The Greatest Thing in the World
An Overview of Romans 1–7
Today we come to the end of our exposition of Romans 1–7. My aim today is to venture the impossible: a summary of the first seven chapters of Romans and of 104 sermons that began in April 1998. My prayer and my longing is that the structure of truth — the vision of reality — in this book would become the structure of your mind and your vision of reality. That you would think about God, sin, Christ, and life the way the apostle Paul does — the way God does. And that you would thus become a humble lion-hearted alien and exile in America, ready to lay down your life for the glory of Christ and the salvation of sinners.
A Summary of Romans 1–7
Romans teaches that the most fundamental problem in the universe is that God’s human creatures — all of us — have sinned and fallen short of his glory and are now condemned under the omnipotent wrath of God. There is the problem of our condition called sin. And there is the problem of its consequence called wrath. Another way to say it is that there is real guilt on every person because of sin, and there is real condemnation over every person because the Judge and Maker of the universe is just and holy.
“There is real condemnation over every person because the Judge and Maker of the universe is just and holy.”
Paul’s conclusion after two chapters of acting as the prosecuting attorney is Romans 3:9: “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, ‘There is none righteous not even one.’”
Romans 3:22–23: “There is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And there’s a good definition of what our sin is and why it has mainly to do with God, not man.
When he describes the sins of his own people in Romans 2:24, the climax of the indictment is this: “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” What makes sin sin is not first that it hurts people, but that it blasphemes God. This is the ultimate evil and the ultimate outrage in the universe.
The glory of God is not honored.
The holiness of God is not reverenced.
The greatness of God is not admired.
The power of God is not praised.
The truth of God is not sought.
The wisdom of God is not esteemed.
The beauty of God is not treasured.
The goodness of God is not savored.
The faithfulness of God is not trusted.
The promises of God are not relied upon.
The commandments of God are not obeyed.
The justice of God is not respected.
The wrath of God is not feared.
The grace of God is not cherished.
The presence of God is not prized.
The person of God is not loved.
The infinite, all-glorious Creator of the universe, by whom and for whom all things exist (Romans 11:36) — who holds every person’s life in being at every moment (Acts 17:25) — is disregarded, disbelieved, disobeyed, and dishonored by everybody in the world. That is the ultimate outrage of the universe.
Why is it that people can become emotionally and morally indignant over poverty and exploitation and prejudice and the injustice of man against man and yet feel little or no remorse or indignation that God is so belittled? It’s because of sin. That is what sin is. Sin is esteeming and valuing and honoring and enjoying man and his creations above God. So even our man-centered anger at the hurt of sin is part of sin. God is marginal in human life. That is our sin, our condition.
And the consequence of this condition is the wrath of God. Romans 1:18: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Romans 1:21: “For even though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks.” The failure to make the goodness and glory of God the center of our lives brings the wrath of God upon us.
Romans 2:5: “Because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” In Romans 2:8: “Those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, [will receive] wrath and fury.”
When we hear words like this — that we are all “under sin” and that sinners will receive the “wrath and fury” of God — we need to be still and let that sink in. These are terrible words. When the omnipotent God has wrath and fury, no greater negative force can be conceived. We speak of the fury of a hurricane that flattens buildings or the fury of a tornado that snaps off trees like toothpicks. But these forces are as nothing compared to the fury of the wrath of God.
In Revelation 14:10–11, John gropes for language to describe the length and depth of hell. He says that sinners will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of his anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night.”
There is nothing more fearful in reality or in imagination than the prospect of everlasting, neverending, omnipotent, unimpeachably just and righteous divine wrath and fury. And that is the consequence of our sin.
Unless we get this clear in our heads and powerful in our emotions, the love of God will be reduced to sentimentalism or to a mere assistance for our self-help improvement and recovery plans. It will not be to us the infinitely precious, tremblingly embraced treasure that it really is.
The Turning Point
Now comes the major turning point in the book. When Paul, the prosecuting attorney, has done his job, he ends in Romans 3:19 with the words that “every mouth [is stopped] and all the world [has become] accountable to God.” Then he adds, in essence, “Don’t even begin to think that you can take God’s commandments — God’s law — and make them a means of getting right with God.” “By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in his sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). And not only that, but don’t even begin to think that you can take God’s commandments and make them the means of becoming a new person. You can’t be acquitted by the law, and you can’t be transformed by the law. The Law of God cannot justify you and the law cannot sanctify you.
“Jesus Christ is the great ground of our justification and the great power of our sanctification.”
On the contrary, the message of Romans 3–7 is that God sent his Son, Jesus Christ into the world to live and die and rise again to be the ground of our justification and the power of our sanctification. If anyone anywhere in the world is going to get right with God or bear fruit for God, it will be through Jesus Christ alone. And he alone will get the glory. He is the great ground of our justification, and the great power of our sanctification.
Let’s take these two great works of God (justification and sanctification) one at a time and see how Christ is God’s remedy for our condemnation and how Christ is God’s remedy for our contamination — how we escape the wrath of God into his favor, and how we escape the power of sin into lives of holiness and love.
Justification: God’s Remedy for Our Condemnation
Before there can be any talk of changing the way we live — fixing our minds, fixing our families, fixing our churches, fixing our society — before any of that, and as the indispensable foundation for all of that, we must first escape from the wrath of God and be counted by him as righteous. Before there can be any God-honoring transformation there has to be the removal of God’s condemnation. This means justification must precede and provide the foundation for sanctification.
So Paul deals with it first. The central text is Romans 3:24–25. Guilty, condemned sinners are “justified as a gift by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in his blood through faith.” Every phrase is precious to guilty sinners tottering on the brink of hell.
Justified is precious because it means God declares us to be just and righteous in his sight even before we escape from the power of sin.
As a gift is precious because it means we can’t earn this. It is free. We don’t deserve it. We don’t get fixed before we have it. It is the basis for getting fixed.
By his grace is precious because it means that behind the wrath of God there is another mighty impulse in the heart of God toward us, grace, moving God, in complete freedom, to save us from his own anger.
Through the redemption is precious because it means our sins are forgiven and we are set free — redeemed — from condemnation.
Which is in Christ Jesus is precious because it means that Jesus himself and not us and not the law is the foundation of our justification. He is a much more solid rock to stand on than my law-keeping ever could be.
Whom God displayed publicly is precious because this great transaction of redemption was not done in a corner, or in some mythological story, but in history under a Roman governor before many witnesses.
As a propitiation is precious because it means that the wrath of God that we deserved was removed. Christ absorbed it and took it away. He became the curse for us and took away the judgment of God. God was propitiated.
In his blood is precious because it means that Christ died for me. He poured out his life-blood in my place, and did what I could never do, to save me. Only the death of the Son of God could save a sinner like me.
Through faith is precious because it shows how you and I become beneficiaries of all this grace. We don’t work for it; we receive it as a gift by faith. Paul underlines it in Romans 5:17 with the words, “Those who receive . . . the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” By faith alone we receive the pardon and the imputed righteousness of Jesus.
So justification is God’s act of counting us to be righteous, even while we are yet sinners by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of Christ’s work alone, for the glory of God alone. This is the greatest thing in the world: to know God without wrath and full of grace because of Christ.
That is God’s remedy for our condemnation and how we escape the wrath of God into his favor. We call it justification.
Now, how is Christ God’s remedy for our contamination? How do we escape the power of sin into lives of holiness and love?
Sanctification: God’s Remedy for Our Contamination
Justification is not a process of transformation. It is a declaration that before God we have a right standing, acquitted and righteous. It happens in the twinkling of an eye when we first believe in Christ. Sanctification is a process of transformation. It goes on through life and is based on the fixed, firm, unshakable ground of justification. That’s the key difference.
“The greatest thing in the world is to know God without wrath and full of grace because of Christ.”
And Christ is the key to both, not law-keeping. And faith in Christ is the means for both. We’ve seen it with justification. Now let’s just remind ourselves what we have seen about sanctification. Paul says in Romans 6:19, “Yield your members to righteousness for sanctification.” In other words, give yourselves to this process of change. But how? How do justified sinners change into fruit-bearing followers of Christ? Romans 7:4 has proved to be a key verse for us: “Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.”
We who are justified want to bear fruit for God — we want to bear the fruit of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23). We want to become humble lion-hearted aliens and exiles in America, ready to lay down our lives for the glory of Christ and the salvation of sinners.
How does it happen? Not by preoccupation with the law but by dying to the law and belonging to another — Jesus Christ, risen from the dead. You embrace Jesus. You hold fast to Jesus. You trust Jesus. You treasure Jesus. You fellowship with Jesus. You love Jesus. Jesus becomes the passion of your life. That’s what Romans 7:4 implies: die to law-keeping and give yourselves to your all-satisfying marriage union with Jesus Christ.
So that’s where we are now as we come to the Great Eight. No condemnation, because of Christ. And deep transformation because of Christ. One is called justification. One is called sanctification. We take our stand daily by faith on the once-for-all, unshakable rock of our justification in Christ. And then we give ourselves daily by faith to the sanctifying work of Jesus in our lives. Oh, come and trust him. Unbeliever, come to him and put your faith in him, and receive him as your righteousness, your pardon, your treasure. Believer, come to him, again and again and again, and take him as your treasure, the rock of your righteousness before God, and the power of your love toward men.