And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among any brethren; and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God's elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, "For Thy sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered." But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I begin this morning with two questions. I won't ask you to raise your hand. But you must answer these before God. Speak a quiet answer to God to each question. The reason I do this is because how you answer these questions determines whether the rest of this message is true of you now, or is only an invitation for you to come to the banquet of faith.
The questions are based on Romans 8:28. This is one of the greatest assurances of God's love in all the Bible. But it has two qualifications attached to it. It is not true for everyone. It is true for people described in this verse: "We know that God causes all things to work together for good 1) to those who love God, 2) to those who are called according to His purpose."
So here are my questions:
Question #1: Do you love God? No one loves God perfectly in this life. That is not the question. We all know there can be a real uniting love with a wife or husband or mother or father or dear friend, without that love being perfect. In fact the greater and more authentic the love, the more keenly it feels its own imperfections. The question is not about perfection. The question is: Is God your treasure? Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Luke 12:34). That is, there will your love be. He was trying to persuade us to have our treasure in heaven, not earth. He was calling us to treasure God above all things. Because what you count as your treasure is what your heart embraces and loves. So "Do you love God?" means "Is he your treasure?" Is God the most valuable reality in your life?
Question #2: Have you been called by God according to his purpose? This does not mean, "Have you ever heard the gospel?" Or: "Have you ever heard an invitation calling you to repent and believe?" Verse 30 makes plain what the call is we are talking about here: "[Those] whom [God] predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified." All those who are called are justified. So this calling from God is not a mere invitation, but a powerful and effective summons that woke you up from the slumber of ignorance and rebellion, so that you saw Jesus and gladly submitted to him.
Called By Christ: An Illustration
Let me put it in a picture. But first consider 1 Corinthians 1:23,
We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God
Many regard Christ crucified as foolishness. But those who are called see in him the power and the wisdom of God. Something has happened to them. They've been called.
Picture it this way: before you were called by God, you were in real sense asleep in your bed. Into your bedroom came Jesus Christ. He stood there in the glory of his Calvary love and his resurrection power. But you were asleep. In fact you were dreaming. And in the dream (which is your ordinary life) you saw Jesus. Only in the dream he looked foolish. He wasn't attractive. You wondered why others made such a big deal out of him. In the dream your television was more exciting. Your boyfriend was more real. Your job more satisfying.
Then God's Spirit—the Holy Spirit—came into the bedroom where Jesus was standing in the glory of his Calvary love and resurrection power. And the Spirit hovered over your dreaming head and called, in a voice, just loud enough, "Wake up!" And it shook you. And you opened your eyes. And there before you stood the real Jesus Christ. And his glory was unmistakable. And you knew that (all your life) you'd been dreaming—that all your thoughts about his being foolish and unreal and unattractive were mere fantasies and empty images of sleeping mind. But now the veil of slumber was lifted and "the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ" was irresistibly true. Christ crucified was now for you what it really is: the power of God and the wisdom of God. That is what it means to be called.
So I ask, "Have you been called by God?" Is Christ, in his death for sinners, wisdom and power to you? Or are you still asleep in the fantasy world of dreams and illusions where Jesus is unimportant, unexciting, unattractive? Can you say honestly this morning, "Christ crucified is true power and Christ crucified is true wisdom"?
Now, if you have honestly answered, Yes, to these two questions, then the rest of this message is gloriously true for you. And if you couldn't answer, Yes, then this message may be even more relevant, because it is the coming into your bedroom of Christ and the drawing near of his Spirit.
No One and Nothing Can Separate Us from Christ's Love
The main point I want us to see this morning is in verse 35. "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" The answer to that question is: No one and nothing. My aim this morning is to remind you and to awaken you afresh to the unshakable love that Christ has for you—you who answered yes to those two questions. Who shall separate you from the love of Christ? "Shall tribulation [or any pressure or trouble], distress [or any difficulty or crisis], persecution [or any opposition or ridicule], famine [or any suffering or scarcity], nakedness [or any assault or shame], peril [or any danger or threat], sword [or any injury or violence or death]?" Shall any of that separate you from the love of Christ? Paul answers, No, on the contrary, as verse 37 says, "But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us."
Not only can we not be separated from the love that Christ has for us, but that love is so powerfully for us, at all times, that it turns every circumstance into a triumph. "In all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through him who loved us." So my aim this morning is to remind you of this and show it to you, and pray with you that you will grasp it. And it will grasp you.
The Love of Christ: The Root of Our Love for One Another
The way this truth fits into the overall series on "The Greatest of These Is Love" is that again and again in the Bible the love of God for us is the root of our love for each other. The reality is that if we do not rest in the love of God for us, we will not be able to love each other. For example, Jesus said in John 13:34,
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.
His love for us is first, and ours is an echo of it. John 15:12–13,
This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.
His love for us is before and under our love for each other. And it is a deep, deep, unshakable Calvary love.
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.
All true love begins with this: God in Christ loved us and forgave us. Then he adopted us so that we are called his children. Then he lavished his ongoing love on us in the family. And now—and only now, on the basis of all that—he says, "Imitate me." Be imitators of God "as loved children." And mark this! Be an imitator of God—not as a peon admirer in the audience. Not as an insecure little kid ogling at a ball player's baggy shorts. Not as a beginning musician listening to the CD of her favorite, but unknown, maestro. But, "as loved children." "Be imitators of God as loved children." It's the love of God in Christ for us that draws out and empowers our imitating love for each other. It's because we love the way our Father is that makes us want to be that way.
Or again in 1 John 3:16,
We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.
I love to talk about radical Christianity—Christianity that lays down its life for others, and shows how radically secure we are in the love of God." But it all begins with him, not us. 1 John 4:10–11,
In this is love, not that we loved God [or each other], but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved [read: "loved ones"], if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
So that's the reason for today's focus: If God so loved us, we ought to love each other.
Discovering New Depths of Love for God and Love for Neighbor
And so we need to see that God did so love us—and does so love us. Because, unless I am badly mistaken, there is an immense longing in this congregation to discover new depths of love to each other and to visitors and to our most difficult to love associates. Would not the tears come to our eyes to read more letters like this one to me from February 26 from a pastor in Iowa?
Two weeks ago while on vacation I returned to Bethlehem. I was full of joy because of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. It was manifested in ways that I have never sensed before at Bethlehem. Since about 1988 and every year thereafter I've worshipped with you and sat under your ministry. While your preaching has always fed my soul, the congregation seemed unfriendly; we were never greeted or made welcome in all the times we visited and a chill surrounded the worship service.
But two Sunday's ago it was different. Both my wife and [I] had people come and welcome us. A fellow by the name of John Fast spent a great deal of time visiting with me and thanked me for coming. The worship service and worship team were God-glorifying with little focus upon man.
I can only imagine the darkness you've experienced this past year, yet I see God doing an even greater work through you and the church. I heard it in the preaching of the Word. I experienced in the God-centered worship. I enjoyed it in the radiance and warmth of the congregation. The providence of God has ordained a time of darkness for the sake of purification. The greater glory of God is now being revealed.
I receive that with a deep sense of the love of God rather than any sense of self-satisfaction. I do not doubt that there is plenty in me that still needs purification. And so I take it for myself first. It's the only way we will be what God is calling us to be—like in a marriage: if I constantly focus on what I think needs to be changed in my spouse rather than on the ways I can love her better, I will make both of us miserable for decades.
What is precious to me about this letter is the combination. He spoke of God-centeredness in our worship ("with little focus upon man") in the same breath with "the radiance and warmth of the congregation." This is our heart's cry, isn't it? "They will know you are Christians by your love." This is what I was yearning for in last week's message when I said we long for a fresh biblical combination and balance of the holiness of God and the love of God.
We Must First Be Gripped by Christ's Love for Us
The point today is that, if we are to grow in our love to one another, we must experience being loved by Christ with a deep, unshakable love—the love of Romans 8:35, "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" We must be wonderstruck that the love of Christ holds us. That he holds us firmly in the grip of his love. The profound wonder—that Christ, the Son of God loves us—must grip us and hold us and fill our minds. We must put it before our minds at the beginning of the day (he loves me), and then again at midmorning (he loves me), and then at noon (he loves me), and then at mid-afternoon (he loves me), and then at supper time (he loves me), and then before bed (he loves me).
And as we take the Scriptures like Romans 8:35, we must pray about this. This is what I will call the "Fasting Forty" to focus on as we give the new cards out next Sunday. To pray that this sense of being loved by Christ would fill us and overflow from us.
How Crucial This Was in Paul's Prayers
Let's turn to one of Paul's prayers to see how crucial this issue was for Paul as he prayed for the church: Ephesians 3:14–19. The reason I want you to look at this as we close is because I saw in a new way how this passage takes us into the meaning of Romans 8:35, "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?"
14 For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, 16 that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man; 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.
Notice what the goal of this prayer is in verse 18: "[That you] may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge." Paul wanted for the Ephesians what I want for us this morning: power to comprehend how high and deep and wide and long is the love of Christ. He admits it is beyond human comprehension. We will never get to the top or bottom or end of it in any direction. There will always be more of it to discover and enjoy (cf. Ephesians 2:7). But he wants us to prove the inexhaustibility of Christ's love by experience, not just say it as a doctrine.
But how does he mean for us to "be able [literally: be strong enough] to comprehend" this love? Do we stand outside it and look at it the way we would a building so that we can measure how tall and wide it is? No. Move backward into verse 17 for the answer: "That you, being rooted and grounded in love," may have power to comprehend the love of Christ. The word for "grounded" here is "rested on a foundation." So Paul uses two metaphors: one of a tree with roots, one with a building with a foundation.
He says that, to comprehend the love of Christ and prove the height and depth of it we should be rooted in it. That is, the roots of our lives should be sinking down ever more deeply into the love of Christ. That's where we got our life. And he said we should be founded on it. That is, the foundation of our lives should be spread out on the solid rock of the love of Christ for us.
Our Roots Never Get to the Bottom of Christ's Love
This is how we prove in experience that the depth and breadth of the love of Christ are endless. Our roots never get to the bottom of it and our broadening foundation never run out of rock to build on. I think these two images are meant to show us the same things as Romans 8:35, "Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ." The roots of our life are firmly held by the depths of Christ's love. And the foundation of our life is firmly supported by the rock of Christ's love. We cannot be plucked up or blown over. That is the point of Romans 8:35, "Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ."
God is calling us to new depths of love for each other and for those outside. If that is going to happen (and it is happening), something else must happen first (which is happening). Paul's prayer must be answered:
[May God grant that we], being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.
Would you join me, and make it a matter of earnest prayer that all of us grasp more and more what it is to be loved by Christ—nothing can separate us from his love. Then the power to love each other will flow freely.