one who died for us and rose again for us is our advocate. Anyone who wanted to turn the Father against us would have to turn Jesus against us—and can anyone or anything make him stop loving us? No, says Paul. We suffer, but it doesn’t mean that Jesus doesn’t love us. Just look at Paul’s own example. In his list in verse 35, he had suffered every one of those things except execution, and he’d already faced the threat of that; he could testify from his own experience that not one of those things had in any way served to separate him from Christ. If anything, they drove him closer to the Lord.

It isn’t enough to say that God will get us through tough times; it isn’t enough to say that he will help us endure trials or opposition or oppression. No, not only are trouble and hardship, persecution and danger and all manner of suffering unable to separate us from the love of Christ, we don’t merely hang on through adversities, we prevail over them. Indeed, it isn’t even enough to say we conquer them, for that doesn’t go far enough—in Christ we are more than conquerors, because God doesn’t just leave the adversities we face in life as defeated bad things in our past. Rather, he takes our trials and sufferings and he uses them to bless us and grow us, turning them to our good. From those black roots, he grows beautiful flowers.

To this, there are no exceptions. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that could ever even conceivably cut us off from the love of God, which he expressed in giving his Son Jesus Christ for us so that he might redeem us and call us his children. There is nothing that could ever undo what God has done for us in Christ, and nothing that could ever make him even think about changing his mind about that. Nothing in our existence—nothing in life, and not even death. Nothing in the spiritual realm—not angels, and not devils. Nothing in time—nothing we’re doing now, nothing anyone else is doing, and nothing we or anyone else will ever do. No powers of any sort—spiritual, political, cultural, military, religious, judicial, or any other kind you might want to name. Nothing in all creation, no matter how high or how low you want to go—even if you could go all the way to Heaven or Hell. Not anything, anywhere, anytime, anyhow, can separate you or me or any one of God’s people from his love.

God loves us in Christ. He loves us as we are in Christ, and as we will one day fully be, and nothing wrong with us now can change that. He loves us in the work of Christ—he shows his love for us in that while we were still completely ruined, sinners unable even to want to repent, Jesus died for us. God loves the world in this way: he gave his Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish—absolutely not—but will, for certain, have eternal life. Nothing you can do, nothing you will ever do, can change that, undo that, or modify that in any way, and neither can anything the Devil or anybody else can do. That’s how big God’s love is, that’s how big his grace is—big enough to swallow anything else and never change a bit. Our hope is in Christ alone, and that means our hope is absolutely certain, because he is absolutely faithful. This is the promise of the gospel for you, this day and every day, now and forevermore. Amen.

Living Toward the Future

(Genesis 3:17-19, Isaiah 43:16-21; Romans 8:18-30)

In the wilderness. In this between. As Christians we live in tension, for we are still in this world, but we do not belong here. We have given our allegiance, our obedience, our whole lives to a king we have never seen and cannot see; we have become part of a reality that is at odds with the reality of the world we see. We are surrounded by the present, but we belong to the future; we are out of phase with time and this world.

And in that, we suffer. We suffer because this world suffers, because evil and cruelty run like a thin red line through every human heart, snarling our communities and cutting across our lives. There are none innocent and none who are not victims, none who are not oppressors and none who do not bleed; and if we follow Christ we suffer more, and will suffer more, because he calls us to stand down all our worldly defenses and lay down all our worldly weapons. We are to resist the world, but we do not fight it on its terms; and sometimes that means we get hit hard.

If we focus on our sufferings and our trials, if we set our minds and our hearts on the things of this world, then we will be miserable; we’ll see everything in life through the lens of our anxiety, pain, and disappointment. If our hope is for this life and the rewards of this world, then our souls will always be in pawn to our circumstances, our lives driven by things outside our control. Our only paths to happiness will be to try to avoid suffering and conflict and any trials that might be too great for us, or else to attempt to dominate and control everyone around us in an effort to squash any threats before they get too close; but either way, we end up spending all our energy in ultimately fruitless efforts to prevent bad things from happening, and thus unable to pursue what is good.

As Christians, while we’re called to live in the present, we are not to live for the present. Our lives have a goal and a purpose which goes beyond this time, and indeed beyond this life altogether; we are called to live toward the future, in the light of the future, and to see all our circumstances—struggles and opportunities, pleasures and sufferings alike—in that light. Our sorrows, our groanings and our pains are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us, which is already ours in Christ Jesus; they are temporary, they will end, but his glory is eternal for he is eternal.

For now, our pains and struggles serve to remind us that we are not who we were created to be; and as we see the groaning of the natural world around us, both in the violence we do to it and in the violence it does to itself—the weather we’ve been having lately is an excellent example of that—we see clearly that the world as a whole is not how it ought to be. The frustration and pain of the created world, and the frustration and pain we experience as part of this world—if we face them honestly—drive us to recognize that we need a better hope than the election of another politician, even one with really cool posters, or the passage of another bill. We need a hope that goes beyond what we can see; we need more than to be fixed up a bit, we need to be made new.

The challenge is that hope doesn’t make things easier. Indeed, knowing that we have this hope, having the Holy Spirit at work in our hearts, drives us to groan, because we have the first fruits of his work, and we long for the whole harvest, for the fulfillment and the full experience of our salvation; what we have already makes us yearn for what we have not yet known, and it increases our frustration at how short of that we fall, again and again. We hope for what we do not see, and this is hard, but this is also what makes our hope worthwhile; for as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4, what is seen is passing away, it will end in dust and ash and a puff of smoke, but what we cannot see is eternal. Thus we know that our hope is worthwhile, and thus we are able to hold on and not lose heart.

To be sure, in our own strength it would be too much for us to hold on, no matter our motivation; but we aren’t left to do anything in our own strength, for the Spirit of God comes to our aid and gives us strength in our weakness. And note what strength Paul has in mind: “for we don’t know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit prays for us, even though we cannot hear his prayers.”

If we would live in the hope of God and the power of the Spirit, we must live in prayer and by prayer, so that the eyes of our heart can be opened to see what the eyes of the flesh cannot see; but this leaves us wondering what to pray. Worse, it leaves us wondering: if we pray wrong, does that mean we’ll miss out? Does our prayer depend on us being smart enough to figure out ahead of time what God’s thinking?

If that were so, it would pitch us right back into living by law, and of a particularly sadistic sort—for God to answer our prayers, we would first have to read his mind; but that isn’t how it works, because we do not pray on our own: the Spirit of God prays with us, and on our behalf. However uncertain our prayers may be, however prone we may be to pray for the wrong thing, however imperfect our understanding and our knowledge of God’s will, the Holy Spirit is always praying too, with us and for us, and always in perfect accord with the will of the Father.

This is good news; but it might not always seem like good news. Doesn’t that mean that the Spirit’s prayers for us will sometimes contradict our prayers? Very likely, yes; but honestly, that’s part of the blessing. I appreciate Luther’s take on this: “It is not a bad but a very good sign if the opposite of what we pray for appears to happen. Just as it is not a good sign if our prayers result in the fulfillment of all we ask for. This is so because the counsel and will of God far excel our counsel and will.” He’s exaggerating—Luther did that every once in a while—but he’s doing it to make a point: we can trust what God is doing even when he gives us the opposite of what we want, because he knows infinitely better than we do what is best for us.

Thus we have this ringing declaration in verse 28: those whom God has called as his own, to his purpose—which is to say, those who love him—have the assurance that in everything that happens, God is at work for our good. When he gives us when we ask for, or when he doesn’t, God is at work for our good. In joyful days, in times of great success, in seasons of failure and pain and trial, God is at work for our good. Even in our greatest sins—the sins from which he does not simply deliver us, but which he leaves as struggles in our lives—even there, God is at work for our good. That doesn’t mean it’s good if we sin—should we continue to sin that grace may abound? Not on your life!—but it does mean that not even our sins defeat God’s work in us. Of course, as Douglas Moo put it, “many things we suffer will contribute to our ‘good’ only by refining our faith and strengthening our hope.” Even so, we will be glad of all of it in the end.

God’s choice of his people is unstoppable, and it will end inevitably in glory. Some would take the word “foreknew” in verse 29 and argue that this just means God foresaw those who would choose to love him, and thus that everything that follows is his response to our action; but that doesn’t work—this word is much stronger than that. God knew us, not just what we would do, from before the beginning of time—he knew us, and he chose us, and he predestined us to be saved, to be transformed, to be made like Christ and to share in his glory.

And the rest follows like an avalanche: those whom he predestined, he called, and those whom he called, he justified, and those whom he justified, he glorified. Period. It is already done, it is all already done. God has acted, and that’s all there is to it; no one can stop his work, nothing can interrupt it—his plan is in motion, and its success is inevitable. Suffering along the way? Yes. Sorrow and grief? To be sure. Failure? We know it all too well. But are any of them permanent, any of them final? No. God allows them in his time and works through them in our lives for our growth; they’re growing pains, nothing more. We are in the wilderness, but this is not our final destination; we don’t make a home here, we look forward to the home that lies ahead. In Christ, we have the sure and certain hope of glory waiting for us, just over Jordan. The Holy Spirit is leading us there, and the Father is standing with open arms. Just keep your eyes on him and your feet on the road; he’s faithful—you’ll get there.

The Assurance of the Spirit

(Ezekiel 36:24-28; Romans 8:1-17)

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Therefore. You may have heard, as I have many times, that when you see a “therefore” in the Bible you need to look and see what it’s there for. So you look up the page just a little, and you see . . . what? “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death! . . . I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” So, therefore there is no condemnation? That can’t be right.

Of course, you might be objecting that I skipped something, and so I did: Paul’s exclamation, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” But you know, that’s just sort of floating loose at the end of chapter 7—by itself, it doesn’t tell us how all this is supposed to fit together. It seems clear that his exclamation comes as an answer of sorts to his question in verse 24—Jesus Christ will deliver us from this body of death, and has delivered us—but then he’s right back into the negative: “I serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” (And no, contra the NIV, this is not “sinful nature”; Paul is talking about what we do with our bodies—how we actually act, vs. how we think we ought to act.) So what do we make of this?

Well, in the first place, look back further, to 7:6: “But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” Then look at the language Paul uses in chapter 8—and again, drop “sinful nature” out of the NIV and read “flesh.” “Flesh” here doesn’t refer to some nature within us; it means the life and the power of the old age, of our blighted, sin-twisted world, of which we as physical beings are very much a part. Before we’re saved, that’s the only frame of reference we have, and so everything in us is under the power of sin and controlled by the desires of the flesh. Even if we want to do what is good and right, we are only able to understand that in this world’s terms. The law can’t bring salvation because it’s powerless to change that: it can’t change the hearts of people who were born in sin, nor can it change their eyes and mindset to see themselves and this world differently. It can’t get people outside the flesh.

Now, when Paul talks about this in chapter 7, he sets the flesh in opposition to the mind or the inner being; but in chapter 8, he reaches back to 7:6 to introduce someone else into the argument. The mind cannot overcome the flesh, because the mind is set on the flesh, but in Christ it’s no longer just the mind vs. the flesh. Rather, if we are in Christ, we have been given his Holy Spirit, and now it is the Spirit of God versus the flesh; and that’s all different.

The Son of God became human—he became flesh just like us, but not under the power of sin—he lived the life of perfect obedience to God that the law required, and then he stood in our place to take the full condemnation for sin that the law required. In so doing, he stripped sin of its power to control us and condemn us, he gathered us to himself and put his Spirit within us, so that we might see with the eyes of the Holy Spirit, think with minds set on and shaped by the Holy Spirit, and so live in the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because in Christ Jesus by the work of his Holy Spirit we have been set free from the flesh. We were under the power of sin and the condemnation of the law, we were bound to this world with chains of our own forging, and there was nothing we could do about it; but he delivered us. He led us out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, through the water, into the land between. We have not yet arrived at the Promised Land; we have not fully entered into the kingdom of God; but we already belong to it. We are already under his rule, and we are already experiencing his life and his power, even as we struggle with the powers of this world.

Which is to say, we stand in the same place the Israelites stood after Moses led them through the Red Sea: the wilderness. The land between, that separated the land of slavery from the land of promise; the place of testing and challenge, where we have to live by faith and we have to follow God because he’s the only one who knows how he got us here, and he’s the only one who knows how to get us where we’re going. People tend to want to use the law like a spiritual GPS, like it can give us turn-by-turn directions to the Kingdom of Heaven, but it can’t. Even for the Israelites, who received the law from the hand of God on Mt. Sinai, it didn’t give them directions to the Promised Land. They still had to walk by faith, and follow; which is why so many of them were never allowed to enter it, because they wouldn’t do that.

So how do we live in the wilderness? By the leading and the power of the Spirit of God. We learn to live as God wants us to live not by following a set of commands, but by setting our mind on the Spirit, and on the things of the Spirit. In our reading, in the things we watch, in the activities on which we spend our time, do we choose things that fix our thoughts and our desires on Jesus—because the Spirit of God always points us to Jesus—or do we choose things that focus our attention on the world and the desires of the flesh? Do we set aside time for intentional prayer—time to set our minds on the things of the Spirit and turn our hearts to the Lord? Do we make time to read the Bible, not hastily, as a duty, but thoughtfully, listening to the voice of God? These are questions we need to consider, because these are the habits that set our minds on the Spirit, or not.

If we set our minds on the things of the Spirit, the more we do that, the more we see the love and goodness and glory of God, and especially in the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ; and as the historian George Marsden put it, summarizing the great American preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards, those who see this

will see the beauty of a universe in which unsentimental love triumphs over real evil. They will not be able to view Christ’s love dispassionately but rather will respond to it with their deepest affections. Truly seeing such good they will have no choice but to love it. Glimpsing such love, they will be drawn away from their preoccupations with the gratifications of their most immediate sensations. They will be drawn from their self-centered universes. Seeing the beauty of the redemptive love of Christ is the true center of reality, they will love God and all that he has created.

And in that, we will be motivated to change. God calls us to put to death the sins we practice with our bodies, but not out of a sense of duty, or determination, or fear of punishment—no, out of joy. “By the Spirit,” he says—the Spirit of God who rejoices in the Father and in Jesus Christ the Son, who fills us with the life and love and hope and joy and peace of God, who teaches us to see the desires of the world and the flesh in the light of his goodness and glory. By the Spirit learn to put our sinful habits to death, not grudgingly or regretfully, but joyfully and with anticipation, seeing them not as good things God is making us give up, but as things that are holding us back—that we want to get rid of to make room for something better: the life of God.

The Agony of Sin

(Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 7)

As I told you back at the beginning of this series, I’ve been working through Romans developing the idea that Paul is giving us a theological retelling and reworking of the salvation history of Israel; and as I noted at the time, I was inspired to this by N. T. Wright, who suggested that chapters 6-8 are a theological retelling of the Exodus. One of the reasons I found that idea plausible and appealing is that it gives us a framework in which to understand chapter 7.

Paul isn’t sidetracking himself in this chapter, as some would suggest; rather, this is the culmination of his argument about the Old Testament Law. Jesus’ death and resurrection began the new Exodus, freeing his people from slavery to sin just as God had delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt; but once God leads you out of the land of death and into the wilderness, you have to know how to live in the wilderness—how to follow him, what he wants you to do, what your priorities are supposed to be.

For Israel, that came when God led them to Mount Sinai and made a covenant with them, giving them his law through Moses. The law was God’s gift and blessing to Israel, promising them life if they could only keep it; but Paul is arguing that the law couldn’t actually bring life, and didn’t, because they couldn’t keep it. He’s arguing that salvation never did come through the law, that it can only come through the saving work of Christ—and Christ alone, not even Christ plus law. Indeed, he says, just as in Christ we have died to sin, so in Christ we have died to the law; we still have much to learn from it, but we are no longer under its authority. We have a new way to live.

Paul, then, is confronting the law head-on in this chapter. He begins by making the case that in Christ we have died to the law, and thus been released from it. He illustrates this from marriage: the law of marriage is ended by death. If a man dies and his wife marries someone else, she’s not guilty of adultery, because she’s no longer married; she’s legally free to do so, because death brings the power of law to an end. In the same way, before we were saved, we were bound by the power of the law, but when we were saved, our old lives died; we died in the shackles that anchored us to the wall, and then Christ raised us to life again—in his life—not only outside the shackles, but outside the whole prison. The people who were under the law are dead; we are new people.

Now, in saying this, Paul seems to have equated the law with sin; since God gave the law, that would make God the author of sin, and so Paul is at pains to clarify this. The point is not that the law is sin; it is, rather, that the law served not to reduce sin but to make it worse—something he’s already said in chapter 5—and thus that the law served as an instrument of sin, bringing death even though it pointed the way to life.

We should clarify one thing here before we go on. Paul in this chapter is talking about himself, but not only about himself. Like any Jew of his time, he had a strong sense of corporate identity with all his people and their history—something we see in the Passover ritual, in which participants confess that they were slaves in Egypt and delivered through the power of God; and in the Mishnah, the first great collection of the oral traditions of Judaism, where we find the statement, “In every generation, each Jew should regard himself as though he too were brought out of Egypt.” This is how Paul is looking at the giving of the law on Sinai—describing the experience of Israel as his own. Before the giving of the law, Israel had at least some life; when they received the law, it inspired sin in their hearts, leading to death.

Law inspires sin. It tells us we have to stop doing things we want to do; it gives us new bad ideas of things to do; and it stimulates us to rebellion. St. Augustine in the Confessions tells of stealing pears as a young man, not because he wanted the pears—he and his friends fed them to pigs—but just for the pleasure of stealing them. On a humbler level, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the dinosaur books by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague—there’s How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?, How Do Dinosaurs Get Well Soon?, and a bunch of others designed to inspire good behavior in children. This one, How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food?, Sara initially refused to have a copy; our kids are all good eaters, and she didn’t want them getting any ideas.

The law is not sin, and the law does not bring death; but the law inspires sin rather than preventing it, and sin brings death. As such, anyone who tries to live by keeping the law—unless they take refuge in self-deception—will find their efforts marked by frustration and agonizing failure, which Paul captures with great force in this chapter. Now, the standard question here is, is he talking about himself as a Christian, or before he was a Christian, when he was trying to be a good Jew? After thinking about it quite a bit this week, I think the answer is, yes. You lay out the arguments for both interpretations, and there’s no clear reason to favor one or the other—there are strong arguments for both sides which really haven’t been answered. As such, I agree with Thomas R. Schreiner:

The arguments are so finely balanced because Paul does not intend to distinguish believers from unbelievers in this text. Paul reflects on whether the law has the ability to transform human beings, concluding that it does not. The law puts to death unbelievers who desire to keep it, since they lack the power to keep it. They are in bondage to sin and captives to sin, and when they encounter the law, death ensues.

On the other hand, believers are not absolutely excluded from this text either. It would be a mistake to read the whole of Christian experience from this account, for, as chapter 8 shows, believers by the power of the Spirit are enabled to keep God’s law. And yet since believers have not yet experienced the consummation of their redemption, they are keenly aware of their inherent inability to keep God’s law. When believers contemplate their own capacities, it is clear that they do not have the resources to do what God demands. In encountering God’s demands, we are still conscious of our wretchedness and inherent inability. The struggle with sin continues for believers because we live in the tension between the already and the not yet. . . . Complete deliverance from sin is not available for Christians until the day of redemption.

The key, then, is this: what Paul describes in the second half of this chapter is the experience of anyone who tries to live by law rather than by grace, whether they are saved or unsaved. For those who aren’t saved, of course, the problem is more severe; but as we’ve seen before, even for us, there is always the temptation to slide back into legalism—and that just won’t do it. We cannot make ourselves good by our own effort, we cannot make ourselves good by following rules, because even if the rules are perfect, we aren’t, and can’t be. Only Jesus can make us good, and only Jesus can save us. Anything else is a false hope, no matter how good it looks; the only real hope we have is Jesus, and him alone.