The Key to Simultaneous Sorrow and Joy
Bethlehem College & Seminary Preview Day | Minneapolis
I add my welcome to those of you who are here considering Bethlehem College & Seminary. I love this school — its leaders and faculty and students, and its vision for spreading a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.
The treasures that we cherish together here of the glory of God above all, and the infallible Scriptures, and the necessity of suffering, and the invincibility of joy make this a very unusual and wonderful place to work and study and worship. I pray that the Lord gives you guidance so that, wherever you go, your life will count for the glory of Christ.
My theme is “rejoicing in hope,” and my text is Romans 5:2. If we focus on the most common verb for rejoicing in the New Testament (chairō), we find eight commands to rejoice. For example:
“Blessed are you when others revile you. . . . Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” (Matthew 5:11–12)
“Blessed are you when people hate you. . . . Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy.” (Luke 6:22–23)
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. (Philippians 4:4)
Rejoice always. (1 Thessalonians 5:16)
Those four examples tell us that Christian joy is not supposed to be a periodic thing, but perpetual in our experience. Twice Paul says rejoice always. And if we respond to Paul by saying, “That’s not possible; that’s an emotional contradiction to the reality of pain in this world,” Jesus responds to our objection one way, and Paul responds another way, but both say essentially the same thing.
Joy and Sorrow Mingled
Jesus responds, “No, I don’t speak in contradictions. I will say again, as I said in Matthew 5 and Luke 6, ‘It is precisely when you are being reviled and persecuted that I command you to rejoice and be glad. It is precisely when you are being hated and slandered that I command you to rejoice and leap for joy.’” That’s Jesus’s response.
“Christ is your wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption. Brag on him.”
Paul’s response is to give us a glimpse into his own experience in 2 Corinthians 6:10, where he describes himself as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” In other words, Paul won’t let us simplify life by saying that life consists in a sequence of sorrow, then rejoicing, then sorrow, then rejoicing.
At one level of emotional life there is such a sequence: “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5). But it is an oversimplification of Christian experience to think that joy in God should be a periodic reality in the Christian life, rather than perpetual. He won’t let us sequence life like that. He says, in order to illustrate his command to “rejoice always,” I live in sorrow and yet I’m always — even in sorrow — rejoicing.
Emotional Maturity Required
And I would caution you: if you are at the level of maturity in your Christian experience where that sounds like meaningless double-talk, you need to put your hand over your mouth, and walk with Jesus and his word for a few more years until you have grown up into this experience. We don’t judge the Bible. The Bible judges us. When we think the Bible is emotionally contradictory, it is probably because of our own emotional immaturity in Christ.
One of my goals in this message is to help you forward into the kind of emotional maturity that Jesus and Paul are calling for. I do not claim to have arrived at age 72, but one thing I do: renouncing all the paralyzing effects of my past failures emotionally, I press on to the goal of experiencing in my life what the Bible commands me to experience, what the Bible illustrates in the saints’ experience, and what the Bible provides teaching and grace and power in order to experience. And I hope this message will be part of God’s school for your own growing into what the Bible commands and illustrates and empowers.
Unlock Perpetual Joy
So I invite you to turn with me to Romans 5, and our focus will be on verse 2, which I think is one of the many places in Scripture that provide the key to the joy that is uniquely Christian and is supposed to be perpetual not periodic.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5:1–2)
No Condemnation in Christ
So this message is going to be built around the phrase, “We rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” But first here are just a few words about the context in verses 1–2.
Verse 1: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith . . . ” Justification by faith apart from works of the law has been the theme of Romans since 3:20 and until the end of chapter 4. Now Paul treats it as accomplished in his readers: “Having been justified . . . ”
In his life and death, Jesus Christ provided a sinless obedience and a sinless suffering. His obedience stands before God as a justice-satisfying righteousness. And his suffering stands before God as a punishment-satisfying sacrifice.
And when the Holy Spirit quickens us from our spiritual deadness, and imparts to us the gift of faith, we are united to Christ through that faith, and — wonder of wonders — Christ’s obedience becomes our righteousness, and Christ’s suffering becomes our punishment. Our perfection before God is secured, and our punishment is past, so “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1)
Stand in Grace and Peace
Paul mentions two effects of our justification, one in verse 1 and the other in verse 2. First “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Peace means there is no more wrath from God toward us, and no more rebellion from us toward God (Romans 5:9–10).
The second effect of justification that Paul mentions is in verse 2: “Through him [Christ] we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand.” When God’s wrath goes away, and our enmity toward God goes away, it doesn’t leave a vacuum. Where once we stood under wrath, and where once we stood in enmity, we now stand in grace. “We have obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand.”
Nothing comes to us from God that is not grace! Nothing. Everything that comes to us is the undeserved, everlasting, omnipotent good will of God toward us in Christ Jesus.
Glory Is the Goal
So why doesn’t Paul say, “And we rejoice in the peace and grace of God, in which we stand”? Why instead does he say, “And we rejoice in hope of the glory of God?” There are two reasons at least.
One is that in this peace and in this grace where we stand, there are so many afflictions. And the only way we can maintain joy in this afflicted peace and this afflicted grace is hope. He unpacks that in Romans 5:3–5.
“We don’t judge the Bible. The Bible judges us.”
The second reason Paul puts the emphasis on rejoicing in the hope of the glory of God is that we were not justified ultimately to have God’s wrath and our enmity taken away. That’s not the ultimate goal. We were not justified ultimately to stand in grace where the undeserved, omnipotent, everlasting good will of God works all our afflictions together for our good. That’s not the ultimate goal.
Justification, and peace with God, and standing in grace are all glorious, blood-bought means by which God brings us to the ultimate goal of our salvation, namely the glory of God. So Paul says, “As we enjoy peace with God now, and as we stand in the grace of God now, we are waiting, longing, hoping for the ultimate good of the gospel: the glory of God.”
Boast in Hope
So that’s the context of the statement, “we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” Now let’s look more closely at the statement itself.
The first thing to notice here is that little footnote that you see beside the word “rejoice” in the ESV. It says that it can also be translated “boast”: “We boast in hope of the glory of God.” The word really does have that basic meaning: “boast” or “brag.” So how does a word that even the New Testament regards as denoting a sinful attitude come to be used so positively for rejoicing or boasting in hope of the glory of God?
Boasting really is sinful until something changes it — and yet doesn’t change it so much that we stop using the word. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:29 that God chooses his people in such a way “that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” No boasting in the presence of God! It’s bad. Don’t do it.
So what has to happen to boasting on its way to such positive use here in Romans 5:2? The word must be stripped of all connotation of deserving, and earning, and self-exaltation. Boasting as a means of exalting myself has to go. Here’s the way Paul strips boasting of self-exaltation:
What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? (1 Corinthians 4:7).
In other words, if you’re going to boast, it will have to connote not that you deserve anything, but that everything good in your life is a free gift. Everything. Boasting of the worldly, self-exalting kind is over for the Christian when you stand in grace.
All Credit to Christ
Well, what’s left of “boasting” if you strip it of a sense of deserving and self-exaltation? How do you use it? The New Testament really does use it over and over again positively. You can hear what’s left of boasting in 1 Corinthians 1:30–31, right after he says no one should boast in the presence of the Lord.
Because of him [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
You think you have wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption? You do. But it is all a gift. Christ is your wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore brag on him. He deserves the credit. He is to be exalted for his achievement. Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.
There is a massive difference between Christ-exalting boasting and self-exalting boasting. But it’s still boasting. Paul does not junk the word boast (kauchaomai) and replace it with the word rejoice (chairō). There is still a difference between “boasting in the Lord” and “rejoicing in the Lord,” no matter how much they overlap.
Swept up into Glory
Boasting still connotes: I am receiving some honor or some privilege or some riches or some glory. Only now, in the mouth of the Christian, there’s no connotation of “I deserve them,” or “I am the decisive cause of them,” or “In receiving them I am the main one being exalted.” The word “rejoice” doesn’t have built into it the connotation of receiving some honor or privilege or riches or glory. But boasting does.
Which is why in Romans 5:2 it is so natural for Paul to say, “We boast in hope of the glory of God.” There’s going to be some participation here! Some honor or glory or beauty is going to sweep us up into it in some way. Boasting in that means: That glory is going to mark us. That will be our insignia. We get to wear that uniform. And we don’t deserve any of it.
Boast for Joy
One more thing to notice about this boasting in Romans 5:2. It really is a joyful emotion. We know this, for example, from 2 Corinthians 12:9 where Paul says, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses” because Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness. The idea is that all boasting is glad, not sullen. But Paul is going to take normal gladness in all boasting to a superlative level (hēdista, superlative of hēdeōs) when he boasts in his Christ-exalting weaknesses.
So Romans 5:2 really does mean that we are glad in our hope. Joyful, happy, thrilled, as we boast in hope of the glory of God. We boast, we exult, we rejoice, we leap for joy (as Jesus said) in hope of the glory of God.
You Can Share in Divine Joy
So what is the glory of God that we are confident will be our future?
It could mean that we will, at last, no longer see through a glass darkly, but rather see, as it were, “face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Finally, we behold the infinite beauty of God as it really is. And it could mean that we will not only see the glory of God, but be glorified by it and share in it. Paul puts both of those back to back in Romans 8:17–18:
[We are] heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him [that’s being changed into the likeness of Christ and sharing in God’s glory]. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us [that is, a glory we will see.]
And of course they will be inseparable. John says that when we see him “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
But Paul could have said, “We boast in the hope that we will be glorified.” He could have put the emphasis there. But he didn’t. He put the emphasis on the ultimate reality of the universe. And it is not us, no matter how glorified. It is God — the God of infinite glory.
Of course, we would not be able to glorify God as God in the age to come, if we were not made partakers of the joy of God in God (John 17:24–26). The glorifying of God by his people will depend on us having Godlike capacities to know God and enjoy God. Therefore, the glory of God will not receive its proper, fitting, eternal exaltation apart from our glorification.
The Lord Alone
But when all is said and done, God alone will be God. God’s glory alone will be the ultimate Beauty and Value. Everything about us will be derivative, and God alone will be the Original. Everything about us will be dependent, and God alone will be self-sufficient.
“The Lord alone will be exalted in that day” (Isaiah 2:11, 17). And it will be our joy to have it so. It will be our boast. Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord — so that the glory of the Lord alone might be exalted.
There is a profound sense in which we will share in the glory of God, and a profound sense in which we will not share in the glory of God. And it will be our boast that both are true. When we “shine like the sun in the kingdom of [our] Father” (Matthew 13:43), God’s superior, original brightness will give crystal clear meaning to Isaiah 48:11: “My glory I will not give to another.” That too will be our boast, our insignia.
Live in Hope
Let me draw out two implications for your life as we close.
Destined for Glory
I got word on Monday that one of our long-standing members with whom I have been associated for over twenty years was in the hospital, perhaps in the last stages of life with cancer. I cleared it with Jason Meyer and went to see her. She is younger than I am — probably the age of many of your parents. I sat with this woman who may be weeks away from seeing the glory of God.
“Everything good in your life is a free gift. Everything.”
And do you know what we did for fifteen minutes? We boasted in hope of the glory of God. We exulted in our future together. We rejoiced that we are both so close to seeing and sharing in the glory of God.
Whether you are a pastor or not, you will get a chance to do this. It will be a glorious part of your call. When a person has sat under your ministry for twenty years, the weight of the glory of the sovereign goodness of God in suffering is a precious and powerful presence in the room as you boast together in the glory of God. I looked her in the eye and said, “God has not appointed you for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for you so that whether you wake or sleep you will live with him — and he is your glory” (see 1 Thessalonians 5:9–10). You will do this someday.
Finally, I end where I began. Christians are not called to have periodic joy in God, but perpetual. “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” And I am arguing that the key to such steady-state joy in God is hope in the glory of God through the worst sufferings — physical and emotional. This is what Jesus said:
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” (Matthew 5:11–12)
Rejoice always, even in suffering, because these sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory you will see.
This was the way the early Christians — and all Christians — were able to love others at great cost to themselves. This is the source of compassion when it may cost us our lives.
For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. (Hebrews 10:34)
Infinitely better. Infinitely lasting. The all-satisfying glory of God.
In this message, John Piper addressed a group of prospective students at Bethlehem College & Seminary in downtown Minneapolis. Students are equipped for joyful lives of high-impact, helping other people be eternally happy, by learning and sharing that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.