The Benevolent Basis of Christian Resolve

Rezolution Conference | Johannesburg, South Africa

It’s a great joy and honor to be with you over this weekend at this Resolution Conference and also to have the opportunity to minister with brother John Piper. I was saying at the pastor’s conference that we ministered together some 12 years ago, and I thought that would be it. I accept the fellowship through his books, but now to have had this invitation, I have felt greatly honored.

The Resolutions of Jonathan Edwards

Approximately 30 years ago, I sensed God’s call to the ministry. I was doing my first year at university and at that stage the pictures that were coming to my mind as I was thinking about ministry were pictures of a congregation in rural Zambia, ministering to people who’ve hardly made progress in our Western education system. But that’s what drew me. And the day I said to the Lord, “Yes Lord, I want to serve you in this way,” that’s what I was responding to. It certainly was not a picture of a conference like this in the heart of Johannesburg, at the Sandton Convention Center, definitely not. So as I stand before you ministering, I’m asking the question, “Lord, what else do You have ahead?”

And yet, when one thinks of all these privileges, the ultimate privilege of all, as Jesus said to his disciples, is having your name written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. And in that sense, if you are a child of God here today, we are in the same position, and we ought to be rejoicing together at God’s infinite goodness to us.

This conference that we are going through this weekend, springs from resolutions that were made by Jonathan Edwards as a young adult, and that I trust has been brought to our minds again and again. We ought to ask ourselves the question, firstly, what is it that prevented the resolutions of Edwards from being mere legalism? You and I will know that many times people bind themselves to all kinds of personal vows and commitments, and in the end, they lose the joy of the Christian faith. It becomes nothing more than self-inflicted penance. What is it that would’ve made Edwards’s resolutions different?

Well, let’s put it this way. What inspiration would’ve moved him not only to make, but also to keep such resolutions? Again, we’re all familiar with the phenomena of New Year resolutions, and oftentimes by the end of January we know we’ve broken them all. What is it that would’ve made a young man like Jonathan Edwards not only to make such resolutions, but indeed to keep them?

May I suggest to you that it is something of the heart of what we find in Romans 12:1, and therefore in the two sessions that I have to share with you, I want to focus on this text, Romans 12:1. The Bible says there:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God — this is your true and proper worship (Romans 12:1, all Scripture references are taken from the NIV).

Commitment Rooted in the Mercy of God

Those of you who are familiar with the book of Romans will know that apart from the fact that it is a great and glorious book, every so often the apostle Paul reaches a point of a fresh departure. For instance, when you get to Romans 5, at the very beginning, you can’t help but sense that he has changed gears here. He’s moved from the context of people being told about the free justification given by God through the death of his Son, and he is moving into the implications of all that in the immediate experience of the Christian. He’s dealing with something of being in a state of grace. And as you enter Romans 9, again, you sense that Paul is shifting gears. He’s moving now into a context where he’s dealing with some very difficult issues, issues of predestination and election, issues of Jew versus Gentile and Gentile versus Jew, and so on. He’s speaking about the mind of God and the outworking of his purposes across history.

And there’s no doubt that as you come into Romans 12, again, you sense that Paul is shifting gears. But this time the shifting of gear seems to be a point of reflection. As we notice here, he’s basically saying, “I have expounded to you all the various strands of the mercy of God upon sinners, and in the light of what you have just heard, what kind of life ought you to live?” And no doubt about it, Paul is demanding a commitment in the light of what he has said. Or putting it a little differently, he is demanding that we make a resolution.

What I want us to do is to reflect, concerning what it is that he has indeed laid out before the Christians in Rome. Because it is in appreciating this that we too are prepared to enter into something of the experience of Jonathan Edwards in making personal commitments and personal resolutions, even if all our friends and neighbors and all are family — and not only natural, but also spiritual — go the other way and turn their backs against God, you will say to yourself, “I will still continue by the grace of Almighty God.” What is the basis for such a resolution?

And clearly it lies in those words, “Brothers, in view of God’s mercy.” In view of God’s mercy. Now clearly you begin to speak about the subject of mercy when there is some misery. We’ll only speak of mercy when somebody is in a state of suffering and misery, or in that position where misery and suffering is imminent. How does the apostle Paul bring that out? Because Brethren, we are going to make resolutions that are not legalistic, but such as will stand the test of time, if we keep in mind where the grace of God has found us, and to picture everything in the words of the apostle Paul, the grace of God has found us under the wrath of God.

Rejoicing in the Gospel of Grace

Turn with me quickly to Romans, and chapter one. And if I hurry on, it’s because time is certainly not on my side. In Romans 1:16, the apostle Paul rejoices in the gospel. He says:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.

Now when he says, “I’m not ashamed,” he really means, “I rejoice in the gospel. I’m proud of the gospel. I glory in the gospel.” Now why does he do so? Well, he tells us in Romans 1:18:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people . . .

That’s where we need to begin. You see, we don’t speak about the gospel until people are made to appreciate the pitch black, midnight, starless sky, that is the backdrop of this good news. And it is the fact that this thrice holy God is one that hates sin with perfect hatred, and indeed must punish sinners. And that’s what Paul is dealing with here. It’s not just pointing to the hell that awaits sinners, he begins with God’s revealed will in the now. And the reason why God’s wrath is being revealed this way, he says, is that “it is against all godlessness.”

In other words, here is a God who has created the entire universe in such a way that anyone with eyes to see, anyone with ears to hear would fall down, prostrating himself in adoring wonder at this great Creator — the majesty of his being, the power of his might. He has revealed something of his divine nature in everything, and yet look at humanity. What’s happening? It’s turning its back on such a glorious being, and instead making stars out of one another — whether you call them music stars, or film stars, or sports stars is beside the point.

But you are making stars of one another, instead of glorying in this great God. And the apostle Paul says, particularly about the Gentile world here, that in response, God has given them over. Three times in this passage, in Romans 1, you see it. In Romans 1:24 it says, “Therefore God gave them over.” In Romans 1:26, he says, “Because of this, God gave them over.” And in Romans 1:28, “Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over . . .”

And when you read the ugly list of the wickedness that is there, you begin to see why, as a human race, we are in the mess we are in today. God is angry with us. God is not an old grandfather who has these grandchildren with hands that are messed up, jumping on his lap, dirtying his glorious suit, and he’s just laughing at it, saying, “Look at these grandchildren.” He is the King of kings. He is the Lord of lords. He is the governor of history. He is jealous about his own glory. Anyone who steals from that glory must face the inevitable consequences, and that’s what we are seeing in the world today.

All Under Sin

And then Paul imagines the Jews saying, “Well done, Paul. Tell them.” And Paul turns and says, “No, you are in exactly the same situation. You have an outward form of religion, but your hearts, your inner beings, are full of dead men’s bones. You are dead.”

I don’t have the time to deal with the whole argument here, but quickly as we come to Romans 3:9, Paul concludes this section. And this is what he says:

What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin.

There’s no exception. We are all under the power of sin. We are all under the guilt of sin, and the consequence of all that is an inevitable hell. He puts it this way, after all these quotations, in Romans 3:19:

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.

In other words, if you take the gospel out of the picture, if you take Christ out of the picture, and we stand as we are, inheriting our lot from our first parent, Adam, including our own record through our lives, and we stand before Almighty God on the day of judgment, the lake of fire must be our place. And if you have never come to that point in your life where you have faced this reality, to the point of causing you to tremble, you don’t know the good news of Christ. Indeed, speaking about making resolutions, you must be a complete stranger to such situations.

But if you can say with a hymn writer, “By God’s word at last my sin I learned; then I trembled at the law I had spurned, until my guilty soul imploring turned to Calvary,” then you are ready for mercy, for the goodness of God to ravish your soul. You are ready for Romans 3:21 which says:

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known . . .

And that’s the beginning of the playing out of this glorious mercy of God that the apostle Paul rolls before our eyes, way up to Romans 11. So let me quickly say, we need that background. The gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is not a small appendage to our lives; it is the difference between this pitch black darkness that I’ve spoken about and the light of the sun in its noonday strength. It is one or the other.

Those of us who have felt the tremor of the wrath of God can therefore come now to look at his mercy, his goodness, and his grace in the salvation that he offers. Again, time is not with me, but please hang onto your hearts, because we are about to fly through these chapters.

Gethsamane’s Cup and Our Salvation

First of all, Paul begins climbing this mountain of God’s love with the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the justification that flows freely from it, and then also, with the positional fruit of our union with Christ.

Our brother John yesterday spent some time with us in Romans 3:22–26. I’m glad that was in my text, brother. Otherwise, I would’ve suffered the whole evening trying to change the passage. But the point was well-made. God did not send a fellow human being to engage in the work of redemption. He did not send an angel to do so, as blameless as the angels of God might be. It was the second person of the glorious Trinity. God the Son put on human flesh, suffered the animosity of fellow human beings, but maintained his uprightness. Indeed, he was tempted in every way just as you and I are until finally, knowing that the purpose for which he came was to pay the price for sinners, he spoke to his disciples and made it abundantly clear that the Son of Man came for this purpose: to be handed over to the Gentiles by the Jewish leaders, to suffer, to be scourged, and finally to be crucified, to drink in the full cup of God’s wrath on our behalf.

Friends, if you want to pause and think about the mercy of God, go into Gethsemane, and listen to Jesus Christ pleading with the Father, “If it be thy will, take this cup away from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” Three times over he prays that Why? He knew what it meant to drink in the full cup of God’s wrath. He knew. Indeed the full frame of his being was coming apart at the thought of what he was about to undergo. The Father had to send an angel from heaven to strengthen him for that last mile of the way, as his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground. Finally, in the midst of intense physical suffering, he was hung there. Men laughed at him, scoffed at him, at his weak frame, in nakedness and shame, having been scourged to the point where he was too weak to even carry that beam on top of that hill called Golgotha.

But that wasn’t the worst. It was when God the Father took the sword out of his sheath, not because his Son had done anything wrong. No, he was still God’s only Son in whom he was well pleased. But because he had transferred our guilt to his Son, to God the Son, the Creator of the universe, the one who at the click of his finger could create a new humanity, and he pierced him with that sword, and Christ identified with us as sinners. And the Son cried, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani,” which means, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

For me, for you? Who have sinned so much against him? Mere creatures of dust, creation that had come from his own hand? What mercy can there ever be like this? That’s what Paul is talking about here — this full and free salvation through the blood of God’s Son, through his death. Should you who deserved hell have God going through this for you? The apostle Paul shows that Jesus didn’t only die, but he rose again from the dead, and that our salvation is the fruit of union with him.

United to Christ in His Death and Resurrection

When we come to him in repentance and faith and are united to him, that which he went through in his death, burial, and resurrection is credited to us, and hence the move from being under the wrath of God to being under the grace of God. From being in a position where God is determined to frustrate us, to bring us to an ignoble end, to a new position where he’s equally committed to bless us, to bring us to a glorious end — freely! Just as in Adam, we were brought to death by the act of one man, now we are brought to life through the act of this one man. It is all ours, freely, in all its measure from what Jesus Christ has done. Now if that doesn’t blow your mind, I don’t know what will. Often when I think about that, I close my Bible, and go for a walk. It’s too much. It’s too much to drink in.

He goes on to deal with the reality of what the Puritans would call “remaining sin,” by showing us the progressive, sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of all true believers in Romans 7, where the cry is, and Romans 8, where the answer is. And ultimately, what Paul says is found in Romans 8:3. Let me begin with verse one, with that glorious triumphant nod:

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:1–4).

You see, the glorious truth of this mercy of God is that it is tailor-made for sinners like you and me. God fills us with his Spirit, and it is the Spirit of the living God who energizes us to live a life that would otherwise be completely impossible. He is the one, as he works in our souls, who brings to birth those affections for the Divine Being. It’s he who motivates us to will and to do according to his good pleasure. It’s he who works within us to cause us to say no to all ungodliness and worldly passions in an ever-increasing way. He is the one who brings out that glory that has begun within us through this great salvation. What a glorious chapter Romans 8 is. It’s probably the greatest chapter in the whole Bible.

God’s Electing Love

Paul doesn’t end there. He reaches the pinnacle of the mountain with the electing love of God the Father in Romans 9–11. In a sense, he’s already dealt with it, from Romans 8:28, when he says:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined . . .

In a loving way, prior to their actual experience of him, he predestined, so that they might be conformed to his image. And the end of it all is that he also glorifies. That’s all he’s really taking up in Romans 9; that it is not so much your will as his will that brings you to salvation. It is his will that finally brings you into heaven. To borrow his own words from Romans 9:16, “It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”

It’s not because of my cleverness and it’s not because of my earth lineage through my parents; it’s because of him, him alone, that I’m a Christian today. It’s because of him and his infinite, eternal love for me that I’ll get to heaven. When you pause here, you realize you have reached the height of this mountain. God, before creation dawned, before he threw these planets into the skies, thought about me with all the sin that lay ahead of my life from my birth and he chose me, that I would be his. He sent his Son to die for me, sent his Spirit to pursue me, to hunt me down through all the hiding places of life, until he finally caught up with me, and brought me to the Father. Isaac Watts says:

How sweet and awful is the place with Christ within the doors, while everlasting love displays the choicest of her stores.

Here all the mercy of our God With vast compassion rolls; And peace and pardon through His blood, Is food for ransomed souls.

While all our hearts in prayer and song Join to admire the feast, Each wonders now with thankful tongue, "Lord, why am I a guest?”

How have I found myself here? How? I know myself. I know how sinful and stubborn my own heart is. and the answer comes echoing back:

Twas the same love that spread the feast That sweetly forced us in Else we had still refused to taste, And perished in our sin.

It was God’s electing love — mercy, mercy, mercy.

Greater Than the Payment of a Debt

Let me change the picture a little, because my background is not that of mountain climbing. You start with digging copper from the ground. Paul began the digging with that which was most visible, Jesus of Nazareth hanging on a cross, bringing an interpretation on that cross that brings peace and assurance to our own heart. He digs deeper, and goes to the hidden work of God’s Spirit in our hearts, to assure us that though the battle continues, dear friends, victory is certain. It’s a matter of time. You and I, if we’re true children of God, will stand before Almighty God one day as victors, not because of anything about us, but because his Spirit dwells within us.

And finally, the richest ore is found in the bowels of the earth, in that eternity before time began, and that’s where he takes us and brings out God’s sovereign electing love. Here is the priceless jewel that angels admire. Here it is. It’s all yours. It speaks of infinite, divine mercy. Take it and run with it for the rest of your life. May it ravish your soul in the most difficult of times. You can think, “My Father loves me. He’s loved me with an everlasting love, and one day I will behold him, face to face.” It is this kind of background that makes a man take out his pen and say, “Such love demands something back.”

Love alone is an appropriate response to love. But that’s not all. As glorious as this may sound, listen to this. If we are going to make resolutions that are not legalistic, and that will stand the test of time, we need to be mindful of the great privilege we are destined for, the infinite glory of God. You see, it’s one thing for somebody to buy you out of a terrible debt; it’s another when you look at this check, and say, “Excuse me, actually this is much more than I owe. This must be a mistake.” And he says, “No, it’s not a mistake. It’s yours. It ensures for you what lies ahead.” Friends, it’s not simply an issue of having escaped hell; it is the fact that God is bringing us into a state of participation in a glory that belongs to him alone.

You and I will shine brighter than the sun in its noon-day strength. This gospel is about God and his glory. And then remember, as our brother has been doing so well, it is an invitation for us to participate in and enjoy that.

The Hope of the Glory of God

Very quickly, in Romans 1, look at the way Paul introduces the gospel. He calls it “the gospel of God.” He says:

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God . . .

He goes through some details of his gospel about God’s Son, but listen to Romans 1:5:

Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake.

It has to do with Him. Remember we heard about it earlier. This is why Jesus died to satisfy and publicly show God’s righteousness, so that there is no apparent schism in the person of God; that his righteousness, his faithfulness, his justice, his holiness together with his goodness, his love, his mercy, and his grace would all come together in a beautiful tapestry on the cross.

And that’s the reason why when we come to Romans 5 and the Apostle, Paul speaks about us now being in a state of grace, what do we rejoice in? Let’s quickly go to Romans 5:1–2:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.

We’re not just rejoicing in having escaped hell, as wonderful as that might be; we are rejoicing in that which awaits us — something of the eye-blinding magnificence that makes up the majesty of God. Indeed, it’s really a rejoicing in God himself as he says in Romans 5:11:

Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

As he goes on to say in Romans 8, that’s why the Holy Spirit dwells in us. That’s what he is doing. He is making us partakers of God’s glory. Romans 8:17 says:

Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

You almost feel like saying, “It’s not right.” It’s like the prodigal son. You want to say to the Father, “Dad, come on. It’ll be enough for you to treat me like one of your hired servants. It would be a great privilege if you said to me, ‘Go into that corner. I don’t want to hear you cough or sneeze for eternity.’ That would be enough. But you say, ‘Come bring the best robe. Put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Man, bring the fattened calf, kill it. Let’s celebrate. This is my son. Come on. He’s coming with me into the inner chamber, the place that matters the most.’ That’s too much, I can’t take it in anymore.” Do you sense that? Do you recognize how privileged you are?

The Source of True Godliness

The apostle Paul ends this section in Romans 11 with a doxology:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!

“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
     Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
     that God should repay them?”

For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.

That is true godliness, the very godliness that the world is completely bereft of. And yet, God receiving the glory alone, invites us, and says, “Come with me and be a partaker of something of that glory.” What mercy? And Paul is saying here, “In view of such mercy, do something.” And Jonathan Edwards pulls out his pen and says, “Resolved. I can’t just go home the same in the light of such stupendous facts, immense facts. I am resolved that I will do whatever I think to be most to God’s glory and my own good, profit, and pleasure in the whole of my life.”

That’s his first resolution. And friends, it is these truths that have produced pioneer missionaries and martyrs. It is these truths, when they are embedded in human souls, that make human beings become unstoppable for God, his honor, and his glory. Such love, such infinite love, such a glorious salvation, such glory itself into which my soul is being drawn, makes me willing not only to live, but also to die for his name’s sake.

And one of the reasons why so many Christians today are nothing more than what I call “chocolate Christians” is because these truths are hidden from them. You hear the false fear that if we teach people something of the height and depth and length and breadth of the love of God in Christ Jesus for them, as displayed in this book, without adding so many if-clauses and then-clauses and so many give-but-take-with-the-other-hand kind of clauses, they will go after licentiousness and sin. That’s not true to history. It isn’t. Love responds to love. It does.

Give God’s children the full dose of God’s grace, and you’ll be producing an unstoppable army that will gladly give their lives for Christ. And oh, what a difference it would make across South Africa. What a difference it would make across Southern Africa. If all of us who are in this place genuinely, truly, drink in the mercy of God as it is revealed in the Scriptures, then resolving will not be an impossible task. It’ll be the natural outflow of the heart of gratitude. Therefore, as I close, I invite you today to drink deep from this well of grace. Drink deeply from it. God himself offers it to you and says, “Drink it. I poured out my life into this vessel. Drink and drink and drink. Don’t think that a day will ever come when you exhaust my grace. You won’t. Look at Calvary. Drink it all in. And when you have done so, resolve.”

is the pastor of Kabwata Baptist Church in Lusaka, Zambia.