MESSAGE FOR SEPTEMBER 27, 1998 FROM ROMANS 5:5-8
This week, we pick up where we left off last week in Romans chapter five. We continue to trace Paul’s celebration of the blessings God has given to those who have been made right with Him through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul says that one of the blessings of being made right with God is the gift of an unshakable hope. This future hope is two pronged as we have seen. That is, that Christians will see God’s glory in heaven and that everything we have gone through in this life for being a Christian is not in vain--we will not be ashamed of the sacrifices we have made in our obedience to Christ. This hope in Paul’s words, “does not disappoint us.” Last week, we saw that God has given us proof that this hope is not in vain. And the proof that this hope does not disappoint is (verse 5) “because God has poured his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”
God has given us an ongoing reminder that this future hope we have is not a sham, is not a fantasy, is not the result of the fact that we have an emotional NEED for it to be real or any of that nonsense. The reminder--the proof that this hope is not vain is the ministry of the Holy Spirit which, within every believer pours out or (more accurately) gushes out God’s love into our hearts. It is this ongoing experience of God’s love for us which the Holy Spirit produces within the believer that confirms this hope for the future is not in vain. Its as if this experience of God’s love for us by the Holy Spirit is God’s down payment which we can know today and the down payment of this experience of His love guarantees all the promises we have placed our hope in.
Last week, we looked at some reasons why some people in church don’t experience this love as they should. The reasons ranged from the most simple--that is, some people don’t have the Holy Spirit. They think they are Christians and they are not. Others refuse to accept these feelings of God’s love because they feel so worthless, they have trouble accepting this kind of love. Others have unrepentant sin which quenches the influence of the Holy Spirit and they can’t feel this love. We said that if we are not experiencing this fountain of God’s love for us, we need to get alone with God and ask Him to somehow show us why we are not, because this wonderful confirmation of God’s hope is part of the birthright of those who have been justified, made right with God, born again by the Spirit.
One question which flows from that truth is this: “When I experience this love in my heart through the Holy Spirit, what kind of love is this? What is the nature of this love? What level of depth is this love God has for me?” This week, Paul shows us in verses 6-8 the kind of love God has for us and which is reflected in the love we experience by the Holy Spirit. Even though we’ll only be looking at verses 6-8, let’s read Romans 5:5-8 for continuity. Paul says, “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. You see, just at the right time, when were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
Verses 6-8 are Paul’s answer to the question “what kind of love does God have for me?” We will look at that answer more closely in just a moment, but first I want to make two very important side bar comments. First, to remind you of something we saw last week, notice the beautiful reference to the Trinity as it relates to God’s love for sinners. God the Father initiates this love by sending His Son. God the Son expresses this love for sinners by dying for them and God the Holy Spirit enables God’s children to experience this love subjectively. Every member of the triune Godhead is involved in some way in the task of loving elect sinners. This is such a good reminder because Christians, although they believe in the Trinity, many don’t have any understanding of how the members of the Trinity work together and we generally diminish the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Here, the Spirit is the member of the Godhead which makes the love of God real in our experience. That is so important.
I know all this talk of experiencing God’s love makes some of us analytical Baptists feel a bit uncomfortable. My second side bar comment addresses that. Notice there are two proofs given to support the truth that God loves his children. The first (in logical order) is that He sent His Son to die for us. That is objective. This is an historical event which occurred factually in time and space. Jesus Christ died on a cross for sinners. That is objective proof that God loves us. The second proof is this experience the Holy Spirit gives us of God’s love. This is subjective-- “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart.” This is experiential, subjective--emotional. But notice that the experience, the subjective element is grounded in the objective fact of the cross. This experience is not detached from objective fact. It is rooted firmly in the soil of the crucifixion. There is a large subjective, experiential element in our faith and the post modern world is flocking to eastern, mystical religions to satisfy their hunger for the experiential. The church has done them a disservice by being PURELY analytical and propositional at times to the point of excluding the experiential.
The fact is, in the life of a healthy Christian, the experiential, subjective element of their faith is more profound and more satisfying than that of any other faith. And the reason is because our experience of God’s love rests not in some sort of emotional or demonic manipulation or mind altering techniques, but it is rooted in the historic, objective fact that God sent His Son to die for me. Now, the Holy Spirit takes the wonder, the awe, the mystery of that truth and experientially brings it to our hearts in a way that mere mental contemplation of it cannot bring home. The point is, we need to be people who are subjectively experiencing God’s love. This glorifies God who made us emotional beings and who wants to be our highest delight. What’s more, the lost need to know Christianity deeply touches our emotions. But we must never root that feeling in anything other than what God has done for us objectively in time and space. Now, back to the question of “what kind of love does God have for me?”
Paul’s answer is this: If we want to know the magnitude of God’s love for His children and how radically different His love is from fallen, human love, we must look at Christ’s death for helpless, ungodly sinners. Notice how Paul magnifies God’s love here. He doesn’t do it by providing a word study on the nature of “agape” love as over against “phileo” love or “eros” love. He contrasts the kind of love God has with the love we see in fallen humanity. He says, “very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” He’s speaking within the context of Christ’s substitutionary death and he makes the point that it is a very rare occurrence that someone will see a person on death row and volunteer to take their penalty for them--maybe if that person is righteous or good, which I see Paul to be using synonomously. But this happens “very rarely.”
To put some flesh to Paul’s point, think of it this way. If you were in a brutal, politically oppressive state and a courageous, righteous, Robin Hood type character was trying to bring justice to the oppressed by overthrowing this corrupt regime, and he was imprisoned and put on death row...in that case, where such a highly respected man of valor and courage were headed for the firing squad, you might find someone who would, out of a sense of their own honor and chivalry, be willing to take that man’s place at the end of that firing squad and sacrifice himself. That would happen in those kind of situations in vary rare instances. Very rarely you might just see that kind of selfless valor for a person of extraordinary character and personal integrity. Paul says, that is the apex, the zenith of human love--laying down your own life for someone larger than yourself--for an extraordinary person or cause--this is the high water mark for human love. We see that and we understand it--we can relate to it--it makes our chests swell with emotion. This is the stuff of an Alexander Dumas novel. This captures the highest essence of humanity and human love.
But notice the point of contrast between human love and divine love. The point of contrast is not in the behavior itself. The person who dies for the righteous person is just as dead as Christ who dies for the sinner. The sacrifices are the same in Paul’s hypothetical contrasts. The point of contrast between human and divine love is the recipient of this love. Human love, in its highest form is extended to the noble, the admirable, the virtuous. The target of divine love is radically different. To see just how different, we have to look at the words Paul uses to describe the targets of God’s love through Christ. Paul uses three different words to describe the recipients of God’s love, “ungodly,” “powerless” and “sinner.” The focus is on the evil of these people.
There is a trend in evangelicalism today to not focus on our sinfulness. One leading conservative pastoral theologian teaches that Christians shouldn’t even consider themselves as “sinners” but should think of themselves as “saints who occasionally sin.” The psychologizing of the Christian faith with its emphasis on preserving our self image has played a role here. This movement within the church is terribly misguided for many reasons. First, it is a betrayal of reform theology on this issue which Luther stated when he said the Christian is “at the same time, sinner and saint.” More importantly, it is not biblical--Paul calls himself the “chief of sinners.” And this text points out another reason why it is not only accurate, but crucial for the Christian to regularly think of themselves and others, redeemed or unredeemed as sinners. Paul says here that what makes God’s love so incredible, so distinctive and what separates it from every other love is the fact that God’s love is directed toward...sinners.
That means our understanding of God’s love for us will be shaped by the depth of our understanding of our sinfulness. Even though Paul is referring to unredeemed sinners here, the truth is that the church is full of redeemed sinners whom God has made saints through the blood of his Son. What makes God’s love so wondrous toward you and me is that it is given to sinners. If we down play our own sinfulness or the sinfulness of the unsaved, we are gutting our ability to appreciate the wonder, the depth of God’s love expressed at Calvary and experienced through the Holy Spirit.
We MUST see ourselves and others as sinners if we are to appreciate THE distinctive quality of God’s love. It is the height of irony that people and churches who choose to dwell so exclusively on the love of God are almost always the same ones who want to think so superficially and be confronted so lightly about the depth of their sin. The truth is, you cannot understand and appreciate God’s love without a profound appreciation of our sinfulness. That may sound horribly unenlightened, but it is an unmistakable implication of this and many other texts. The people who have the deepest understanding of and appreciation for the love of God are those who have the most profound understanding of the evil of sin, theirs and others.
Paul tells it straight in describing the sinfulness of the people God shows His love for. He calls them “powerless” in verse six. Others translate this word as “helpless.” The word means “those who are without ability to do good.” These people cannot do anything good as God considers goodness. Don’t get me wrong. There are sinners who do tremendous amounts of good on a human level--give money to the poor, minister to the sick and infirmed. There are plenty of atheists in (for example) the Peace Corps who do many “good” things on a purely human level. There are plenty of Buddhists who do many “good” things on a human level who would never acknowledge Christ as God incarnate. This doesn’t qualify as good as God considers goodness, because it is done from a fallen heart which doesn’t have as it ultimate motive to glorify the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This so called righteousness God calls “filthy rags” and, as good as it may be on a human level, it in no way commends that person to God. To God, they are helpless-- “dead in trespasses and sins.”
In addition to being helpless, he also calls them “ungodly” in verse six. This is a very strong and not at all flattering word. Over half the time this word is used in the New Testament, it is used in connection with God’s wrath. Peter, in Second Peter 2:5 calls the persons who were killed in the flood as “ungodly.” Those people were so full of evil, they (on one level) made God regret He created humanity. These were nasty people. A chapter later, Peter says the “ungodly” are being “reserved for fire [for] judgment and destruction.” Jude calls “ungodly” the false teachers, those charlatans who used the gospel as a means to satisfy their carnal desires. This is not a flattering term and yet Paul uses it of every person Christ dies for.
Finally, Paul calls these people “sinners.” A sinner is a person who sins and who will have to pay for their own sins in the fire of hell. Even though some may be very religious, they are internally NOT in submission to God--they rebel against his holy standard and therefore against Him. They are, figuratively speaking, spitting in God’s eye and are traveling on a one way ticket to hell. This is NOT a positive designation. Paul says, “here’s who God loves--he loves those who are totally incapable of doing anything good. He loves those who are nasty, murderous, rebellious, filled with the bile of sin, brimming with the scum of iniquity, black to the core, with nothing within them which is at all commendable to Him.”
That which distinguishes divine love from human love is that divine love is NOT directed at people of nobility and valor, or extraordinary courage and integrity. In God’s holy perspective, there ARE no people like that. NO! Divine love is poured out through the death of His Son on the squalor of creation--the rebels, the buffoons, the profane, the perverse--you know, you and me! The wonder of divine love is that sometime in eternity past, the Father said, “I want to display my love for those malicious, evil people by sending you, My Son to die a tortuous death for them to redeem them.” And the Son said, “I would be willing to express our love for them by laying my life down for those ungodly, self-centered rebels.” and the Spirit said, “I would be willing to go and make my home in those spiritually dead, profane rebels and give them life, the very life of the Son. And I would be willing to enable them to experience Our love for them.” This totally transcends even the highest expression of human love.
If you were a father you might, under very extraordinary, inconceivable circumstances, recommend to your only son that he take the place on death row of the noble, courageous crusader who has repeatedly risked his life for others. But picture a different scenario. Can you see yourself saying to your son, “You know son, there is a serial murderer in jail whose primary targets were all little girls. He raped them and killed over twenty of them before they sentenced him to the gas chamber. But you know, I spoke with the governor and he is willing to allow me to put you in His place in the gas chamber and pay for that man’s crimes and he won’t have to pay his penalty, you’ll do it for Him.” That is insane!! No one in this room could ever in their wildest imagination picture that scene--its ludicrous. Its either ludicrous or its...divine. Frankly, divine love is even more amazing than that example. In the example of the serial murderer, the Father is sending his Son to pay the penalty for a murderer whose crimes were against someone else! When God sent His Only Son to die for us, the crimes that we have committed were not against someone else, they were against HIM personally! That is what God has done for us and its as we meditate on the awfulness of sin, that the wonder of God’s love comes into focus.
This is the quality of God’s love He has given us in Christ and this is the quality of divine love that the Holy Spirit wants us to experience. Are we experiencing this love--this extraordinary, transcendent love? This is the quality of God’s love for us. It is so crucial for us to know this love because John says, “We love, because He first loved us.” We love in response to God’s love. If our understanding and experience of God’s love is superficial, then our love for God and others will be superficial. It is vital that we know and experience God’s love for us at this level if we are to show the love of Christ to others. Show me a person who loves God deeply and others profoundly and I will show you a person who has a profound appreciation for their sin and who accepts God’s love for them readily.
Are we experiencing this divine love? Do you want to experience God’s love? Maybe another reason we aren’t experiencing this is because we don’t spend time meditating on our own sin and on the wonder of the cross. The experience we have of God’s love through the Holy Spirit will probably not exceed our understanding of the uniqueness of God’s love. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth and that means He will respond to the truth about God’s love. It is our understanding of the truth that acts as the conduit through which He can pour out God’s love into our hearts. The uniqueness of God’s love is seen in the truth that He gives His love to helpless, ungodly, sinners. May we, by God’s grace come to know God’s love for us experientially and may we experience it deeply because we have seen ourselves as sinners. “God demonstrates his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
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