MESSAGE FOR JANUARY 14, 2001 ROMANS 16:22-27
This week we conclude our series from Paul’s letter to the Romans. We have surveyed the first four sections of the book and the fifth, dealing with Paul’s mission and his coworkers, we have just been covering recently. So this morning, we turn our eyes to the last text in the book as Paul closes this glorious epistle. Beginning in 16:22, we read, “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord. 23Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole church here enjoy, sends you his greetings. Erastus, who is the city's director of public works, and our brother Quartus send you their greetings. 24 25Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, 26but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him-- 27to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.”
Paul probably wrote this letter from Corinth and he spends the first three verses sending greetings from four men who had been under his ministry there, including Tertius, who wrote the letter as Paul dictated it to him. The last three verses are a closing doxology. That is, they are a statement of praise and worship to God. As Paul thinks back over the wonder of the gospel he has just explained in detail, he is once again moved to praise God for his glory as “the only wise God.” But Paul is a teacher and even in the midst of this expression of praise, he manages to include some very important content about what God does for those who believe the gospel, as well as explain how the Old Testament relates to the gospel.
The grammar here is difficult and the structure is not all that clear, but the text from 25-27 basically divides into three parts and because the doxology is an expression of praise and glory to God, all sections are all about Him. The first section is about God’s role in keeping people saved through the gospel. The second section is about God’s role in revealing the gospel. Finally we see God’s motive for bringing about the gospel. First, let’s look at God’s role in keeping people saved through the gospel. Verse 25 speaks of God and says, “Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel…” It seems only fitting that Paul, who has just given us 16 chapters of the glory of the gospel in its capacity to take hopelessly lost sinners and save them from the penalty and power of sin, would close with a text on God’s role in keeping the believer saved through the gospel.
The crucial word he uses to do that is this word “establish.” Paul says God “establish[es] you by the gospel.” God, through the gospel not only introduces people to God, He not only brings people into relationship to Himself, He KEEPS people in relationship to himself. We know that because this word “establish” means, “to fix, to confirm, to set, to make stable, to strengthen.” As the winds of doubt and temptation and trials batter against the believer, God is the One holding him up, making him able to stand and not fall. He may stumble, but he won’t stay on the ground forever because God is the one who is supporting him. This is a beautiful picture of God’s supportive, protective ministry to us through the gospel. In First Thessalonians 3:13, Paul is speaking of Lord’s work among the saints and says, “May he STRENGTHEN your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.” Paul calls on God to strengthen, establish, confirm, set their hearts so they will be in God’s presence when Jesus returns.
Paul speaks here to the theological truth sometimes call “the perseverance of the saints.” That is, the truth that holds that genuine, authentic believers will not fail to persevere to the end. We know the only people who are saved are those who are living for Christ at the end of their life. Jesus says in Matthew 24:13, “He who perseveres to the end will be saved.” To be a Christian you must, by definition, remain faithful to the end. A person who experiments with Christianity, prays a prayer, makes a confession but who later walks away from the Christian life is not a Christian. They are merely dabblers in the Christian faith and Christ didn’t die to make dabblers, but disciples—those who follow him to the end. John is discussing counterfeit believers and one way in which they show themselves in 1 John 2:19. He says of them, “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” John says one way you can tell a false convert is by the fact that they DO NOT remain. They walk away showing that they were not really a believer.
It is absolutely essential that a person live for Christ to the end for them to be saved. That makes this issue of whether or not a person perseveres to the end with Christ of utmost importance. Paul teaches here implicitly that believers do persevere to the end and that implication is taken from the fact that he says that God, through the gospel preserves them. Because, as chapters one through three assert, we are so weak and so prone to wander, the only reason a believer can persevere to the end is, God preserves them to the end. If its true that those who are truly saved are preserved by God and therefore will, without fail, persevere to the end, then we can have strong confidence or assurance in our salvation in Christ. If it is the sovereign, omnipotent God who establishes us, sets us, confirms us, strengthens us through the gospel, that creates great confidence in the heart of the believer.
This truth obviously touches on what is today in evangelicalism a very controversial subject. Is it possible for a person to lose their salvation? That battle has been fought for centuries and it would take weeks to begin to give it anything close to a comprehensive treatment. We would need to take a look at the many texts which are regularly put forth as being strong support for both those who believe and who don’t believe that God preserves all those who are saved to the end. We are not going to do that. For this morning we will only say what we have said before. If its possible to lose your salvation, that means that NOT losing it is a work or an accomplishment you can boast about before God. If its possible to lose your salvation and you don’t—if you manage to “keep” yours, then you have reason to boast that you are better in some way than the poor souls who weren’t able to keep theirs, but instead lost it. You are in some way better, more meritorious than them and that idea contradicts the heart of the gospel which states that “salvation is of the Lord” and “no one will boast in God’s presence.” Paul here doesn’t say praise God because WE are able to establish ourselves. No! Paul’s doxology here praises the GOD who is able to establish us through the gospel.
This text clearly teaches God DOES preserve his saints, he not only saves people, but KEEPS them saved and we can and should revel in the assurance that brings to true believers. We can have real assurance in our salvation because Paul says here that God, though the gospel establishes us. We WILL persevere in the faith because God WILL preserves us.
Assurance of salvation is very important to spiritual health. That does not mean that assurance is necessary for salvation. Assurance is not a fundamental part of what God has done for us in the cross, but about the confidence we experience as a result of knowing the truth about the gospel. Someone has said that assurance is not part of the essence of salvation, but it is a benefit of salvation that God wants all his children to experience. We see this important connection between having a solid confidence that we are saved and our spiritual health in 2 Peter 1:10-12. Peter says, “Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall,11and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 12So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have.
Here Peter says we are to eagerly work at making our election sure. That is, to make sure we are part of God’s elect which in turn produces great assurance of salvation. Peter says if you do this, you will never fall. Clearly Peter is not saying that the assurance which comes from confirming your election will make you free from sin. But even if we interpret this as broadly as possible, he is saying something about the health-producing benefits of having strong assurance of salvation. R.C. Sproul writes of the importance of having confidence in your salvation. He says, “The person who lacks assurance of salvation is vulnerable to a myriad of threats to his personal growth. The confident Christian, certain of his salvation, is free from the paralyzing fear that can inhibit personal growth. Without assurance we are assailed by doubt and uncertainty with respect to God’s promises, which serve as an anchor for our souls.”
One reason sin is so destructive to the Christian is because when we sin repeatedly in an area or if we sin deeply injurious sins to ourselves or others, that rattles our assurance. When we sin like that, we naturally ask ourselves, “How could a Christian do that or continue to do that for so long?” Although our assurance should never be based on our obedience, but rather on the work of God at Calvary, the promises of God and the witness of the Spirit, our obedience is corroborating evidence to our faith in Christ. That is, it lends support to the claim that we are saved. Jesus said, “By their fruit shall you know them.” Genuine faith in Christ is a living, active faith that produces obedience. When we sin, that diminishes the power of that corroborating evidence and we find ourselves scrambling to God, wondering if we are really a believer. Also, the Bible repeatedly warns that there are indeed some people who genuinely THINK they are saved, but whose sinful life shows they AREN’T saved. “Many will say to me on that day, Lord, Lord…Then I will tell them plainly, `I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers—you workers of lawlessness.” The fact that there are not just a few, but MANY who really truly are deceived into thinking they are believers when they are not, only makes us doubt more strongly when we find ourselves in a pattern of sin or a deeply grievous sin.
The good news is, the Bible is filled with people who, like David and Peter have sinned grievously, but who showed they were sinning as true saints because they repented and came back to live faithful lives. If, because of some sin or pattern of sin you have lost your sense of assurance, the only way to get it back is to, as one author has said, “flee to Christ in confession and repentance, seeking his pardon and finding our solace in the Consolation of Israel. He alone can restore us to the joy of our salvation and the assurance of it.” The same God who gives assurance initially is the God who restores our assurance. A big part of having assurance and keeping the assurance of our salvation as believers is clinging to the truth of Scripture. Its as we know the truth about God’s preservation of true believers that we are set free from fear and anxiety over our souls.
Paul’s point here in Romans that God is the One who establishes us through the gospel is the same one he makes using different language in 1 Corinthians 1:8. He says, “He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Isn’t that a glorious promise? The text that most of us know in this vein is Philippians 1:6, “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” We need to feed on those texts regularly because they strengthen our assurance when we take them into our souls.
Now, just because God is ultimately responsible to preserve us through the gospel, that does not free us to just “let go and let God.” No, we have a crucial role to play in this too. The same Paul who wrote Philippians 1:6 also wrote 1 Corinthians 9:27, “No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself might not be disqualified.” Paul was RADICALLY active in his perseverance and that is doubtless one reason why, at the end of his life he could have such utter assurance. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day--and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
There is a cooperation between God and the believer in their perseverance. God ultimately preserves us but he does that through the grace he gives us to keep fighting. God is the still the One who preserves our salvation, but he funnels that preserving grace into US and that grace is shown in the believer by faithfully living for Christ. Notice the goal of the gospel on a human level is that all the nations might (verse 27) “believe and obey him.” Again, there is the “obedience that comes from faith.” God is the source—he gives us the faith, but that faith is worked out through his grace in the obedient lives of his children.
Here’s an analogy that many have given to help explain how God and man work together in this. This happens to again come from R.C. Sproul who writes, “A child and his father walk down a dangerous path while holding hands. There are two ways in which they can hold hands. First, the child can grasp his father’s hand and hold on tightly. If he lets go, he may fall. Second, the father can hold the child’s hand. Only if the father loosens his grip can the child fall. In the first instance the child’s safety depends on the consistency and firmness by which he clings to his father. In the second instance the child’s safety depends on the consistency and firmness by which the father clings to him. We may push the analogy a bit and say that when the child loosens his grip on the father’s hand, the father may let him stumble and scrape his knees. Though the child incurs the father’s displeasure in the process, the father will not allow his grip on the child to be loosed entirely, preventing him from falling into the abyss.”
Sproul concludes, “Even though God is holding onto us, we are to hold onto him at the same time. We are capable of losing our grip, and indeed we do so. We have a responsibility to hold on as tightly as we can, even though we are sure he will not let us go. The New Testament frequently admonishes us to do this and warns us of consequences of letting go.” There is rock solid assurance of our salvation given to us in the promise that “God is able to establish us by the gospel” and we should all breath deeply of that liberating wind of the Spirit. But we must never pervert those promises of God’s preserving us into an excuse to live carelessly.
After Paul highlights God’s role in keeping us saved through the gospel, he moves on to God’s role in revealing the gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ was and is the biggest news in the world, but this text captures the fascinating way God chose to handle his role in revealing that good news. There are two lines of evidence here. First, Paul says in verse 26 that the gospel is a mystery that has been “hidden for long ages past.” Now, it has been revealed or unveiled. But the other line of evidence is that even though God hid this gospel until he decided to reveal it when Jesus came onto the scene of salvation history, he also made it known “through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God…” So, on the one hand, God was busy hiding the gospel until it was time to be revealed and on the other, in the “prophetic writings” of the Old Testament he was “making it known.” There is tension there, isn’t there?
The tension is resolved when you look at this from a God-centered perspective. On the one hand, God wants to keep the major truths of the gospel hidden until he is ready to reveal them in Christ. He is the only One who reveals what He is doing and He does that at the rate He alone chooses—He is utterly sovereign over this. No one figures this out. In fact, in the wisdom of man, we killed the Son of God. These truths were well enough hidden that no one could figure them out during the life of Christ. But on the other hand, after the death and resurrection of Christ, Jesus reveals, Paul reveals FROM THE OLD TESTAMENT SCRIPTURES what was said about Christ and the gospel of God. By keeping it hidden, God demonstrates his utter sovereignty over the control of information concerning this even. By revealing that his plan was right there in the Old Testament all along, he demonstrates his unspeakable wisdom by showing that, as hidden as his plan might have been to humanity, He had carefully worked it out ahead of time and even predicted how he would do it. Do you see how this shows the sovereign wisdom of God in conceiving this glorious plan, predicting in the Old Testament and working it out right on schedule just as He had conceived it from eternity past! And it was so brilliant, not only could humanity not discern it from the Old Testament, neither could Satan figure it out.
The Old Testament prophecies about the gospel are a little like a drawing Russell showed me a couple of weeks ago. It’s a pencil sketch of a beautiful young woman’s face wearing an elegant hat. But if you turn it upside down, it’s a picture of a gnarled old hag. The hag was there all along, but I didn’t see it until it was pointed out to me. That’s a bit like the way God revealed the gospel in the Old Testament. It was there all along, but it isn’t until Jesus and Paul point it out for you to see it. This is a glorious truth because it shows God’s complete sovereignty in salvation and the unfathomable wisdom of his plan of salvation.
This brings us to the section of the text which shows God’s motive for bringing about the gospel. Paul gives us God’s motive for conceiving and executing and revealing the gospel in verse 27. Paul is overwhelmed by the wisdom of God in doing all of this and says, “to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.” We must always keep in the front of our minds God’s motive for the giving the gospel. His ultimate goal is that his name might be glorified. One of the scourges in evangelicalism today is the fact that so much ministry under to gospel is done NOT for God’s glory, but is instead man centered. Missionaries go out to hostile fields fundamentally because they want to rescue people from hell—they are so moved by their plight. There is nothing wrong with wanting the lost to be saved, but it is a poor primary motive for missions. If that is your motive for missions and the Muslims, for instance, reject you, then you are a failure. You went out to rescue people from hell and discovered that they weren’t the least bit interested in being rescued. That is a failure. But if your heart burns for the glory of God and the fact that there are people whose worship God is worthy of and is not currently getting the worship he deserves from them, that changes everything. Then, if they don’t respond, then God is still honored because you burn with zeal for His name.
If your primary goal in personal evangelism is the man-centered goal of getting people to say “yes” to Jesus, that will effect the content of your message. People don’t say “yes” to Jesus nearly as often when you include things like repentance and living a new life, so you leave that part out. But if your goal in evangelism is God’s glory, you are anxious to tell them about repentance because your primary concern is not about chalking up numbers, but about being faithful to God’s word for his glory. If the primary goal in running your church is to make it as user-friendly as possible, then you will skip over issues of commitment and responsibility before God. And you will probably get more people through your doors, but in the process you sell out God. The cost is too high. If your goal is God’s glory, your church may not experience as much short-term growth, but has much better chance of doing what is most important, being faithful to God for His glory. We must do all ministry—live all of our lives asking the question, “Am I doing this for the glory of God or for my or others comfort or convenience or pleasure?” That is the word from Romans and the entire Bible. May God give us the grace to live and minister for his glory and live with the assurance of our salvation that God, who establishes us by His gospel, gives.
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