God Strengthens Us by the Gospel
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith — to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.
Today we begin the last paragraph of the greatest letter ever written — Paul’s letter to the Romans. At least some of you will be asking the question: Are we almost finished with the book of Romans? Most of you were not here when we started the book on April 26, 1998, seven-and-a-half years ago. Many of you date your arrival at Bethlehem by the chapter of Romans in which you came. Now the end is drawing near. To remove all suspense and help you prepare for the transition, I will tell you the plan.
A Slow, Gradual Landing in Advent
This last paragraph (Romans 16:25–27) draws together so many crucial themes of the letter that it provides a very good way to come in for a slow, gradual landing. Our seven-year flight together will not end with a steep descent. It’s a big jet and doesn’t drop out of the sky like a Piper-Cub. My plan is to spend five weeks on these three verses, which means that I hope to complete the book of Romans on Sunday, December 24, the day before Christmas — Christmas Eve seems like a fitting climax. Would you pray with me that God would make these advent Sundays (starting next week) the most powerful season we have ever known in exalting Christ, and seeing people converted to faith and built up in him.
Doxologies Draw Attention to the Glory of God
The last three verses of the book of Romans are what we usually call a doxology. The word doxology comes from the Greek words doxa, which means glory, and logos, which means word. So a doxology is a word that ascribes glory to God. The conviction behind New Testament doxologies is that everything exists and everything happens to draw attention to the glory of God. That’s why doxologies tend to occur at climactic and final moments of preaching or writing. I join with Paul in saying that everything I have said up till now will, I pray, draw all attention to the glory of God.
“Everything exists and everything happens to draw attention to the glory of God.”
So Paul begins his closing doxology in verse 25 (Now to him . . .”), and as he writes that, he has in mind the final words of the doxology about ascribing glory to God, but he can’t bring himself to sign off so simply as, “Now to him be glory.” Instead, he inserts phrase after phrase about him, that is, God the Father, and about his gospel that he has been writing about for sixteen chapters. Then he comes back to the ascription of glory in verse 27, the last words of the book. So put the beginning and the ending together from the beginning of verse 25 and from verse 27: “Now unto him . . . to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.”
This isn’t the only place Paul used a doxology. There was one in Romans 11:36 at the climax of the first eleven chapters before Paul began to unfold the more immediate implications of what he had taught: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (See also Philippians 4:20 and Ephesians 3:20–21.)
And Paul wasn’t the only one who loved doxologies. Peter said in 1 Peter 4:11, “To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” John the apostle said in Revelation 1:5–6, “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” And Jude, the Lord’s brother, wrote the most famous doxology of all (Jude 24–25):
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.
So when you hear a doxology pronounced or sung, know that it is a biblical, apostolic form of speaking rooted in the all-important and all-embracing truth that everything exists to draw attention to the glory of God.
That is what we are dealing with in the last five weeks of Romans. It is very long for a doxology and very dense with truth about God and the gospel. You may be sure that as Paul ends what for him was the longest and greatest letter he had ever written, he would not use throw away words. Every word matters. These are his last words to the Romans. They could be his last words to you. I hope you will listen carefully and I hope you will come back in these final weeks of the year to see all five angles on this doxology.
God Uses the Gospel to Strengthen Believers
Today, I mainly want to focus on the statement that God strengthens his people according to his gospel. Verse 25: “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel.” Everything Paul says in verses 25 and 26 is an unpacking of the gospel which strengthens believers.
This gospel which strengthens is “the preaching of Jesus Christ” (verse 25b). Jesus is the central reality of the gospel. This gospel is “according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages” (verse 25c). That’s the mystery that the Gentiles — the nations — are full fellow citizens with Jewish believers by faith in Jesus (Ephesians 3:6). That good news “has now been disclosed” (verse 26a), and even though it was hidden in past ages, it is the very Old Testament “prophetic writings” (verse 26b) themselves that Paul uses to reveal the mystery to “all nations” (verse 26b). And all of this good news for the nations was “the command of the eternal God” and aims at “the obedience of faith” (verse 26c).
All of that is an unpacking of the gospel in verse 25 which God uses to strengthen believers so that they will indeed persevere in the obedience of faith and draw all attention to the glory of God.
So the focus today is on this amazing fact: at the end of this book, as Paul puts the words of his final doxology on his lips, what he chooses to ascribe to God is that God is able to strengthen you with his gospel. When he ends by calling all attention to the glory of God, he does so in a way that makes that glory shine more brightly in God’s strengthening you, his people who believe the gospel.
The God Who Strengthens to His Glory
Now there is something here so wonderful, I don’t want to pass over it too quickly lest you miss it. So let me say the obvious again and then draw out the less obvious. The obvious fact is that of all the things he could have said about what God does or has done that draws attention to his glory, of all the dozens of great acts of God and all the great abilities of God, he chooses to highlight one thing: “Now to him who is able to strengthen you . . . be glory forevermore.”
He does say that God is wise, and that God hid something for ages, and that he revealed something for the sake of the nations, and that he did all this by his eternal command. Yes. But the way Paul has set up this doxology, all of that is serving to support and explain this one main thing: God is able to strengthen you. “Now unto him who is able to strengthen you . . . be glory for evermore.”
Now that is the obvious fact. Here’s what is less obvious but crystal clear once someone draws it to our attention. Many kings in history and many dictators today intend to get glory. They want to be known as strong and rich and wise. And how have they done it? By keeping their citizens weak and poor and uneducated. An educated people is a threat to a dictator. A prosperous middle class is a threat to a dictator. A strong people is a threat to the strength of a dictator.
So what do they do? They secure their own power by keeping their people weak. They get their glory by standing on the backs of a broken people. Just look at the regime of Islom Karimov in Uzbekistan. And we could mention many others — little kings who keep their people weak so that they can be strong and rich.
The Glory of God in Gospel Strength
But now contrast the way Paul draws attention to the glory of God. If any king ever had the right to display all his glory by stepping on the backs of a rebellious people, it is God. But what does he do? He displays his glory by making his people strong. “Now unto him who is able to strengthen you . . . be glory forevermore.” God magnifies his glory by making you strong with his gospel. God feels no threat from your strength at all. In fact, the stronger you are in faith and hope and love through the gospel of Jesus Christ, the greater he appears. God does not secure his strength by keeping his people weak. He magnifies the glory of his strength by making his people strong. “Now unto him who is able to strengthen you . . . be glory.”
“God magnifies his glory by making you strong with his gospel.”
Therefore, when Paul makes the glory of God the ultimate goal of the gospel — when he closes his greatest of all letters by drawing attention to the supreme worth of the glory of God — this is not bad news for us. Unless we want to have that glory for ourselves. Why is this not bad news for us? Because our God draws attention to his glory by making his undeserving people strong. The greater the glory of God, the more resources for our strength. The more manifold and wonderful the glory of God, the more manifold and wonderful the source of our strength. “Now to him who is able to strengthen you . . . be glory forevermore.”
Strength in the Gospel
What kind of strength does Paul mean that God is able to give? Well, God can give whatever kind of strength he wants — “By my God I can leap over a wall” (Psalm 18:29). But here he means the same kind of strength that he referred to in Romans 1:11–12: “I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen [stērikthēnai, the same word as in Romans 16:25] you — that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine.” The substance of this strength is faith in Jesus Christ.
Strength for Women in the Gospel
It’s not a strength that the world knows or gives. Women, teenage girls, what do you think of when you think of being a strong woman? Or little girls, when you think of growing up to be a strong woman what do you dream? Getting this clear is important because God wants you to be strong, and both the Bible and experience tell you that in one sense you are the weaker vessel (1 Peter 3:7) — ninety-five percent of the adult males in the world are physically stronger than ninety-five percent of the adult females. When you dream about being a strong woman what should you dream?
The world will tell you three ways to pursue your strength: One is by being sexy, dressing sexy, acting sexy, because men are such suckers, you can get power over them that way. Another is by being assertive, forceful, aggressive, self-confident. And third, be smart and move through all the channels of influence into positions of power. None of those is the strength Paul is talking about when he says, “Now unto him who is able to strengthen you . . . .”
Paul has in mind the inner strength that Peter mentioned for women in 1 Peter 3:6 where Peter tells the women to be like Sarah and the holy women of old: “You are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.” And the kind of strength that Proverbs 31:25 is talking about when it says, “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.”
In other words, women, young girls, dream of being so confident in God, and who you are in God as the daughter of the king of the universe, and what he has done for you and promises to do for you and be for you in Jesus Christ, that you fear nothing but God and laugh at the time to come — no matter what it holds. Sexiness — I promise you will lose it — and the man you get with it is not the kind of man you want.
Assertiveness, you will alienate the very kind of people you want to be around. Halls of power, they are like grass: The wind passes over it and it is gone. But the strength that God gives through the gospel abides forever. “Now unto him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel . . . be glory forevermore.”
Strength for Men in the Gospel
Men, boys, what about you? What do you dream of when you dream of being strong? That you can someday hold an Altoids tin and look “curiously strong?” Or to be the best player in a sport? Or to be the most shrewd stockbroker and wield the power of money? Or to be educated and read Atlantic Monthly and listen to NPR and drop obscure names in cocktail conversations?
No. Only a fool wants fading power. Only a fool wants power that gives out just when you need it most. I’ll tell you the kind of power God is able to give you through the gospel. It’s the power to lead your wife and family in devotions; the power to say a simple word of truth when highly educated, secular, elitist complexity is all around you; the power to stand your ground and say no to a sinful behavior when everyone else is calling you weak; the power to press on against all obstacles in a cause of justice and mercy and truth when you feel that you have no more motivation.
Strength for All in the Gospel
God is able to strengthen all of you — men and women — with a kind of inner strength of soul through faith in Christ that makes you stronger in a wheelchair than ten thousand moral jellyfish drifting on two legs with the current of modern culture. What we want is the kind of strength that will be here when we are paralyzed and can only answer questions with our eyelids. And we know where it comes from: “Now to him who is able to strengthen you . . . be glory forevermore.”
We Never Outgrow Our Need for the Gospel
And one final crucial observation that we will be have been unfolding for seven years and will be unfolding for four more sermons from Romans and I pray every sermon till Jesus comes — God strengthens us through the gospel: “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel.”
“God strengthens us with the gospel to the day we die.”
The heart of the gospel is that Jesus Christ, the righteous one, died for our sins and rose again, eternally triumphant over all his enemies, so that there is now no condemnation, but everlasting joy, for those who trust him. You never, never, never outgrow your need for this gospel. You don’t begin the Christian life with this and then leave it behind and get stronger with something else. God strengthens us with the gospel to the day we die.
Gospel Strength over Cancer
I’ll give you one closing illustration from my own life — and many of you have greater stories to tell than I do because your strength has been tested more deeply. But I will remind you of what God did for me back in February when the cancer diagnosis came. God strengthened me with the gospel. You may recall the very verses he used. None were more important for me. First Thessalonians 5:9–10: “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.”
Therefore, everything in me says, and hopes to say when the final diagnosis comes, “Now to him who is able to strengthen me according to my gospel . . . be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.”
Our God has worked in history to defeat sin and Satan and hell and death. He did this through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Embrace this gospel as the greatest treasure of your life. God will magnify his glory in making you strong.