MESSAGE FOR SEPTEMBER 19, 1999 FROM VARIOUS TEXTS
A Parenthesis--“THE CHARACTER OF GOD AND THE GOSPEL”
As we move into verses 29-30 of chapter eight and soon into chapter nine of Romans, we have come to a decisive moment in sharpening our understanding of Paul’s presentation of the gospel in this glorious letter. When we began our study, we said that the theme of Romans is the gospel. The book of Romans, better than anything else in the Bible, comprehensively answers the question, “What is the gospel.” Paul has already addressed several crucial questions about the gospel. In chapters 1-3 he spends most of his time answering the question, “Why is the gospel necessary?” Paul spells out in graphic terms the depth of the rebellion against God which all sinners wage against Him. He vividly portrays lost humanity as having nothing good in them, in full scale rebellion against God, idolaters who spend their energies alternatively running from God, then spitting in His face.
In the second half of chapter three through chapter four, Paul answers the question “How does God save lost people through the gospel?” And the answer is, through the atoning death of Christ, He gives people a righteousness not their own, the very righteousness of Christ which enables them to have eternal life. He justifies them by his grace through faith, thus making them acceptable in His holy sight. He argues that this has always been God’s way of bringing people to redemption by citing Abraham, who God saved, not because of the works of the law, but on the basis of faith. In chapters five through eight he answers the question, “What does this justifying work of the gospel bring about in the life of a justified person—how does the effect a person—what difference does it make in their lives?” In these chapters, which we have most recently been examining, we have seen the blessings of the gospel for the redeemed person. There is freedom from the law, the power of sin and death through being united to Christ. We saw earlier in chapter eight there is power to kill the sins in our lives and live in fulfillment of the law. Most recently, we have seen that the gift of the Holy Spirit is ours through the gospel with His many ministries to us. We should be choking on God’s goodness to us in the gospel.
Another question that Paul begins answering in this next immediate section of chapter eight is, “How does the gospel relate to God’s Sovereign character?” If God is totally in control, as we have seen in verses 28-29 in the context of our suffering, how does this “totally-in-control” God work His plans and purposes of salvation through the gospel as He relates to people who have a free will? How does that work? “How does God’s sovereign will in the salvation of sinners and man’s free will relate to one another in the area of salvation through the gospel?” “What causes a lost person, who is in total rebellion against God’s will to ultimately surrender himself to God’s will?” “In Christ’s death, did God, through the cross, actually save sinners, or did He only make it possible for sinners to be saved?” A final question which boils it all down is this: “In this area of the salvation of sinners, who has ultimate, final control, God or the sinner?”
These next verses in chapter eight and much of chapters nine through 11 answer those questions. However, how we understand those answers, as Paul lays them out in the coming texts, is largely determined by the beliefs or presuppositions we have about the character of God. We all know intuitively that the character of the gospel is shaped by the character of God. Just as God would never institute a law that is not consistent with His character, neither would He have a gospel that is inconsistent with His character. He cannot deny Himself. That dictates that we examine some of our beliefs about the character of God before we study these texts because these texts presuppose that God has a particular kind of character. If our presuppositions about the character of God are consistent with Paul, then we will find these next chapters glorious and awe inspiring. If, however our presuppositions about “what God must be like” are at odds with Paul, then we will find ourselves becoming frustrated and uncomfortable with what Paul says here. The truth is, today, more than ever, evangelicals have traded a biblical understanding of God for a notion of God that is largely shaped by fallen emotion, sentimentalism and philosophical speculation.
You will be able to see what you really, deep down believe about God’s character by answering some questions. These questions will force you to draw on those presuppositions in your responses. Here are just a few questions which will begin to help you see what you believe to be the character of God in relationship to salvation. “Does lost humanity have a right to hear the message of the gospel?” “Is God’s ultimate reason for sending His Son to earth to save sinners from hell?” “Can Christ’s plan to save someone be frustrated by human unbelief?” How we answer these kinds of questions help us to see how we view God in relationship to His gospel.
The overarching truth we want to communicate for the next couple of weeks is this: The Biblical teaching on salvation found through the gospel is GOD-centered from beginning to end. As we move on, we will see what is meant by that term “God-centered.” The first point in support of this is this: God’s ultimate purpose in
saving sinners through the gospel is NOT delivering people from hell, but showing forth his glory. To put it another way, salvation through the gospel is ultimately for God’s glory, not the sinner’s deliverance. God’s jealousy for His glory is one of the more prevalent themes in the Bible. God says in Isaiah 42:8, “"I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.” We see this truth riddled throughout the Scriptures.
Why did God create us—was it so that we could have life and a chance to experience the joys of life? No. Our creation wasn’t fundamentally for us. Isaiah 43:6-7 says, “…Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth-- 7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made." We were created NOT for ourselves, but for God. Now, as we said last week, what brings Him glory will bring us lasting joy. But our joy is not His ultimate motivation—God’s motivation for creating us is His glory.
Why does God forgive sins? Is it primarily because sin separates us from God and dooms us to hell? Is God’s forgiveness of our sins primarily motivated by our unspeakable need for forgiveness? No. Isaiah 43:25 says, "I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” God forgives sin to show forth the wonders of his mercy—to manifest what kind of heart He has. We certainly are forever blessed by that forgiving mercy, but make no mistake, His ultimate concern is not us, but His glory…His Name.
Does God choose to dispense saving grace to a person fundamentally because that person is in desperate need of grace? Is His grace given ultimately on OUR account? No. Ephesians 1:4-6 says, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will-- 6to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” God’s glorious predestining love, his overwhelming, adoptive love is given freely to the praise of His grace! This grace, this love is ultimately for the purpose of showing forth what a glorious, loving, grace-giving God He is. Although we are blessed beyond measure by this love and grace, it is ultimately given for His glory, not for our pleasure.
This is a consistent truth throughout the Bible. The great Old Testament act of redemption is the Exodus. God reached down and delivered His chosen people out of slavery and led them into the promised land. What was his primary motive in that? Was it, bottom line, because he saw his people in need and he wanted to spare them? If that was the case, then why did He wait 400 years? Genesis 15 tells us that part of the reason He waited was so that the sins of the Amorites, the then current residents of Canaan would accumulate to a sufficient degree so He could manifest His patience toward them before He judged them. He allowed His covenant people to suffer four centuries, in part so that He might be glorified in His patience toward the Amorites before judging them.
His ultimate reason for delivering his people from bondage, be it the slavery of Pharaoh or the slavery of sin is NOT to bring people relief from suffering. Psalm 106:7-8 say, “When our fathers were in Egypt, they gave no thought to your miracles; they did not remember your many kindnesses, and they rebelled by the sea, the Red Sea. 8Yet he saved them for his name's sake, to make his mighty power known.” The Exodus, God’s great Old Testament act of deliverance-that which foreshadows his gospel was done for the glory of God, not ultimately for the freedom of His people.
Why does God issue His wrath on those who do not repent of their sin? Is it because rebellious sinners, through their arrogant refusal to repent have repeatedly frustrated His unsuccessful attempts to save them, thus “forcing” Him, “twisting His arm” (as it were) to resort to punishing those who He really would much rather have saved? In eternity, will God look down on the fires of hell and the countless vessels of condemned, tortured humanity and cry out in anguish, “Why didn’t you repent—why did you force me to do what was against my highest impulses?” No.
Romans 9:22-23 says of God’s motivation for showing His wrath, “What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath--prepared for destruction? 23What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory…” Without going into detail about this text, which requires more time to explain, the main truth it communicates is this—God shows wrath against sinners, NOT because sinners have frustrated his repeated attempts to convince them to repent, but ultimately because God is glorified in His wrath against sinners because it highlights his mercy toward those who, in His mercy, He pardons. Even His wrath glorifies Him.
We see God’s jealousy for His glory in the salvation of sinners by the fact that, because salvation is totally, exclusively by grace alone, there will be no ground for boasting by the redeemed in heaven. Look at a familiar text through this God-centered lens. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no man can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” That text is NOT fundamentally about salvation, its about God—the GOD of grace who saves –the GOD who gives it away—saints are GOD’S workmanship—those whom GOD has created to do good works, which GOD, being sovereign, has already laid out for us. There will be no freedom to boast because salvation is of the Lord.
If salvation were ultimately dependent upon the sovereign choice of our free will, then those who made the “right” decision would have room to boast over those in hell who made the “wrong” decision. If who gets converted is ultimately dependent on the choice the SINNER makes and NOT GOD’S sovereign choice, then the sinner will have a ground for boasting because ultimately, it was HIS choice that made the difference between heaven and hell and not GOD’S. Is that consistent with the biblical portrait of a God jealous for His glory we have seen painted this morning? The first truth about God’s character which must be understood if we are to find blessing in Romans 8:29-20 and into chapter nine is this: God’s ultimate purpose in saving sinners through the gospel is showing forth His glory.
A second presupposition about the character of God that is pertinent to the character of the gospel is this: God’s sovereign will cannot be violated by sinful man. We have alluded to this earlier, but this is so central to having a God-centered and not a man-centered understanding of the gospel. We must get this, if we are to understand the gospel as Paul lays it out in the coming texts. The Scripture is clear that, although man has a free will, that free will can never violate God’s sovereign choice of who is to be saved. Indeed, He mysteriously and sovereignly superintends the free will of humanity to accomplish HIS will. No one is autonomous in their decision making so as to be able to frustrate God’s ultimate plans and purposes.
There are many texts which make this point. Perhaps the best known is found in John 6:44 where Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him…” Jesus tells us the only way a person can come into relationship with Him is this activity of the Father which is translated “draws.” The Father draws people to Jesus. What is the nature, the character of this “drawing” by the Father? Is this drawing like a person who is drawn to a hot dog stand by the smell of sauerkraut? The word in the original language literally means, “to drag.” The Father drags people to Christ.
The same word is used in Acts 16:19. Paul and Silas are ministering in Macedonia. Paul has just cast a demon out of a slave girl and that will render her useless for earning money for her masters as a fortune teller. In verse 19 we read, “When the owners of the slave girl realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and DRAGGED them into the marketplace to face the authorities.” When the slave owners seized Paul and Silas, they did NOT say, “Yes, please excuse us. Would you be so good as to give our complaint against you serious consideration and if you would be so kind, accompany us to the courthouse—but if you don’t want to, we certainly will not compel you to go.” They were dragging them! Paul and Silas’ immediate desires were not their concern. On a human level, these slave owners were in control of the situation. We see the word again used in James 2:6. James is showing the church the folly of showing favoritism to the rich people who have visited. He says, “…you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are DRAGGING you into court?” The rich, powerful merchants were dragging people into court. They were imposing their “sovereign” will upon the poor, period.
So often today, the way we present the gospel makes Christ look nothing less than insipid. J.I Packer masterfully relates how this misunderstanding of the character of God results in making so much of our evangelism portray God in a scandalous manner. He says, “we depict the Father and the Son, not as sovereignly active in drawing sinners to themselves, but as waiting in quiet impotence “at the door of our hearts” for us to let them in…the enthroned Lord is suddenly metamorphosed into a weak, futile figure tapping forlornly at the door of the human heart, which He is powerless to open…Christ [is presented] as the baffled Savior, balked in what He hoped to do by human unbelief. Packer says that evangelism in this context can resemble “maudlin appeals to the unconverted to let Christ save them out of pity for His disappointment.” “We mustn’t break Christ’s heart by refusing to come to Him!” Elsewhere he adds, “…we do not vote God’s Son into office as our Savior, nor does He remain passive while preachers campaign on His behalf, whipping up support for His cause.”
People don’t realize it, but when they believe that the gospel is ultimately dependent upon the free will of the lost person, rather than on God’s sovereign, irresistible grace, they are presenting a truncated, abridged version of a Savior who is more to be pitied for his lack of persuasive power than worshipped for His sovereign power to save sinners. If you wonder how rampant this warped thinking is today, all you have to do is open our very own hymnal. Listen to the words of one of the songs written a popular contemporary Christian musician. “The Savior is waiting to enter your heart, Why don’t you let Him come in? There’s nothing in this world to keep you apart, what is your answer to Him? Time after time He has waited before, And now He is waiting again to see if you’re willing to open the door, O, how He wants to come in.” This lyric makes the sinner 100% in control of their salvation. That’s pathetic and to picture the Lord God omnipotent as a pleading suitor trying to get someone respond to His love—to help Him save them-- is an insult of the highest order.
Christ does not need our help to save us! It is ultimately all of Him and all of grace. You may ask, “But we must believe—have faith and we must repent in order to be saved. That’s our part of the transaction.” No, that’s Christ’s too. As for faith, we see this in Phil 1:29 where Paul says, “For it has been granted [that word means “freely given”] to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.” The faith a sinner exercises to believe does not originate with him. It has been freely given to him by God. The faith to believe is a gift from God and it is part of the gift of salvation. Acts 13:48 says of a group of Gentile converts, “and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” Those who believed were those who had been previously designated, set, established by God to be saved. The faith comes as a result of GOD’S work, not man’s.
The same is true for repentance. Repentance, like faith, is a gift from God. We see this in 2 Timothy 2:25. Paul writes to Timothy, “Those who oppose him he must gently instruct in the hope that God will grant [that is, “to give, to bestow”] them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.” Because salvation is all of grace and God supplies it all, it is therefore impossible for the will of the sinner to frustrate the sovereign will of God to save that sinner.
This sovereign, omnipotent Lord is the God Paul writes about and the God who authors the salvation through the gospel seen in Romans 8:29-30 and into chapters nine through eleven. This is the God and gospel of the Reformers, of Luther and Calvin. This is the God of Augustine, of Jonathan Edwards, of the founders of the Modern missions movement. This is the God and gospel of the puritans, of Whitfield and Spurgeon and countless other saints now in glory. Do we see how important it is to have a biblical understanding of God’s character if we are to have a biblical understanding of the gospel? Next week, we will conclude this parentheses on the character of God and then I trust we will be free to explore the glories of this next section of Romans unencumbered by an understanding of God that is not worthy of Him.
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