Greatest Book, Greatest Chapter, Greatest Joy

Plenary 5 — 2014 National Conference

Look at the Book: Reading the Bible for Yourself


Greatest Book, Greatest Chapter, Greatest Joy. The greatest book is the Bible — and we saw why on Friday night. The main reason, we argued, is that the Bible is only book without which God’s ultimate purpose for the universe would fail — that is, the purpose to be supremely glorified in the white-hot intensity of the everlasting joy of his redeemed people in himself. The greatest chapter in this greatest book is Romans 8, and we will see why in this message. The greatest joy is seeing, savoring, sharing in, and showing the glory of God. That will bring us to the end.

First, why is Romans 8 the greatest chapter in the Bible?

Romans chapter eight is so dense and so constant with good news — good news that is so great and so glorious and so vastly superior to all the good news in this world — whether health good news, or family good news, or church good news, or job good news, or political good news, or international good news, or financial good news — so vastly superior to all earthly good news and so relentless, that you can scarcely feel the full force of it until you take virtually every verse and restate it as the good news that it is.

That’s what I would like to do for you and with you now. I suggest that you close your Bible and just listen — that your mind at this moment (after all our analytical efforts) be in an attitude of hungry readiness to hear the Lord himself speak kindly and deeply and powerfully to your soul. I have tried to restate these truths as if God himself were speaking them to you—his children.

  • 8:1 In Christ, you are free from eternal condemnation.
  • 8:2 You are free from the damning curse and power of sin.
  • 8:3 I executed the penalty for your sin in the crucified flesh of my Son.
  • 8:4 The Holy Spirit is fulfilling in you the demands of my law summed up in love.
  • 8:6 The power of the Holy Spirit in your soul gives life and peace.
  • 8:7–8 Apart from the Holy Spirit, you are in bondage to the flesh and cannot please me.
  • 8:9 But you are not in the flesh. My Spirit is in you, and you are the possession of my son Jesus Christ.
  • 8:10–11 My Spirit in you will one day give life to your mortal bodies in the resurrection.
  • 8:12 Your only debt in life is to live by the power of the Holy Spirit.
  • 8:13 That power is the only means by which you can kill your sin.
  • 8:14 All who are thus led by my Spirit to kill sin show that they are my sons.
  • 8:15 My indwelling Spirit is the spirit of adoption, wakening the cry from your heart, “Abba Father.”
  • 8:16 This is my witness with your spirit that you are my children.
  • 8:17 As my children, you are my heirs and will share my glory after a life of groaning with me in this fallen world.
  • 8:18 But that groaning is not worth comparing to the glory that you will see and share.
  • 8:19 The whole broken creation waits to receive its glorification when you receive your glorification. Yours will be hers, not the other way around.
  • 8:20 I subjected the creation to its present futility with a hope-filled purpose.
  • 8:21 One day, this entire creation will attain its own freedom and glory after and from and for my glorious children.
  • 8:22 It is as if the whole creation were heaving with the labors of immanent birth.
  • 8:23 Even the Spirit-indwelt followers of my Son groan in your aging, disease-ridden bodies with these same hopeful birth pangs, as you await the fullness of the privileges of your adoption, the resurrection of your glorified bodies.
  • 8:24–25 Since you are saved — not fully already but only in hope — you wait with patience through all of your sufferings.
  • 8:26 When you don’t know how to pray in your sufferings, my Spirit prays for you through your very groanings.
  • 8:27 I never mistake my Spirit’s meaning, but respond always for your good.
  • 8:28 But one thing you do know: I work everything for the good of those who love me and are called according to my purpose.
  • 8:29 From eternity I took note of you, acknowledged you, chose you, and destined you infallibly to magnify my Son by becoming like him as the great firstborn.
  • 8:30 I forged in eternity the unbreakable links of the chain: predestined, called, justified, glorified so that at no point is any of my elect ever lost.
  • 8:31 Manifestly then, I am for you! No one can successfully oppose us.
  • 8:32 I gave my own Son to save you. And so, with the hardest act behind me, nothing can stop me from giving you everything you need to enjoy me forever.
  • 8:33 When I, the judge of the universe, count you righteous, and acquit you in the court of the universe, no charge, from any adversary, can stick.
  • 8:34 To secure this vindication, Christ Jesus died, rose, reigns, and intercedes for you before me.
  • 8:35 Therefore nothing can separate you from the love of Christ — not tribulation or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword.
  • 8:36 You may be slaughtered like sheep — indeed somewhere in this world you are always being killed.
  • 8:37 But no. Even in your slaughter — or any other demise — your loss becomes your gain, and your enemies become your servants.
  • 8:38–39 Therefore you may be sure — you should be sure, how can you not be sure — that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate [you] from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Some of you are young and some are older. My dream for this conference is that whether old or young, from this time forward, Romans 8 would be, in your mind and heart, the Great Eight. That some of you would look back in fifty years, when many of us are long gone — if the Lord Jesus has not yet come — and say,

In my 20s I went to a conference once. And the whole thing was focused on Romans 8. I had never seen so much attention paid to a single chapter of the Bible. And God met me in an unusual way in it. And I resolved to memorize it. And to this, fifty years later, it has been my daily companion. I can still recite it. It has saved me a thousand times from despair and sin. I taught it to my children, and my grandchildren. What a legacy. I do believe it is the greatest chapter in the Bible.

Is it really? In one sense, it doesn’t matter. There are many very great chapters in the Bible. Every word from the mouth of God is a great word because he is great. But within relentless greatness, there is greater and greatest. I suppose there are different chapters that could compete because there are different criteria of measurement we would use. But if you say, the Great Eight is the greatest, I would agree with you. And here is what I would mean: seven reasons for calling the greatest.

  1. There is no other chapter that more deeply or fully deals with the brokenness of the physical universe, and how it got that way, and what will become of it.

  2. There is no chapter that expresses with more clarity or power the infallible and unbreakable linkages in our salvation from predestination to glorification.

  3. There is no other chapter that combines the intercession of the Holy Spirit for us with the intercession of the Son for us in the service of the never-failing love of God the Father for us.

  4. There is no chapter that more explicitly and repeatedly juxtaposes the necessary horrors of our suffering with the utterly assured grandeur of our glory — that moves with such force through suffering to a crescendo of unshakeable hope in the love of God.

  5. There is no chapter that deals more directly and tenderly with our struggle to know that we are the children of God, opening to us the witness of the Holy Spirit.

  6. There is no chapter with a more sustained litany of privileges, securities and assurances to hold us firmly in the keeping love of God.

  7. There is no other chapter in which so many glorious truths are marshaled to help us obey only one implied command: Live by the Spirit not the flesh.

With that last observation we turn to the last part of this message: greatest joy. “Greatest Book, Greatest Chapter, Greatest Joy.” The link between joy and this chapter is the link between joy and the present power of the Holy Spirit and future hope for the glory of God. So the point I will try to make is that because of the present work of the Holy Spirit in us, and because of the hope of the glory of God before us, as they are laid out in Romans 8, this chapter warrants and awakens the greatest and longest joy possible or conceivable in the human soul.

I say that even though the word joy and the word rejoice does not occur in Romans 8 at all. Neither does the word faith or trust or believe. Nor are there any grammatical imperatives in Romans 8, that is, no direct commands. And I am going to argue that the absence of the word joy and the absence of the word believe and the absence of any imperatives addressed to our will is not a hindrance to the power of this chapter to waken the greatest joy, but is, in fact, one of the reasons it does.

It is good that the Bible commands us to be happy in God. Over and over the Bible says, “Rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 4:1); “Rejoice in hope” (Romans 12:12); “Let the nations be glad” (Psalm 67:4); “Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous” (Psalm 32:11). It is a wonderful thing to know that our God is so committed to our seeing and savoring his greatness that he commands it.

But we all know that none of us rejoices merely because we are told to. Emotions don’t work that way. Telling a sad person to be happy does not make them happy. Well, how do emotions work? They work like this. If you are sorrowful because you just got the news that your best friend or spouse or child was killed in a car accident, and I come to you and say, “Don’t be sad,” this will not take away your sadness. But what if I say, “Don’t be sad. It was a mistake; your friend is not dead. She’s in the hospital, and she is going to be fine. I just saw her,” then your emotions change. They change. Why do they change? They change because of facts. Facts. Facts. Truth. Truth. Truth changes emotions. Facts change emotions.

Of course, not all facts change emotions. If I said, “I saw the accident. I’m sure she died instantly,” that’s a fact, but that wouldn’t change many emotions. Not all facts change emotions. But great and glorious facts do, and hope-filled facts do.

Unless we don’t believe them. The facts might be true. They might be great. But if we don’t believe them, they won’t change our emotions. If I say, “It was a mistake; your friend is not dead. She’s in the hospital, and she is going to be fine. I just saw her,” and you say, “You’re just saying that to make me feel better. The police just told me she’s dead.” If you don’t believe the facts nothing will change.

The point is this, Romans eight is pervasively laden with the greatest and most glorious, joy-awakening facts in the universe, but not with commands to rejoice. And that is no hindrance to its power to awaken joy because it's the facts not the commands that are decisive.

No, that’s not quite right. Belief in the facts is decisive. Will we be able to see the glory of the facts and will we believe them — that is, will we receive them into our souls, savoring them as sweet and precious beyond reckoning? That’s the decisive question about the greatest joy.

But no that’s not quite right either. Because this chapter makes plain that in my flesh, I cannot see or savor or receive these glorious facts. Something deeper than my faith is decisive. And that’s why the Holy Spirit is so prominent in this chapter. What if you don’t see the facts of Romans 8 as beautiful and precious beyond measure? What if you don’t savor them as sweet, and feel joy when you bring them to mind? What if you hear that your friend is alive in the hospital, and it doesn’t move you? No joy rises. The answer is: the mind of the flesh is death — there is spiritual deadness, or blindness, or callousness to the glory and truth of the facts.

And that is why the Holy Spirit is decisive — why his working is absolutely necessary for there to be joy in response to the facts of Romans 8. There must be facts. They must be true and glorious. And we must see them and believe them and receive them, embrace them as glorious.

The word “Spirit” refers to the Holy Spirit 30 times in the book of Romans. Twenty of those are in Romans 8. And 15 of those 20 are in the first 16 verses. In other words, the Holy Spirit is a very prominent reality in Romans 8 and the dominant reality in the first 16 verses.

Why is that? Why is the chapter with the most sustained description of joy-awakening, hope-giving facts also the chapter that begins with the greatest focus on the Holy Spirit in all the Bible?

Here are three clues from the book of Romans — three clues for why maximum exposure to hope-giving, glory-laden facts is combined in one chapter with maximum exposure to the work of the Holy Spirit.

Clue #1. Romans 5:5. “Hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” In other words, the real emotion of hope, is awakened and sustained by the Holy-Spirit-given sense of being loved by God. The Holy Spirit pours the love of God into our hearts. That means we feel it. We experience. We sense ourselves possessed by the love of God. That is the work of the Spirit.

Romans 8 reaches its crescendo with the glorious fact: “Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38–39). But what do you do if that does not move you?

You plead for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Because Romans 5:5 says, “God’s love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” Spectacular facts become sweet experiences by the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit. Without him, the hope-giving, joy-awakening facts of Romans 8 lie dead.

Clue #2. Romans 14:17. “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The least we can say from this amazing statement is that joy is the mark of the subjects of God’s rule and it comes about “in the Holy Spirit.” Joy in God is not native to fallen people. It is foreign, alien. But in the Spirit, it is native — natural. This is the native air we breathe in the Spirit. Because the Spirit pours the love of God into our hearts. The Spirit removes the blindness to the glory of the facts.

Clue #3. Romans 15:13. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” The God of hope fills with joy. He does it through our believing. And thus we experience the power of the Holy Spirit filling us with hope and joy. So here are the pieces of this wonder-filled verse: The God of hope. The awakening of faith in glorious facts. The abounding of hope. And the wonderful sway of peace and joy.

The point of these three clues is this: the reason that the chapter with the most sustained description of joy-awakening, hope-giving facts is also the chapter that begins with the greatest focus on the Holy Spirit, is that without the work of the Holy Spirit we could not see or savor the glory of the Himalayan magnitude of these facts. But the greatest joy in the greatest chapter in the greatest book is in fact to see and savor and share in and show the glory of God.

Without the Holy Spirit none of these — seeing, savoring, sharing in, showing the glory of God — would happen. But by his awakening, life-giving power they would. The greatest joy will happen in the chapter with no reference to joy, and no commands. Three of these — seeing, savoring, sharing in — are relatively clear. The fourth, showing, may not be.

Verse 18: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” In Romans 5:2 Paul says, “We rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” This is the object of our greatest joy. The glory of God. The panorama of the beauty of all his perfections. To see it and savor it as more precious than what we lost through suffering. That’s clear.

And look at verse 17: “If we are children of God, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” Glorified with him. Not just seeing and savoring the beauty of his perfections, but sharing in them. Being changed by them. As verse 29 says, “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” Who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4). The radiance of the glory of God (Hebrews 1:3). As Jesus said in Matthew 13:53, “The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

So the greatest joy is not just to see the glory, which will be all-satisfying to our physical and spiritual sight, but we will be changed by the glory we see into the likeness of the glory. John the apostle said it: “When he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). And even now, in measure, Paul says it is happening: “Beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

This will not just be the joy of our seeing, but of being. The child of God does not just want to see his Father, but be like his Father. The child of God does not just want to see perfect holiness. He wants to be holy as his Father is holy. We don’t just admire the sinless purity of God. We ache to be done with our own sinning forever. We want to share in the glory of God. Be gloriously holy and full of purity and love and righteousness and wisdom.

And Paul says that, by the power of the precious Holy Spirit, we will.

Why do we want this? In the end, it’s because our glorified, sinless joy in God himself will be itself the radiance of his glory in us (see 2 Thessalonians 1:12). God will be most fully glorified in us when we are most gloriously, sinlessly, radiantly satisfied in him in the age to come.

But there is one more step into the greatest joy in the greatest chapter in the greatest book. In addition to seeing the glory of God, and in addition to savoring the glory of God, and in addition to sharing in the glory of God, there is finally a kind of showing the glory of God in Romans 8 in the age to come beyond anything we have done here (Matthew 5:16). To our amazement, Romans 8:21 shows that our sharing in the glory of God — our being glorified with God — will be extended into, and expressed through, the glorification of the material universe. That glory will be an extension of our glory — a showing of our glory which is God’s glory.

Paul says in verse 21 that the renovation of the material universe will be an outworking of the glorification of the children of God. Verse 21: “The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

This is not what we might have expected. What we might have expected is that God’s purpose is to restore the whole universe to its original, unfallen glory, free from all corruption, so that it declares the glory of God the way it was created to do, and then we as part of that creation share in its new redeemed glory. But that’s not what it says.

What it says is that the children of God are glorified first, and the universe is made a participant in that. Not the other way around. Read it again: “The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption [literally from the Greek] into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” The material universe is brought into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

In other words, at the beginning, when God made the world, the creation was designed to tell the glory of God. Psalm 19:1: “The heavens are telling the glory of God” — his power, his deity, his wisdom, his beneficence, and his beauty (Romans 1:20).

But that is not the final destiny of the universe. In the end, when the great history of redemption is complete, and the Son of God has entered this creation as Jesus Christ, and has done his great saving work in this universe, and united human nature to himself forever, and the blood-bought redeemed from every race and all the peoples of the world are gathered to him, and glorified into the dazzling likeness of the Son of God, then the whole material universe—the vast stretches of the galaxies and all space and time — will be drawn into that freedom, that redemption, that purpose, that glory.

Which means that the universe will not simply declare the glory of God, but the glory of Jesus Christ the Redeemer, and the glory of all his great redeeming work in freeing fallen sinners to be the very children of God. This is what the universe was ultimately created to do and to be.

The greatest joy possible, and the greatest joy conceivable (as revealed in the greatest chapter in the greatest book in the world), is not only seeing the glory of God, and not only savoring the glory of God, and not only sharing in the glory of God, but finally the never-ending showing of the glory of God as our own glorification is extended and expanded into the glorification of the universe as the glory of God. And thus the vast light years of reality will finally provide, by its radiance of the freedom of the glory of the blood-bought children of God, who are conformed to the image of the Son, some fitting display of the worth and beauty of the person and work of Jesus Christ.

So the greatest chapter in the greatest book in the world may not mention joy or have any commands in it. Only hope-giving, joy-awakening facts. And the power of the Holy Spirit. And by his power in us those Himalayan facts change everything. We see, we savor, we share in, and one day we will show the glory of God through all creation. And that will be the greatest joy.