The Mercies of God and the Transformed Christian Mind
The Cove | Asheville, North Carolina
Just for my own information and calculation, I’d like to know how many of you serve in vocational ministry. I just mean any kind of parachurch or pastoral work. Just raise your hand if you’re in any kind of vocational ministry. Thank you very much. I do hope you feel refreshed as everybody else does. We all need, as shepherds, to go out to pasture, and I hope this is a green one for you.
Even to Gray Hairs
I read the statistics of the ages that are here and you don’t look as old as they say you are, but that may be because I am. But it did incline me to pray a certain way and to think a certain way about our gathering together here. The statistics are that 320 of you are over 50 and 190 of you over 60. There’s a psalm that relates to that and it has meant a lot to me for a long time, and it’s Psalm 71:17–18. I’m just going to allude to it, we’re not going to linger here.
O God, from my youth you have taught me,
and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.
So even to old age and gray hairs,
O God, do not forsake me,
until I proclaim your might to another generation,
your power to all those to come.
I really want to do that. I want to finish doing that, because I have seen much of God’s goodness, power, and grace, and I want to leave a legacy of proclaiming his might to another generation. Well over half of you are my generation or older, and what I’m praying is that for the 50s, the 60s, and the 70s, and probably older, that these five hours on these three days would be very surprising in terms of how they shape our remaining days. Indeed, I’m praying that you will be stunned at what the Lord calls you to do.
Some of you have come wondering if that might happen because he’s been loosening your roots for some time and you’re not sure what the next chapter is supposed to look like, and others of you feel totally settled where you are. You’ve retired, you have the house, and you think you are where you are going to stay, and you aren’t. And I am eager to see the Lord surprise you with a chapter in your life that you never dreamed.
An Unexpected Finish
I’ll just give you an example. I just laid my daddy to rest March 6, down in Greenville. His life ended in a most unexpected and glorious way from the time he was in his late 50s until the day he died at 87. My dad was a full time evangelist, and as some of you know, he was on a trip to Israel leading maybe 30 or so in a tour when there was a bus accident in which my mother was killed and daddy was seriously wounded, though he recovered. That next chapter of his life was totally different than he expected.
He sold the house and he remarried. I did the wedding a year later. He was married for 25 years to LaVonne. Then, I did her funeral, and then I did his funeral. And in those last years, he became a global minister without leaving the country because of this ministry he developed called ROGMA — Rod of God Ministries, and the A stood for America, Asia, Africa, and whatever other continent or land that began with A. He never dreamed, when his wife was taken from him at age 56, that the last decades of his life would be in terms of a global ministry through written Bible study lessons. And you don’t know what the Lord may be calling you to do.
So, I just have in my mind, even though I love to speak to students and my audiences are usually a lot younger than this, including at my own church, I do not think that this is an accident that we’re together, okay? So, just be listening to you 50s, 60s, 70-somethings, and if you think you’ve got a year left, it may be a totally different year than you think it will be because God simply calls in remarkable ways, remarkable times. I could tell you stories of decisive turns in my life, sitting in worship under the ministry of the word. That’s where the Lord seems to clarify the future for me. I labor alone with him, “Tell me, tell me, show me,” and he generally shows up in corporate worship. Strange. Which is why I put a huge priority on what Steve and Vikki are doing for us here in simply getting us into the gospel in song.
The Transformed Mind
Well, we have before us, Romans 12 and Romans 13, and I’ll tell you, I’m really struggling. I preached 350 pages of sermons on these two chapters. It took me six years to get through chapters 1–11, and then two years to finish the book, and about 30 sermons on these two chapters. I must condense that into five hours, which I’m finding extremely difficult to do. When we’re done tonight, your conclusion will be, “He gave up,” because we’re only going to cover a half a verse in this first session.
My biggest fear is that some of you are going to write letters back to the Billy Graham Association and say, “I came to figure out what the end of Romans 13 was about, and he only gave us . . .” whatever I decide to give you. So, pray for me — really. I’ll be up late tonight trying to figure out how to adjust these things. We will pick up the pace, but I’m serious that we will not get beyond Romans 12:1 tonight. But I will read the first two verses:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1–2).
One of the reasons I feel okay spending probably the first two hours on those two verses is because if you get those two verses, the rest will follow. I mean, if they really come true for us that we will be able to discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable, if you can do that and you approve of it, not just prove and know what it is, but approve of it and embrace it and do it, I will have accomplished more than I could imagine because the Holy Spirit will have done his work. So, I am going heavy on Romans 12:1–2, and then we will move more quickly through the rest of it.
Building a Worldview
As you might imagine, the most important word to focus on in verse one is the word therefore, because when you use the word therefore, it means what follows is being built on something. If we don’t understand that the practicalities of Romans 12–13 are built on something, we will become first class legalists. So it’s dangerous to jump into Romans at chapter 12 when 11 chapters have gone before. Paul is moving from something to something, and the transition is marked with the word therefore. Let me just give you a couple of illustrations of what therefore means.
After years of praying, years of planning, and years of discussing, on April 28, 2003, our church voted to embrace a vision called Treasuring Christ Together and purchased a North Campus. Therefore, two weeks later, we bought a five million dollar complex in Mounds View. Now, what that word therefore signifies is that that decision, that action to buy that property, didn’t come out of the blue; it didn’t come from nowhere. It was built on something — years of agonizing discussion, struggle, and efforts to unify the people, and seek the Lord, and pray, and talk, and research. Then, in a climactic vote, 300 and something approved and 39 opposed, and we moved. Therefore, we acted. So, when you act following a therefore, it’s built on something. It’s rooted in something.
Here’s another illustration. This is about one of the missionary women from our church, Linda Oatley, who serves in Rio de Janeiro with street children. My wife and daughter went to Fortaleza, Brazil, for a short term mission, and Linda came up to join them. She spoke Portuguese, and that would help. One evening she gathered the women together of the local church, and those who were helping, and Linda gave her testimony. And the testimony is that from the time she was a little girl, she wanted to be a missionary, and then she married a man, and he didn’t. Indeed, he forsook the Lord and he divorced her, and she was single for a very long time. And then at age 50, roughly, she realized her dream, and applied and was accepted to do street ministry with kids in Rio.
And she told that story to the women about how God had fulfilled her dream, overcome divorce, and has given her the peace with singleness, and fit her to care for kids. The next morning, when the group gathered after she gave her testimony that night, the pastor’s wife who had been in the service, hearing her testimony, stood up with tears running down her face — I was told by my wife — and said, “My husband has always wanted to be a missionary to Chile from Brazil, and I have utterly resisted and said, ‘No, I’m not interested.’ And last night the Lord broke through all my resistance and I am therefore ready to follow my husband into missions.”
Rooted in the Work of God
So, the word therefore is rooted in something. In that story, it was rooted in a work of God the night before through a testimony of grace. And I cannot emphasize strongly enough that the therefore here — “I appeal to you, therefore” — means that everything in chapter 12 and everything in chapter 13 is built on something. It’s rooted in something, and we need very much to make sure we know that fact and know what that is.
Paul is moving from doctrine to practice, from theology to ethics, from what is true about God in Christ and salvation to what we do with it, from foundation to application. That’s what’s happening here at this transition. It’s not that there’s a clean line. There was a lot of application back in Romans 6, and there are implications everywhere. But this is Paul’s typical way of shifting from a heavily doctrinal section of a letter over into a heavily practical or application level.
Now, it may seem obvious to you and hardly worth pointing out that Christian living grows out of something, but it’s not to be taken for granted today for several reasons, for the multi-religious situation we find ourselves increasingly in in America. The biggest population in my neighborhood is Somali, which means Islam. And this is a quote from an article that I read by Herbert Hoefer on Hinduism. Now, I want you to just let the difference between Hinduism and Christianity at this point land on you so that you feel how not to be taken for granted therefore is, all right? This is the quote:
The proper name of Hinduism is Sanatana Dharma, or the eternal way of life. You can have whatever beliefs you like, but you are expected to live out Dharma. Your religion is expected to participate in the values and customs and organization of society. If a Hindu finds you to be a person of character and propriety, it does not matter to him much if you have different theological beliefs. What matters first and foremost, is that you are a person of dharma. Within Hinduism itself, one can identify hundreds of different religious traditions.
Now, Paul’s worldview is totally different from that. This therefore in Romans 12:1 is saying, “I appeal to you to live a certain way because something happened, and therefore I’m making this appeal. Because something happened in history, and something happened to you, and God is a certain way, and reality is a certain way, there is an objective worldview behind these two chapters, and it’s signified by that word therefore.”
Destined to Display God
Why? Why this kind of world? Why does God do it this way? Why has he set things up so that Paul would write 11 chapters of theology, and then say, “Therefore, live a certain way”? The reason is this: the universe exists, we exist, and the Christian life exists in order to display God — to display the way he is, his attributes, his character, and his greatness.
I just finished reading the Psalms two days ago. If you read through the Bible with the Discipleship Reading Plan that I use, you would have just finished reading the Psalms on the 25th. And Psalm 150 has that second verse, which says:
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his excellent greatness!
It speaks of his acts and his excellent greatness — mighty acts and excellent greatness. We exist both to say that to the world and to live in a way that makes God look like he’s that way. There’s a kind of life and a kind of lifestyle that calls attention to the way God is. That’s what Romans 12–13 is about. They are about the way one lives if he would make God look like the God of Romans 1–11. So, the therefore is not there by accident; it’s there because God has set up the world in such a way that we exist to show something. And that something, you learn about, you experience, and then you live out in a certain way. Therefore, because of that, you live that way.
So, this therefore is rooted in a whole worldview about how God has set up the universe to display the glory of his greatness and his grace.
A Life Flowing Out of Worship
I’ll say a little practical word here to parents. Raise your hand if you’ve ever been a parent or are one now. I’ve got kids from 34 to 11, so I’m doing a lot of parenting I never thought I would do. I never thought I’d be a parent of an 11 year old at age 61, and never thought that I would still be parenting 34 year old kids. I thought that ended at 18. I thought, “Thank you, I have other plans.” That was absolutely, totally naive, as anybody knows. Our biggest issues are in front of us.
So here’s a word to parents about this worldview. This therefore in Romans 12:1 means that when you want your children to act a certain way, something has to precede it, so that when you tell them you can say, “Therefore, do this.” Do you know the most common question a kid asks? It’s, “Why?” That’s what this is about. Why do you want us to do chapter 12? Why do you want us to do chapter 13? It’s because of that. It goes that, therefore this. Do you know how many parents say, “Just do it because I said so”? Now, I admit, after about 30 whys, it’s good to say, “I said so.” That’s a good reason. “I’m your father. I’m your mother. I said so. You do it. We’ll talk about the whys tomorrow.”
However, if that becomes the dominant rearing motif, that every why this kid asks he simply gets authority, he will not be a Christian, or his Christianity in many places will be, “You do things because you’re told to do them. They don’t grow out of anything. They’re not built on anything. They’re not rooted in anything beautiful and glorious that might make it come joyfully, freely, and spontaneously. You just do it.” And then they will think, “Hell is out there. I don’t want to go there. Mom and Dad said to live this way.” That’s not Christianity. So, this therefore has a parenting philosophy in it.
We do, with our kids, Romans 1–11. We live Romans 1–11. We teach chapters Romans 1–1. And we sing Romans 1–11. My wife and I were way overdue on this. Two years ago maybe, we began to sing together with our daughter. Isn’t that sad? We waited so long. We didn’t sing with the boys when they were growing up. We sang at church. I love to sing. I’m a singer. I can’t sing, but if there’s a big enough crowd, I’ll really sing, I love to sing, but it just seems weird to sing with my wife. Neither of us are good singers. If you heard us, you’d say, “I can see why he didn’t sing.” That’s no excuse, folks. At 61 I’m starting over.
So, we do that now, and we printed out a lot of songs that we like, like I Will Glory in My Redeemer and others, and we sing them with Talitha. And one of the reasons I bit the bullet and said, “I have to do this. This is right. That’s who I am. This is who God is,” is that I want her life to flow out of worship, I want her life to flow out of, not “just do it,” but rather a whole world view.
Fear Not, Therefore
I’ll give an example, okay? We were on vacation, and we could take as long as we want for devotions. This is great. There are devotions in the morning as a family, devotions in the evening as a family, and I kneel with my wife before I go to bed. Glory. This is great. We were reading through Luke, and we were in chapter 12, and there was a do in Luke 12:7, which says, “Fear not.” There’s a do. So, I’m the Dad, I’m a teacher here, and I want my little girl to grow up and be a fearless woman. And so, we read Luke 12:4–9 or so. I think I wrote it down. I can’t remember. In the next few verses it says, “Don’t be afraid,” three times.
And I said, “Talitha, Noël, let’s pray that God would take fear out of our lives, and let’s root our fearlessness in the reasons given.” My mind is working this way because of this therefore. I’m not saying, “Don’t be afraid, period,” or, “Don’t be afraid because I’ve said so.” I’m saying, “Don’t be afraid, because something. Here’s something, therefore don’t be afraid.” And there are three reasons. Do you know what they are? The first one’s really scary. Talitha didn’t laugh. The first one is, “Fear not. They can only kill you.” That’s what it says in Luke 12:4–5:
Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do.
They can’t do anything after they’ve killed you, so don’t be afraid. And when I asked her that, I said, “Now, does that argument work with you, Talitha?” She was sitting in the couch here by me, and she’s 11 years old. I said, “Does that argument work?” And she said, “No.” And I said, “Well, what would Jesus be assuming if he said, ‘Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body because after that they have nothing more that they can do?’ What would he be assuming?” And the answer is that there’s a hell. And if you belong to Jesus, you won’t go there. So, they’re done. They’ve done their worst. They’ve sent you to heaven. You don’t need to be afraid. Yes, there’s a hell. That’s part of the worldview. It says, “Fear him who can cast both soul and body into hell,” but you don’t have to be afraid because if you belong to Jesus, you don’t go there, you go to heaven. And so enjoy Jesus and risk your life, 70 year old, 11 year old.
The next argument is that he knows the number of hairs on your head (Luke 12:7). And the next argument is that you’re of more value than many birds, and he knows when every one of them falls out of the tree (Luke 12:6). There are three arguments paired with, “Therefore, don’t be afraid.” My little girl is going to forget all those details. She’ll have to read it again, and again, and again, but what she won’t forget if I do it often enough, is that there’s a worldview here. There’s reality, there’s Christ, there’s cross, there’s gospel, there’s God, there’s Heaven, there’s hell, and there’s grace; therefore, live a certain way. And it’s freedom, it’s fearless. That’s the feel I want her to get as she grows up in this home and that I want us to have here. So, this therefore is very, very important. Paul says, “I appeal to you, therefore, brothers.”
By the Mercies of God
I haven’t gone back to pick up what the roots are yet. That’s coming, but I want to make sure the next phrase gets on here. It says, “I appeal to you therefore brothers, by the mercies of God” (Romans 12:1). Now, that phrase, “I appeal to you by the mercies of God,” is Paul’s shorthand summary of what came before in this book. He could have just said, “I appeal to you, therefore, present your bodies . . .” and the therefore would mean that all of Romans 1–11 is the basis of his appeal to have them present their bodies as living sacrifices. But instead of leaving us to guess what the summary of Romans 1–11 is, Paul chooses a little phrase for us, and frankly, I’m amazed at his choice.
He has talked about God’s wrath, God’s righteousness, God’s judgment, the fall, sin, death, Jesus’s death, Jesus’s resurrection, justification, the coming of the Holy Spirit into our lives, sanctification, keeping us, absolute sovereignty (Romans 9), and faithfulness to his elect and to Israel. And of all of that, he chooses to say, “What I mean when I say, ‘I appeal to you, therefore, on the basis of everything,’ is that I’m appealing to you by the mercies of God. Everything I’ve said, I mean to sum up under the heading the mercies of God.”
Why would that be? Why would he choose to sum up Romans 1–11 with the phrase, “My appeal now, for these next two chapters in all their practical import is rooted in the mercies of God”? There are three reasons.
1. Magnifying God’s Mercy
Paul explains in Romans 15 that the purpose of life, of mission, of God, is to glorify his mercy. Look at Romans 15:8–9. It says:
I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.
Christ became a servant to the circumcised, that is, he was incarnate as a Jew, in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. The purpose of God in sending his Son was that all the nations might be amazed at his mercy. That’s the reason you exist. It is to make people amazed at the mercy of God. To live in such a way that people can only conclude from of your life, “God is merciful.” That’s the first reason. It’s the goal of life, it’s the goal of history, it’s the goal of Christ, and it’s the goal of God that people would praise him for his mercy.
2. Living Out God’s Mercy
The second reason why he would choose to sum everything up with Mercy is that mercy in your life towards the undeserving is the best way of life to make God look mercifully great. This is mercy fleshed out in your life. Treating people better than they deserve is the best way for people to look at you and conclude that your God is great in mercy.
Now, the reason I conclude that is because if I just do a quick run through of Romans 12, listen to what I see:
- “The one who does acts of mercy” (Romans 12:8)
- “Let love be genuine” (Romans 12:9)
- “Contribute to the needs of the saints” (Romans 12:13)
- “Bless those who persecute you” (Romans 12:14)
- “Weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15)
- “Associate with the lowly” (Romans 12:16)
- “Repay no one evil for evil” (Romans 12:17)
- “Never avenge yourselves” (Romans 12:19)
- “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink” (Romans 12:20)
Do you detect a motif? This chapter is saturated with mercy. The reason he’s saying, “I beseech you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God,” is that mercy flowing out from us must be rooted in mercy. The overarching, huge lesson of Romans 1–11 is that God treated us better than we deserved, and he still treats us better than we deserve, and that should shape us into a kind of people who are merciful people. So, that’s the second reason that he says, “By the mercies of God.” It’s because a lifestyle of mercy is the lifestyle that will best display the greatness of God as a merciful God.
3. Receiving God’s Mercy
God’s mercy to us is the key to our living this way. Now, let me take those three reasons and show you how they fit together. The goal is that he’d be praised for his mercy (Romans 15:9). The way, or lifestyle, that displays his mercy so people can glorify it (Romans 12), and ground or root or cause is his mercy toward us in Christ. Romans 1–11 ended from with the statement, “From him, through him, and to him are all things. To him be glory forever” (Romans 11:36), which I think could be paraphrased, “From him, we received mercy; through him, we’re living mercy; and to him, we will glorify him for mercy. To him be glory for being merciful.” That’s the summary.
I’m going to linger on this third one and go back and do what we simply must do in this first hour, and that is talk about what happened so that Paul could say, “Therefore, live this way.” What should we be saying to our children? What should we be saying to our churches? What should we be preaching to ourselves every day if our lives would be transformed into this kind of merciful lifestyle that gives its enemies food and drink?
It isn’t simply that Christ was a good example of mercy. He was. Nobody was a better one ever than Christ, because from the beginning, his life was a scandal, to the end, his life was a scandal, and he embraced that scandal freely so that we could be spared the ultimate scandal of condemnation. So, he was mercy incarnate, saving us when we deserved the exact opposite.
Mining the Depths of God’s Mercy
So, let’s go back to chapter three. We just need to spell it out lest we take it for granted. It’s too great and too good not to see what he did.
Mercy implies two things, the way Paul is using it here. Sometimes we distinguish mercy and grace, and that’s appropriate sometimes. The difference is that grace is treating someone better than they deserve — that is, grace is a loving response to guilt. Mercy is treating someone who is in pain, or suffering, or misery. So, you can show mercy to a dog. You can’t show grace to a dog. The dog has no guilt. The dog just has a broken leg. You can take it to the vet. That’s merciful. We humans need both. We are guilty and in desperate need of grace, and we are miserable, weak, and in need of compassion.
In fact, let me read that verse from Romans 5:6–8 so you can hear both. I think Paul is using the word mercy to cover both here in Romans 12:1. Romans 5:6–8 says:
For while we were still weak (there’s the dog factor because we have broken legs everywhere), at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
So, the mercy we need is in response to our weak, helpless condition and our rebellious, sinful condition.
None Is Righteous
Now, that’s what Romans 3:9–18 says. I should read a few of these verses to remind ourselves of what terrible condition we were in. This is Romans 3:9–12:
What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
Now, jump down to verse Romans 3:19 and let him sum this up to see what condition we’re in:
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.
So, even though they’re spoken to Jewish people, the implication is, how much more then is every mouth stopped and the whole world made accountable to God? He continues:
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20).
So, let’s just settle it. You will never meet anybody who’s not responsible to and accountable to God. You’ll never meet anybody who is righteous such that God would have to reward him in any good way for that righteousness. You’ll never meet anybody who has done good in a way that could put him right with God.
Pervasive Corruption and the Revelation of God’s Righteousness
We have all sinned. In fact, if you want to get really radical with Romans 14:13, all we do is sin, apart from Christ, because whatever is not from faith is sin. It’s breathtaking. You know a lot of nice people who are not Christians, and all they ever do is sin. If you don’t have a view of human depravity that can explain nice people who disbelieve in Jesus, you need to go back to your Bible and understand the nature of evil. We’ve been absorbing the world’s view of evil for a long time — namely, hurt people and you’re evil; treat people good, you’re not evil.
That is not the biblical definition of evil. If you dishonor God by ignoring him, neglecting him, and giving him 2 percent of your time, that’s evil. That’s an outrage worthy of everlasting destruction, even if you express it in building hospitals. People rebel against God in all kinds of virtuous and unvirtuous ways. The Pharisees were squeaky clean and viper’s children. So, we just need a very low view of sin — a big, wide, deep, terrible view of sin — because if we don’t have it, we won’t know what he’s done for us or why did it the way he did it.
That’s where we are. We’re all under the wrath of God, according to Romans 1:18, and here we are under sin, all accountable to God. And now comes the best paragraph in the Bible, probably. This is Romans 3:21–26. Let’s read it:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it — the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . .
That’s the simplest statement to memorize: “all have sinned.” And what is sin? It is a trading away of the glory of God. Romans 1:23 explains Romans 3:23. It says, “They exchanged the glory of God for images,” and the one we exchanged him for most today is the one we see in the mirror. So, we’ve all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Now, here comes the rest:
and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith (Romans 3:24–25).
Foundational Gospel Words
Now, let’s just stop there and focus on those three mega words — justification, redemption, and propitiation. Do you see those? It says, “They are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood” (Romans 3:24–25). Let’s just linger there, because right here, we’re at the center of the gospel and the center of the demonstration of the mercy of God in history on the basis of which Paul says, “Therefore, do Romans 12–13.”
Let’s do propitiation first. The word means to appease wrath, to take away wrath, or to satisfy wrath. Romans 1:18 says that God’s wrath was on the world. The biggest problem we have is the wrath of God. It’s not bad people but an angry God. That’s our biggest problem. Galatians 3:13 says:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”
So, what does that mean? It means that a curse was on my head. Well, a curse has to be backed up with something for it to be dangerous, and what backs it up is God’s anger. God has cursed me. Since the fall, I’m under a curse, and that curse is going to bring me to everlasting destruction. What hope is there for me? None. There is nothing I can do. I can never be good enough. I’ve already done so much evil, and any good that I would try to do was simply take me down deeper. It cannot make me right with God. This curse is going to destroy me.
And God puts forward his Son as a propitiation, meaning, a curse absorber, a condemnation absorber. Romans 8:3 says:
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh . . .
Whose sin did he condemn? Mine. And in whose flesh? Christ’s. That’s propitiation. His wrath was on me and Christ stepped in and absorbed all that wrath on Calvary. That’s what a propitiation does. He condemned my sin. Christ had no sin. What’s the sin he’s being condemned for? It’s my sin.
Fuel for Praise
When I read that Steve and Vikki Cook were going to be the worship leaders here, my heart leaped up, because these are gospel saturated worship leaders. Some worship leaders simply sing about how great God is, and believe me, I love to sing about how great God is, but if we don’t sing a lot about the blood, and a lot about righteousness being imputed to us, and a lot about substitution, I think we’re going to get a little cocky. The gospel is a backbreaking message. It snaps the ego in half. It puts you flat on your face so that you don’t strut around with your theology or with your praise. You go down and you’re brought up on eagle’s wings like a baby, and you sing.
Propitiation is so precious to me. When I wrote the little book 50 Reasons Why Jesus Came To Die that was number one. That’s going right up there at the front. He absorbed God’s wrath. Do you know, Christian, that there will never be a day from now to forever when God is wrathful with you, ever? A father can spank his children, and God spanks us, but whoa, what love it is, right? That’s what Hebrews 12 says. If you haven’t known his discipline, you aren’t loved. So, when you get spanked, embrace it. He’s loving you. There will never be a moment when he’s wrathful. It is on Jesus, which is why we just got to sing it, we got to love it, we got to get it underneath the to-dos of our children.
I’m also doing another new thing with Talitha that I didn’t do with my boys. I’d like to do it all over again. I sit on the side of her bed every night. I had four boys, and it’s a little more complicated when you have to tuck four boys in, but with her, she’s getting it all alone. I sit on her bed and I put my hand on her head, and I bless her. I say, “The Lord bless you and keep you, Talitha. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you . . .”
And then I usually draw something out of the devotions right there, not just the same old words, but I say, “Give you fearlessness as you grow up.” Then I weave in some foundation, some propitiatory talk. There something underneath this. I’m not just an authority in your life; I have good news for you, little girl. It’s the best news in all the world. I’ll be gone some day, and this news will be here underneath you.
Let’s get this word in front of us. Romans 3:23–24 says:
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus . . .
The word redemption means deliverance at the cost of a price. And we have been delivered from a lot of things, but Paul twice tells us what this word redemption means for him. One is in Ephesians 1:7, the other is in Colossians 1.
Ephesians 1:7 says, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses . . .” So, not only is wrath removed, and there’s only a smiling face coming from our Father now — he’s no longer a wrathful judge, but a smiling father — but also all my sins are canceled, nailed to the tree, as Colossians 2:14 says. My guilt is removed, and the weight and the burden of a lifetime of sinning in my head, sinning with my hands, and sinning with my attitude is lifted. That’s behind the statement, “Therefore, live this way. Therefore, be merciful.”
Fnally, let’s look at justification. Romans 3:24–25 says:
And are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood . . .
To justify is to declare to have fulfilled everything required of you. There’s a lot of ways to say it. I’m saying it that way. God, the judge, contemplates you, the sinner. You fly to Jesus, the substitute, the guilt remover, the wrath absorber, the righteousness provider, and you embrace him for all that he is, then you make your plea to the judge, “I’m trusting him, now me. Don’t measure me, don’t look at me. I’m holding to Jesus.” And a union has happened. And in that union with him, all that he did in fulfilling everything required of me is counted as mine. Look at Romans 4:5–6, which says:
And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works . . .
God, because of our union with Christ, because of our faith in Christ, counts us righteous. This is more than the removal of wrath and this is more than the forgiveness of sins; this is being viewed by God as having fulfilled everything required of us perfectly. And if you wonder, but how can he do that? How can he count us as having fulfilled everything required of us when all we’ve done is the opposite almost? There are many verses that answer that. Look across the page, perhaps, in your Bible to Romans 5:19, which says:
For as by the one man’s disobedience (that’s Adam) the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
I think that means, by virtue of Christ’s complete fulfillment of everything required of him, we, by faith and union with him, have that made over to us and counted as ours, so that when he counts us righteous, he is not simply declaring something, he’s constituting something. He really is saying, “I now count you as having a real moral rectitude that is flawless because my Son lived that way, and when you join him, his becomes yours.” There’s a lot of great theology in the worship songs that we have sung and will sing, and I love it when we extol those great truths.
Implications of the Great Truths of the Gospel
Now, drawing it to a close tonight, what’s the implication of propitiation, redemption, and justification? I’m assuming, and I shouldn’t, Romans 5:1, which says:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith (apart from works), we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
This happens by faith, and faith is reaching out to receive a substitute and cleaving to him, trusting him, treasuring him, and looking away from ourselves to him, so that all that he is, he is for us. That’s what faith does. Now, when that happens, and we are thus justified — wrath is removed, guilt is removed, sins are forgiven — we are absolutely secure. And that’s what Romans eight is all about. Let’s just look very briefly at Romans 8:28:
We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
Everything that happens in your life as a believer is working together for your good — everything. Romans 8:29 continues:
For those whom he foreknew (I think that’s virtually synoynyous with election) he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
So, before you were born, God set his electing favor upon you, and he predestined you to be conformed to the image of Christ. That’s the good that everything is working toward, and Romans 8:30 says, “And those whom he predestined, he called.”
The Call of God
Now, that’s not a Billy Graham call or a John Piper call. When Billy Graham calls or I call, some stay in their seats. When God calls, nobody stays in his seat. The reason we know that is from 1 Corinthians 1:23, which says:
We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
So, you have three categories of people: Jews, Gentiles, and called. The first stumble, the second say it’s stupid, and the others believe.
Why do they believe the call? This is a “thou shalt believe” call, it’s a “come into existence” call, which is why the next phrase happens. I mean, have you ever wondered, how can he say, “And those whom he called, he also justified?” Well, it’s only believers who are justified. And he says all the called are justified, which means the call creates the belief. That’s the only reason any of you believed. God spoke (2 Corinthians 4:6). God spoke into your life.
You were going along and Christianity was totally boring, going to church was a pain in the you-know-what, and suddenly, late one night, early one morning, or whenever, something changed. It became a little interesting and you opened your Bible, and sooner or later, he had you. You didn’t make that happen. I promise you, when you go to heaven and he asks you why you’re there, and you say, “Because I believe in Jesus,” and he says, “Right. Why did you and not your cousin?” you won’t want at that point to say, “I’m smarter,” or, “I’m more spiritual.” You will want to say, “Thank you. Just thank you. I don’t know these mysteries, Lord. I’m not sure, but I just know if I had been left to myself, I would have gone straight to hell, and I thank you for holding me.”
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love
Here’s my heart Lord, take and seal it
Seal it for thy courts above
That’s what he did for me. And he’ll get a big smile on his face and say, “You just keep praising my grace. That’s all that happens here.” And you will have gotten used to it and you will love it.
So, those whom he called, he justified, and those whom he justified, he glorified, which means it’s as good as done. So Paul is saying, “Wrath is removed, guilt is removed, sins are forgiven, and righteousness and perfection is provided; therefore, live this way.”
God Is For Us
Let me close like this. Have you ever asked the question, “When did God become totally for me? At what point did God become totally for me and not against me?” Now, you might answer, “In eternity because he chose me.” But that’s not the right answer, because we know that we were children of wrath until we were converted, according to Ephesians 2:3, like the rest of mankind. God became totally for you when you believed in Jesus, by his grace, he became totally for you — I mean, he became not one millimeter against you. From that moment on, God does not have one micro ounce against you. All the omnipotence of the universe is for you and not against you, which means that the obedience to these dozens of imperatives in Romans 12–13 do not make him more for you than he was before you obeyed. That’s so crucial.
If we don’t get that, if we don’t realize that our obedience — which we’re going to be talking about now for four hours together — is being performed in us and for us because God is for us, not in order to get God to be for us, we will miss it. Oh, that as you go to bed tonight, you might lie down and sleep like a baby because he is totally for you. If you brought some dread disease with you, or if you’re in some horrific relational crisis, you can know beyond the shadow of a doubt that he’s got it under control, and he’s totally for you, and it’s going to work out for your good. And then maybe in these next four hours we will be able to have the kind of freedom and liberty to know how to be the merciful people he’s calling us to be because something happened.