And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; (4) and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; (5) and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (6) For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. (7) For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. (8) But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
A Possible Misunderstanding
A good way to review what we saw two weeks ago from Romans 5:3–5 is to clarify a possible misunderstanding. Paul wants to help us see the merciful purpose of God in our tribulations, so that when they come we won’t be knocked off balance and think God has turned against us. On the contrary, God is so merciful in what he is doing with tribulations that we should exult in them, verse 3 says. “We exult in our tribulations.” Because we know something! What then is it that we know which helps us exult in trouble rather than grumble and complain or even accuse God?
The answer is given in three effects that troubles have on God’s people. Effect #1 (verse 3b): “tribulation brings about perseverance.” Threats to our faith give occasion for our faith to press on through hard times. Effect #2 (verse 4a): “perseverance brings about proven character.” When your faith presses on through hard times, it proves itself to be genuine and real. Tribulations prove faith the way fire tempers steel. It makes it stronger and shows that it is not lead that looks hard but melts in the furnace of affliction. Effect #3 (verse 4b): “proven character brings about hope.” If your faith perseveres and shows that it is toughened steel and not melting lead, then you have more hope. Why? Because you see and you feel that you are real. Your faith is not fake.
But now here’s the possible misunderstanding. It might sound from the end of verse 4 that hope is first the product of being tested by tribulation. It says, “Proven character [brings about] hope.” So hope is what comes only on the other side of the fire. But this would be a deadly misunderstanding.
The fact is that nobody would be able to persevere in faith if we did not first have hope that God is for us and will bring us through. In fact, that is at the heart of the very faith that is being tested. What gets us through tribulation is hope. We don’t first get hope by producing perseverance and proven character. We have hope first, and only then can we endure trial to the glory of God.
Why do I say this? Well, look at verses 1–3 to see how Paul has prepared us for the tests of tribulation. Three things. First (verse 1), since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We don’t find peace with God first by passing the test of perseverance. We pass the test of perseverance because we have peace with God and know that we are justified and accepted and forgiven and loved and secured in Christ. Second (verse 2), we stand firm in grace before we meet tribulation: “through [Christ] also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand.” We do not enter tribulations wobbling in our own power, but standing in the power of grace. This is the work of Christ before we meet trial so that we will stand in trial. And grace will indeed make us stand if we are truly God’s children (Romans 14:4). Third (verse 2b), “and we exult in hope of the glory of God.” Here is the exultation of hope of glory before verse three introduces tribulations.
Tribulation Brings About Hope and Is Endured by Hope
So with this I clarify our point from two weeks ago. Tribulations don’t just bring about hope, as verse 4b says they do (“proven character brings about hope”); tribulations are endured by hope which we already have going into them, because of what Christ has done for us in justifying us and putting us in the power of grace and giving us the hope of glory.
So how do we put all this together? Without looking at any other texts I would be inclined to say: The Christian life starts with hope through the work of Christ for us and in us and then goes on to more and more hope as we experience more and more of God’s preserving, refining grace through tribulation. Enduring tribulation does not create the first hope, but refines the first hope and makes that hope abound more and more.
But let’s look at another text that teaches this. Look at Romans 15:13. Watch the spiraling nature of hope. “Now may the God of hope [note this] fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope [note this] by the power of the Holy Spirit.” So how does hope work in the Christian life? We start with the God of hope. He fills us with joy and peace. How? “In believing.” In believing what? In believing all that Christ has done and all he promises to do for us. In other words, our joy and peace rise with what we believe the God of hope is for us in Christ. Joy and peace are sustained by hope. But then the verse says that God fills us with joy and peace “so that you will abound in hope.” So here we have more hope coming from the fruit of hope. Hope brings about our joy and peace. And our joy and peace bring about more and more hope.
That’s the clarification from two weeks ago. Tribulation produces perseverance, perseverance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope — not the first hope, but more and more hope and stronger and stronger hope. We start with hope. And we go on from hope to hope.
God’s Love Is Poured Out in Our Hearts
Now what I promised to dwell on today is the promise in verse 5 that this hope will not disappoint us: “Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” I said last time that there is another threat to our assurance. One was that our faith might be fake, and the fire of tribulation is a gift to prove us and show us to ourselves that we are real. The other is that the object of our faith might be fake. What if we make it through tribulation with proven faith and growing hope, and in the end that hope proves to have been built on sand? We thought God loved us, but it turns out he didn’t?
That is what Paul addresses in verse 5. He says that God has provided a remedy for this kind of doubt and fretting. He calls it the pouring out of the love of God within our hearts. I take the phrase “love of God” in verse 5 (“the love of God has been poured out within our hearts”) to refer mainly to God’s love for us, not our love for God. I base that on the way verses 6–8 relate to this verse which I will show you in a moment, but you can see there that verse 8 says, “God demonstrates His own love toward us.” That is the key, I think, to the phrase “love of God” in verse 5.
I stressed two weeks ago that Paul’s remedy for doubt about God’s love for us is not primarily an argument about it, but an experience of it. How can we know that God loves us? How can we know that his love is real and that we are not hoping in a mirage? Answer: God gives an experience of the love of God that is self-authenticating. When it happens, you know it as the love of God. So we are talking here about an experience of God’s love. This is the subjective basis of our assurance that the love God has for us is real.
So I want to say at least three things about this experience from this text, but I will only have time to say two of them today. So we will stay with it next week.
1. This experience of the love of God is poured out through the Holy Spirit.
“The love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Whatever else we say about this experience, let this be said: It is not decisively the work of man, but the work of God. It is supernatural. It is not finally in our power. It is not the product of mere circumstances. It is not owing to a good family of origin. It is owing to the Holy Spirit. You don’t make it happen. The Holy Spirit makes it happen. It’s his work.
There is something deeply wrong when we have become so naturalistic and so psychologized that we think a person with a traumatic, abusive background cannot know the love of God experientially. We give the impression that knowing the love of God is really a matter of good upbringing. But when we take this so far that we obscure the main and glorious truth that knowing the love of God experientially is the sovereign, supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, we have taken it too far. To balance things out, consider this: Is it not also likely that many healthy, well-adjusted, productive adults from self-assured families mistake their own natural sense of well-being for the love of God, and are therefore worse off spiritually than the broken person who, beyond all expectation, has tasted the love of God by the power of the Holy Spirit?
That’s the first thing to notice about this experience: It is given to us supernaturally by the Holy Spirit, not by man and not by ourselves or any trance or regimen we work up.
2. The second thing to say about this experience is that it has factual, objective content.
Another way to say it is that this Spirit-worked experience is mediated through historical facts. There is a knowledge component to this experience and there are real facts behind the knowledge.
The ultimate reason for this is that Christ would not be glorified by an experience that is not based on the knowledge of Christ. And we know that the Holy Spirit is sent into the world to glorify Christ (John 16:14). If the Holy Spirit works like an electrical impulse and just causes us to have a happy buzz in the middle of the night with no thoughts of Christ filling our head, then Christ would no more be honored than he is by a vivid high on heroin. The ultimate reason that the experience of the love of God is mediated (or delivered) through the knowledge of the historical work of Christ on the cross is that the experience is meant to give us joy and to give Christ glory. But Christ would get no glory unless our experience of the love of God is a response to the story of the love of God in the work of Christ.
Now where do I get this in the text? I get it from the connection between verse 5 and verses 6–8. Verse 5 says that the experience of the love of God is poured out through the Holy Spirit. Then verse 6 is connected to this statement with the word “for.” “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” Then in verses 7 and 8 Paul unfolds for us the historical, objective fact that Christ died for helpless, ungodly sinners. And then in verse 8 he makes crystal clear what he is saying: in this historical act, “God demonstrates his love toward us.”
Fact and Experience
Now think about this. Is the love of God demonstrated to us historically for us to study and think about and know as objective fact (verse 8)? Or is the love of God poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit for us to feel and be assured of in the face of doubt (verse 5)? Of course, the answer is that Paul will not let us break these things in two. We dare not choose between them or make them antagonistic to each other. The love of God is experienced in the heart. And the love of God is demonstrated in history. There is fact, and there is feeling. There is knowledge in the head and there is affection in the heart. There is truth and there is Spirit.
The key question is, How are they related? On the basis of the relation between verse 5 and verses 6–8 I say, the Holy Spirit takes the historical facts of Christ’s death and opens the eyes of our heart to see the all-satisfying divine beauty of the love of God in it. And thus, by the spiritual sight of God’s love in the work of Christ, he pours that love experientially into our hearts. It is not an experience like electricity. It is a mediated experience. It has factual content. And therefore when it comes, it isn’t like some vague, new age, out-of-body experience, or some hypnotic state, or some ecstatic condition produced by emptying your head. It is being filled with the glory of the love of God demonstrated in the God-man Christ Jesus, who died because of our sins and rose because of our justification.
I have at least one more message I want to bring on this text. How do you pursue this experience? Is it variable? Do all Christians have it? How do you increase it?
We’ve seen enough today to know at least this much: It’s by meditating on the facts of verses 6–8 that the experience of verse 5 happens. Why? Because the Holy Spirit has been sent to glorify Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is not a mood-altering drug. He is an illuminator of the glory of God’s love in the work of Christ. He is a heart-eye opener to the ravishing reality that in the death of Christ for us, God loved us infinitely.
To that we will look again next week.