The following is a lightly edited transcript.
I will start my twentieth year at Bethlehem Baptist in July. And I have never preached on Romans until last year. That is, I have never done a series on Romans. And the reason is fear, because it is like a mountain climber who has exercised himself on some pretty steep hills in the Scriptures, but simply stands in awe of the Mount Everest of the book of Romans and with great fear and trembling looks at these sixteen chapters and says: I am not ready yet, Lord. And at age 53, the Lord whispered back: you don’t have any time to wait, because it is going to take you that long to finish it. And so I did undertake with fear and trembling to start the book of Romans and now I am a year into it and I am glad that I did. And it is rich for me, far richer for me than for our people and I hope it is rich for them.
This was the time, I think, it is the end of the millennium. It is the second half of my thirty-year pastorate, perhaps, well into it at Bethlehem. The pace of time is quick for a 53-year-old as compared to a 34-year-old beginner. Time is moving strangely much faster now than it did in those years. And when you think of what you would like to do, the time seems short to do it in. The gospel of glory seems sweeter to me today than it ever has and I know that Romans is the place where it is more fully and thoroughly unfolded than any other place.
I am not as moved by faddishness today. I am not as eager to say anything particularly relevant. I have seen fads come and go. I have seen all kinds of church growth strategies come and go. I have seen all kinds of stresses in the ministry come and go and I fall back again and again and say: If my life is going to count for anything with this body of people, it will be steady state, long term feeding of the word of God. That will be the key. If I leave behind a legacy, it will be perseverance in telling the truth about the Bible.
And so, young people, give yourself to the Bible. Give yourself to know the Bible. It will sometimes seem flat emotionally. It will sometimes feel like soaring emotionally. Those two ups and downs are not the issue. It is steady state, long term, occupation with the infallible, powerful word of God that will make oaks of righteousness out of young people when the winds blow. It is wonderful to have these times of worship. We need them. We need them. But we all know that these are the high times. These are the glorious times and the slog it out times are the times that tell whether you have got fiber in your tree or whether you only a week sapling and get blown over.
The Benefits of Investing
There is a willow tree outside the Holiday Inn wherever I am staying and I looked at the willow tree. I love willow trees, because I grew up with a willow tree in my back yard, but it split right down the middle during an ice storm because when the little hanging things that look so peaceful and so delicate get laden with ice in the wintertime, they cannot support it and it just went crack. And this fifty-year-old willow tree that I loved, just went crack and there were just two halves of the willow tree, one on one side and one on the other with ice in shambles on the ground. And I thought: I don’t want my boys to grow up like that. I don’t want them to just kind of be floating around like this emotionally. I want them to get some fiber in the trunk of their lives. And so I just think that if I can press on in teaching things like Romans, it will be good for my church and my family. I know it will be good for my soul.
The history of my experience with Romans goes back to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, six years old. It is before my memory, frankly. I know this because my mother and my father tell me about this, that when I was six I got a conviction of sin and I knelt down beside my mother in a hotel... a motel bedroom in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and poured out my little, six-year-old, guilt feeling to the Lord and with her leading put my faith in Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord. And almost all of you know the gospel that I was taught in those days. And it all comes from Romans, doesn't it? Let’s recite them. Let’s together ... I am just going to be quiet and you are going to recite most of these verses. Let’s recite Romans 3:23. Just do it.
“The gospel is not a help wanted sign. The gospel is a help available sign.”
That is the beginning of the gospel. I am going to come to it in a minute. Now recite for me the danger that we are in because of that from Romans 6:23.
Now the solution to that problem of I have sinned and I am in danger of death comes from a verse that you may not have memorized as well, namely Romans 5:8, which says: God demonstrates his love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. That is the solution. Christ died for this little six-year-old boy. Now how do you get connected? You probably know Romans 10:9. If you confess.
You’ve got a little work to do. That’s a few hundred. That is all right. That is all right. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Now that is the gospel. Those four statements are the gospel and it is simple enough for a six-year-old to understand. God met with me in the book of Romans and he saved me when I was six. I do believe, though. Don’t worry if you can’t remember when you were saved. If you grew up in a Christian home like I do and you just don’t remember the point, that doesn’t matter. What matters is today and whether you believe these things.
Then there was a call to the ministry. I went away to college at age eighteen thinking I would be a medical doctor or a veterinarian. My hands shook so bad. I told you a little bit of this story last year, but my hands shook so bad I thought I probably can’t do surgery, but it wouldn’t matter on dogs. So I thought if it didn’t change in my pre-med, I would just shift over to veterinarian and nobody would know if it was my fault if their dog died. But midway through my college career, God moved on me in a very, very powerful way.
In the summer of 1966 the preaching of John Harold Ockenga awakened me while I was lying flat on my back in the medical center for three weeks with mononucleosis and shifted my whole life out of premed toward pre-ministerial and I had planned to move into Fisher Hall at Wheaton College with three other guys in a suite, two on one side, two on the other and bathroom in the middle. We moved in there. The first semester was good, but God was doing so much inside of me that I said: I really want to live by myself. I had fallen head over heels in love with Noel.
These guys were wonderful friends, but in a dorm in that setting it is yuk up city after midnight and I am serious about life. I am moving out. And so I asked: Is there a room at mid-year down at one of the Elliot or Twin or Saints halls, and can I have one of those single rooms? And they did. I shifted over in January and lived alone for a year and a half in a single room. And in that single room God met me so many times and one of the ways he met me was with a little yellow book by John Stott called Men Made New: An Exposition of Romans 5–8. And I just exploded with the God of Romans in my junior and senior year at Wheaton College and was so glad that I was on the way towards the study of the Bible.
So Romans functioned for me, again, not only in my conversion. It functioned in my call to the ministry by confirming me in that year and a half right after God had done that great calling work in the medical center there at Wheaton College.
The Romans Road to Christian Hedonism
Then I headed for seminary and at seminary for me in the fall of 1968, 69, 70, and early 71, all the things that are in my books now began to land on me, this whole issue of Christian Hedonism and it all began to happen mainly in a course on Romans one to eight with Daniel Fuller, the son of the founder. And so exegeting Romans 1–8 was the birthplace of my Calvinism. It was the birthplace of my worship. It was the birthplace of my Christian Hedonism. Everything was coming to bear on Romans 1–8. And then, let’s just make a huge jump way forward to 1979.
I went to the University in Germany and then I took a teaching job at Bethel College and in the fall of 1979 I was doing something I just had to do for my own soul. I took a sabbatical. I had sat in classes and taught classes for six years on Romans and on 1 Peter and on 1 and 2 Thessalonians and on other book studies. And in every class, the issue of sovereignty of God and free will came up and the whole issue of all that human accountability thing came up and I would go to Romans nine as my last bastion of argument against all these Arminian students who were trying to shoot down my Calvinism.
And they said: No, you can’t do that because Romans nine doesn’t mean that. Romans nine doesn’t have anything to do with eternal destinies and individuals, it has only to do with historical roles and corporate peoples. That was the standard argument. They picked it up in other classes. They brought it to bear here. I would try to show reasons why it wasn’t so and persuade a few, but not everybody and I said: I got to just settle this for myself once and for all. What does Romans 9:1–23 mean?
And so I took a sabbatical for about six months and that was in the fall of 1979. Every day I was poring over all of the secondary literature and working in the Greek and planning on writing a book called The Justification of God, which I did write. It is still available and it is really heavy sledding and it is my effort to demonstrate that Romans 9 really does describe the sovereign God that looks like it describes.
And in that moment, it is almost a moment in my eyes. I have the date written here. October 14, 1979. Between midnight and 1:00am, one of those pascalian kinds of moments. I don’t know if you remember the conversation of Blasé Pascal, but he writes about his meeting with God and he said — I forget the exact time. It was something like midnight. Fire. And he wrote it out. Midnight. Fire. And he sowed it up and he sowed it into his coat. He carried the little piece of paper. Midnight. Fire in his coat for the rest of his life. He died as a fairly young man in his thirties. But God met him in a mighty, mighty way. Well on that night I had been met by God, the God or Romans nine for these weeks of September and October and now moving into November.
Proclaimed and Worshiped
And what was happening in my life was that God was saying softly and then louder and louder off the pages of this text: I, the God of Romans 9, will not simply be analyzed and explained. I will be proclaimed and worshiped. And that became a burning in me so that I began to tremble. You mean personally John Piper is not to teach college anymore? He is to lead a worshipping, growing people? And the roots were being loosened in the college for me because I had lost the enchantment with academia. It was fading fast after six years. It gets real old after a while to teach the same brand of human being, eighteen to twenty-one, over and over again with the same questions year in and year out and all those papers to read and all the same basic courses you have got tot each if you are slogging it out with everybody else.
And the enamorment of the higher educational scene had faded off the scene and the glory of the local church had begun to shine and the variety of the kind of people that are in this room from the youngest to the oldest and then dying and the marrying and the cancer-stricken and the divorced and the hurting, all there. Will this gospel work? Was starting to rise as do you want to be where real life is? And will this God be believed there? Will the God of Romans nine show himself to be believable, credible, useful, able, powerful, worshiped in a real live, downtown, Minneapolis or wherever God took me. I didn’t know where I was going to go.
October 14, 1979. This is a quote from my journal. I was keeping a journal. Keep a journal, folks. Young people, start a journal. You don’t have to write in it every day, but if God is working in your life and you have any inclination to take pen or keyboard in your hand and record the mighty works of God in your life. And they won’t seem mighty, but you can hold at 53, you will want to remember the works of God when you were 34. You really will. You will want to remember them and praise him for them. So here is a sentence from my journal, October 14, 1979, late night.
I am closer tonight to actually deciding to resign at Bethel and take a pastorate than I have ever been. The urge is almost overwhelming. It takes this form. I am enthralled by the reality of God and the power of his word to create authentic people.
The Point of No Return
Well, within weeks I had passed over the line of no return. I said to the Lord that night: If I still feel this way when I wake up tomorrow morning I am going to look over at my wife lying beside me and I am going to say: Noel, I think I am going to resign at Bethel and look for a church. Is that ok? And see what she says. So I went to bed about 1:00am and did not sleep well. Woke up at 6:00am. She wasn’t awake yet and I just lay there thinking: Nothing has changed. Nothing has changed. This is a fateful moment in our marriage and in my life. And she woke up and I said: Noel, the reason I was up so late is because I really think God is moving and I should resign at Bethel and look for a church and be a pastor. What do you think?
And she said: I could see it coming. That is fine. I have an incredible wife. You have got to understand this. I don’t know if I told you this story last year. I love to tell stories about my wife’s incredible adaptability to me. This is the great strength of her life. I get down in the pastorate sometimes and I will come home on a Sunday after pouring out my heart for two or three services and everything is spent and it didn’t look like the people were getting it and I am tired and I was up too late the night before and this is all the makings of depression and I am sitting at the dining room table staring at the table cloth and she is putzing around in the bedroom or something and I say: I think I am going to go to Africa. And she says, from the other room: tell me when to pack. That is a good wife. That is a good wife.
“The Bible will do you well. It will carry you. It will guide you. It will lead you everywhere.”
Live in the Bible
That was a parenthesis. I lost my train of thought here. Perhaps enough about my pilgrimage with Romans. Now I am preaching in it after all these years finally. All that to say: Young people, everybody, live in the Bible. The Bible will do you well. It will carry you. It will guide you. It will lead you everywhere. So here we are now and I have spent 19 years in the pastorate struggling: What shall I preach next. And the Lord arrives again and he says: It is time for Mount Everest. No, you are not able to climb it. I am not able to climb it. I will put you on the back where you don’t figure it out. If there are chasms too wide, I will fly you across. Just trust me in this and we will do all right. Because I had used Romans. I mean Romans is the stay of our lives, right? How many funerals, C.J., have we lifted up our hands with tears streaming down our faces and said:
What shall separate me from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation and distress or peril or famine or nakedness or sword? No. In all these things were are more than conquerors, for I am persuaded that neither life nor death nor angels, nor principalities nor things present, nor things to come nor powers, nor height, nor depth nor anything else in all creation will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:35, 37–39)
I mean, those are the kinds of things that sustain a pastor in times of crisis for years and years. And so Romans was not foreign to me. It just hadn’t been tackled and now it needed to be tackled. So I began to tackle it and I began to see that, of course, the experience with Romans for others had been very much the same and I have a long list of people here I could mention. Coleridge, you may not know about. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poet, said: I think that the epistle to the Romans is the most profound work in existence. And I think that is true. John Knox said: It is unquestionably the most important theological work that has ever been written. One of the reasons for that is what Leon Morris said when he wrote: God is the most important word in this epistle.
Romans is a book about God. No topic is treated with anything like the frequency of God. Everything Paul touches in this letter he relates to God. In our concern to understand what the apostle is saying about righteousness, justification and the like, we ought not to overlook his tremendous concentration on God. There is nothing like it elsewhere. And so Romans is about God. And that is why I love it.
Now, where shall we go tonight in the book of Romans? And we should go, probably, since I only have one time, to talk about it is to the most important paragraph in the book, which I think is the most important paragraph in the Bible and so I invite you to turn with me to Romans 3:21–26. We won’t look at all of it. It is way too much, but we will zero in on a couple of verses, Romans chapter three. And I did not throw those words away. I do believe that if I had to die in taking an exam to guess which is the most important paragraph in the Bible, this would be it. Romans 3:21–26:
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, 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. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Build Your Life on Romans 3
I want so much for my young people, my children, you and all the adults of our church to build your lives on this chapter and this paragraph, to make it the sun at the center of the solar system of your lives. I believe that most people’s lives are out of kilter because they don’t have the sun, the gospel as the center of their solar system, so the planets of all their lives are banging into each other with all kinds of odd gravitational pulls, because nothing is working because the sun isn’t at the center. Other things besides this massive, glorious gospel of God aren’t at the center.
And so the solar system of all your vocation and your sex life and your money life and your issues of appetite and television use and hobby proportions, they don’t work right because the sun of the gospel doesn’t have its place at the center. And so things are swirling in all kinds of crazy ways and banging into each other. And so my prayer is that one of the effects of tonight’s message will simply be to erect the gospel as the sun in the solar system of your lives so that everything comes into orbit and there is a peace and a serenity and a harmony to your life.
We All Lack
Let’s do two verses, perhaps, namely, 23 and 24. And draw in the others as necessary in the minutes we have left. Verse 23: You were able to recite this one best of all. It is the one about sin. It is short. It is easy. It is powerful. It is crucial. We have got to get it right. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. No exceptions. The word all is crucial. He has just spent chapter one verse 18 to chapter three verse 20 to stop the mouths of all humanity and bring the whole world into accountability before God under sin. There is no fear of God before their eyes. There is none righteous, no, not one. All have sinned. So there is this huge, massive, universal indictment of humanity in the first three chapters of the book of Romans to state our condition as sinners all. And the way he says it is that we have all sinned and then he says this other phrase. And I wonder if we know what this other phrase is, namely, we have all fallen short of the glory of God.
What does that mean? The Greek word fallen short is translated everywhere else lack. Literally, then, all have sinned and lack the glory of God. But what does that mean, we lack the glory of God? Does that mean that we were supposed to be as glorious as God, we shot our little arrow and it fell short and, thus, we lack the attainment of being as glorious as God? Well, no. That would be blasphemy to think that I should be God or as glorious as God and I fell short in the sense of not being as glorious as God is glorious. So we didn’t fall short of the glory of God that way. You are not called to be God or as glorious as God. Well, what, then, does lack the glory of God mean? And the way to remember it is this. The best exposition of Romans 3:23 is 1:23. All of us wicked, ungodly, human beings are suppressing the truth. We have thought ourselves wise and we are now exchanging the glory of God for images. Now I think I can get a handle on how we lack the glory of God.
We’re All Accountable
We lack the glory of God because we have contemplated it. We have seen it. The first verses there from 18 to 22 are all about seeing the glory of God in nature. Everybody is accountable. You have seen that he is God. You have seen that he is awesome. You ought to glorify him and give him thanks. Nobody does. Therefore everybody is accountable, because we are all contemplating this glory and trading it for computer games, careers, health, family, fame, money, sex, power. You name your god and that is what we have exchanged the glory of God for. How many people do you know whose whole life orbits around the glory of God?
A few, perhaps, a few, but not many. And so we have traded it off. We have exchanged it. So when you get to chapter three verse 23 and he says: Everybody has sinned and lack the glory he doesn’t mean we fell short of being as glorious, it means we have taken what was to be our treasure and we have traded it like Esau for a bowl of oatmeal. This is high treason against the king of glory and we deserve to hang by our thumbs until the crows eat us dead. We deserve to go to hell for the way we have treated the glory of God. Every human being has scorned and trampled the glory of God by giving it two seconds worth of attention in their lives and that as a kind of passing weekend hobby, while they really get back to what they love to do on Monday morning or Sunday afternoon with the television or something else. Yes, I will put in my time to give my token little amen to the glory of God and then I do what I really want to do the rest of the time and the glory of God everybody in heaven knows is not our treasure.
And that is a scorn and a despising of the glory of God that makes this issue and this text and this book so utterly crucial, because we are in tremendous danger as a human family. God’s wrath, according to chapter one verse 18 is being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. Chapter two verse five says: We are storing up wrath for ourselves on the day of righteous judgment of God when the righteous judgment and his wrath will be revealed from heaven. We are storing up wrath every day and every second. Where the glory of God is not your uppermost value and delight and affection, you are putting in an application for more wrath from God.
And I will tell you. Indiana, Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh and Minneapolis and every city in this land is ripe for fire and brimstone. And the fact that the sun came up here this morning and that the moon shone with glory on Pennsylvania last night is sheer what? Grace. You have been well taught. It is sheer grace that the sun came up on this land this morning and that the moon will shine again beautifully tonight if the clouds don’t conceal it. And if they do, that is a warning from God not to do that to the glory of God with your own life.
The Good Diagnosis
So verse 23 is a good gospel verse. Oh, thank you, Jesus, for the diagnosis of our condition. Thank you for not leaving us without a diagnosis of our true corruption and our true need. He has done it for us and it is glorious that he would tell us what our need is and it is so big, because, as I said this morning, you were created for the glory of God. Is it any wonder that the world is in the condition that it is in with wars and rumors of wars and all manner of diseases and all manner of failures of education and all manners of abuse and all manners of division and all manners of addiction and all manners of dysfunction and all manners of collapsing relationships? Is it any wonder when almost all human beings are in rebellion against their reason for existence? Human beings all of them from the inner city to the suburbs, from Indiana, Pennsylvania, to India they are all created for one thing, to magnify the glory of God by enjoying him forever and hardly any of them are doing it.
“It is sheer grace that the sun came up on this land this morning.”
In fact, they have declared war on the almighty and are suppressing the truth with every second of their lives almost, lest the truth land upon them with such terrifying power. We bow down, forget the lines, but when we see his glory but we undone. That line that we say. We are undone. People don’t want to be undone and so they drink it out of existence and they play it out of existence and they work it out of existence and they do anything to keep the truth away and we are in such dreadful condition. And God in this room — just think of it — God in this room. God in this room in his awesome grace has awakened you to know your cancer, to know the waterfall.
Don’t Stay with Sin
I love my dad. He is an evangelist. He has preached the gospel for 65 years. He is eighty. I preached at his retirement banquet when he was eighty. I have listened to him preach many times and I remember this awful story as a young man where the human condition is like a vulture whose is flying, looking for carrion. And he sees a dead goat on a big ice flow in the Niagara River. And then he sours down and he lands and begins to eat and he watches the waterfall. And he is eating this and my dad is good at this. And I am little boy watching this and he says that he has done this many times. This vulture has eaten dead animals on ice flows and he knows the right second when he can get off the ice flow. And you know what is coming. I can see it on your faces. He is sin and he is the human condition and he is eating all this stuff that he was not designed to eat. Now that doesn’t fit the analogy so well, but he is eating and he shouldn’t be there. He should be soaring. Maybe the story was an eagle. I don’t know. And he is eating and just when he sees the waterfall ready to come, he stretches his broad, self-sufficient wings and his talons are frozen solid in the ice and he goes over that waterfall.
Now when my dad got to that point I tell you he stopped and there was silence in the room. And if he looked up and got people right in the eyeball and said: That is where most of you are tonight. Don’t stay. Don’t stay with sin, because when you think the hour is right and you stretch your wings like Esau, you will plead for repentance and you will not find it. Possibly. Is not Hebrews 12 a scary passage? Esau couldn’t find repentance. It was too late. He had passed the point of no return. And here we are now. The point I am making is: You are here. God got to you, plucked you off on the ice flow. You have still got some of the hankerings for that crap down there, but he has got you in his hands and he is carrying you to Beulah land where there is no waterfall except what you can stand under and bathe in.
So verse 23 is precious. As horrible as it is, as dangerous as it is, it is so, so precious and leads us now with the question that verse 24 answers: What then can be done for us? What can be done for us? If we are that proud, if we are that suppressive of the truth, if we are that stupid and blind, if we are that unwise, if we have exchanged the glory of God, if we have trampled it under foot, if God’s wrath is against us, what can be done for us? And the glory of verse 24 is that the description of what can be done for us is all outside of us. It is all outside of us, this glorious, glorious verse 24. Being justified as a gift by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. So let me just take these four pieces, unpack them briefly and lead us into a season of worship and ministry. Take the four pieces. Piece number one being justified. Piece number two, as a gift. Piece number three, by his grace. Piece number four, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
What does that mean? It is a passive verb. Let’s go back to school for a minute. Did you have a good teacher like I did in the seventh grade? Thank you, Miss Adams for sentence diagramming and for grammar. I didn’t need to take any more grammar after the seventh grade I had such a stunningly good teacher in the seventh grade. Everything was review from then on. And I am so thankful I know what a passive verb is, because this is a passive verb. Being justified, which means we are not doing it. God is doing it. It is being done for us. It is being done outside of us. Did you know grammar is theologically important? Do you know that?
So, kids, if you begrudge learning grammar and parts of speech, don’t begrudge it. It will make all the difference in whether you become a heretic or not, because if you turn this around it would be heresy. If you got yourself into the justifying business and got in the business of being justified, you would be in big trouble. Maybe. Because the meaning of the word is what? It isn’t that God makes us just or makes us righteous, it is that God declares us just and declares us righteous apart from whether we are just in that moment or not. In fact, Romans 4:5 says to the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly. It takes your breath away. He justifies the ungodly. That is Romans 4:5. It is a declaration, not a transformation yet. Justification is not sanctification. You talked to them about this, right, C.J.? And all the other pastors. Justification is the first glorious act of God on ungodly people whereby he puts them into a right state before they can begin to do anything with him by the Holy Spirit to get their lives changed. And if they didn’t have forgiven sins, they couldn’t have changed sins. The only sin that you can conquer is a forgiven sin.
There is a hymn by Charles Wesley to that effect. “He breaks the power of canceled sin.” First, it is canceled. First there is justification, set right with God, as ungodly people, miracle of miracles. And then a lifetime of improving upon it by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Nine years in our church, missionary to Thailand, learned the language like that. His wife Wendy, two little children and then prostitutes. Six years now she has been back waiting, waiting, waiting. And he is still in Bangkok rejecting everything. We flew to Bangkok immediately going after this guy. He has been home three times the last six years. I get in his face. Darryl, you have got to father your children. You have got to return to your wife. And do you know what he said? I just got tired of the battle.
And all I knew to say was: You didn’t get it. You must not have been fighting right. Yes, it is a battle. Yes, it is a battle against lust. Guys, it is a constant battle. But don’t do it, Darryl. Don’t throw it away. I still hope he is coming back. Pray, would you, for Darryl Morrissey. We pray as a church for Darryl. We are counting on the day when we blow the lid off in worship for the homecoming of this prodigal after six years of alienation and unbelievable faithfulness from a wife who is waiting six years for a man that she has every right, probably, biblically to divorce. Don’t be that way. Fight on the basis of justification no matter how hard the sanctification is and how many times you stumble. Keep on going back to the fountain and saying: One thing I know. It is justification by faith alone apart from works of the law and that is my only hope if I don’t have a right standing with God by faith, I can’t make any progress in holiness through acceptance and through the Holy Spirit.
So the reason I said a minute ago maybe only maybe it is wrong to talk about justifying God is because in explaining this declarative dimension of justification I took my people some weeks ago when I was working with this text to Luke 7:29, which goes like this. When they heard this — this is the people had heard Jesus extol John the Baptist — when they heard this, all the people and the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John. Now that is an important text for understanding the meaning of justification, because clearly justification can’t mean make righteous, can it? You don’t make God righteous. But you can declare God righteous. You can say: God, you are righteous. You are just. And that is what justification means. And you turn it around and wonder of wonders he is saying it the other direction from the bench of the universe having heard the case made against us by our adversary. And he says: I have heard the case. And now I declare just, not guilty. And the whole universe does what? It rises up and says: this is unjust.
Removal of Wrath
You can’t talk like that. I mean verse 25 and 26 says: He put forward Jesus Christ his Son as a propitiation, that is, to remove the wrath of God because he had passed over former sins. The passing over of former sins creates such a crisis in the righteousness of heaven that God must kill his Son in order to vindicate his righteousness in the passing over of sin.
That is not hard for you to understand if you just contemplate David, Bathsheba and Uriah for one minute and picture yourself as the father of Bathsheba. Ok? She is taking a bath. The king, instead of being where he ought to be on the battlefield is walking around a hot on the roof of his castle. And he sees her and he wants her and he gets her because he is king and she gets pregnant and now he is in trouble and tries to get her husband to have sex with her so he thinks it is his baby and it will all be fixed. Why? A sinner, what a scum, what a rotten, no good king? And so he kills Uriah. Nathan comes under God’s appointment, tells the parable of the little sheep. David gets all mad at this guy who steals the one little sheep and Nathan — I wish I could have been there for the moment — you are the man. And David says: I have sinned against the Lord. And Nathan audaciously, presumptuously in the name of God says: The Lord has taken away your sin.
I am the father of Bathsheba listening to this thing. The Lord has taken away his sin. Oh. Just like that? He raped my daughter. He killed my son-in-law. You are just going to say he has taken away his sin. Any judge on the bench who does that is impeached. God should be impeached except for one thing. He killed his Son to show that he wasn’t scorning his glory or the life of Uriah or the sanctity of this woman. That is the point of verse 25 and 26. I put forward Jesus Christ as a demonstration of my righteousness because in former times I passed over sins previously committed. It was to show that he is righteous and is both just and the justifier of him who has faith in Jesus. Do you see what it cost for God to be both merciful and righteous in forgiving the likes of a David and you?
The only way God could be righteous and pass over John Piper’s sins and welcome him into eternal habitations is for him to say: John Piper, you spent much time before and after your conversion dishonoring my glory, the most infinitely valuable treasure in the universe. You have trampled again and again. And you do to this day a year lukewarm affections and ministries often. You have trampled my glory. My glory is worth more than anything.
“You don’t make God righteous. But you can declare God righteous.”
This is high treason and this is an ultimate outrage in the universe and there is absolutely no way that I can be a righteous God and tolerate that treatment of my glory. I must uphold my glory. I can either do it by sending you to hell forever or by sending my Son who in Gethsemane said: Father, the hour has come. Glorify yourself and the Son that the Son may glorify you. And the Father says from heaven: I have glorified it and I will glorify it again. That is what happened in Gethsemane. Jesus said: Father, all your people have trampled your glory. I with in finite value in my life am going to die for your glory to repair the injury they have done to your glory. And the Father says: You do that and tomorrow at noon accounts will be settled for everybody in this room who believes. That is awesome. All the accounts settled. And you didn’t have anything to do with it. That happened in history before you had anything to do with it, before you ever came on the scene. That transaction between the Father and the Son took place, being justified.
Now you are computing in your head, perhaps, if he spends that long on the first of our points, we are not going to get out of here. And I won’t. I will take these three, thank you, more quickly.
The Gracious Gift
The second one is that as a gift, justification comes now to us — you see the phrase. Your version probably says freely. Do you see the words freely or as a gift there in verse 24? Being justified as a gift. That little Greek word dorean occurs in texts like this — Revelation 22:17 — let him who desires take the water of life without price. There is the word, without price. So what he is saying in the little phrase justified as a gift is you can not pay for this. It has been paid for. We get to that with redemption in a minute. But that little phrase, as a gift freely, means no matter what you try to do, you cannot pay for this. It is free. It is a gift.
Number three. By his grace. So being justified, phrase one, as a gift, phrase two, by his grace, phrase three. What does that mean by his grace? Go with me to Romans chapter four verse four, just a little further down on the page, perhaps in your Bible. Romans 4:4 and let me translate it literally for you. It says that now to the one who works — that is not good works — but to the one who works, his wage is not credited — now here is a literal rendering — according to grace. Some versions say: as a favor. But if you miss the connection of grace with Romans 3:24, you don’t see the meaning of grace as fully as you would if you have the literal rendering. Now to the one who works his wage is not credited according to grace, but according to debt or what he is due.
Now, picture this. Think about this for just a minute. Grace is nullified when you try to work for it. You see that in the text. To the one who works what he gets is wages. Now what do you know about wages from 6:23? The wages are death. You don’t want wages. Believe me. You don’t want wages. You don’t want a job. You do not want to work for God. God is not looking for employees. The gospel is not a help wanted sign. It is a help available sign.
So you have got to sign on as a welfare recipient, not an employee. So grace is the counterpart to faith and wage is the counterpart to works. If you want to work for God, you are going to get paid what you are due. And what you are due is hell. And if you don’t work, but — now this is verse five of chapter four — but trust him who justifies the ungodly — there is the word trust — then he will count your faith as righteousness and that is justification. So don’t nullify grace. Revel in grace. Revel in grace. Love grace. Bathe yourself in grace.
Last phrase, number four. Through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. This is all through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. Redemption. It is a big Greek word. It has in it a little Greek word. The big Greek word is apolutroseōs and the little Greek word embedded in the middle of it is *lutron, apolutroseōs *. And that little Greek word is used one time, that little one, one time in the New Testament and it is parallel. Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28. The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life a what? That is the word. Ransom. To give his life a ransom for many. The Son of God came into the world because you were enthralled in the Egypt of bondage and condemnation and sin.
And Leon Morris and his excellent book The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross defines redemption, this bigger word, as a release through payment. The ransom is the payment. The release is the redemption. So if you want to clarify in your own head what does the word redemption men in relation to ransom, the ransom is the payment. The redemption is the release, the effect of the ransom. So when it says in verse 24 that it is all through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, it means through the effective deliverance or release out of sin and out of guilt and out of condemnation through a payment and the payment is Jesus Christ.
So let me close by asking this one question and I have to go outside verse 24, because gloriously verse 24 doesn’t say anything about faith. I say gloriously because it is so good just to sometimes bathe in the objective, external work done by God before you ever came on the scene. And when Jesus died he upheld the glory of God. He propitiated the wrath of God. He paid ransom. He upheld and vindicated the righteousness of God and you had nothing to do with it. And it is in savoring the beauty of that historical, wrought out this is the now of verse 21. I said we would come back to this now. Now a righteousness of God has been revealed apart from the works of the law or apart from the law. The now is the point of the death of Jesus Christ. When all that great work was done for you before you had anything to do with it. But here we are at the end of my message and the question is: How do you get in on it? Because not everybody is in on it. And the answer that we have already seen and I will just underscore it with verse 27 and 28 — going outside the paragraph.
Listen how he closes or I will close anyway. He has got another 13 chapters to go. Where then is boasting? It is excluded. On what law or principle is it excluded? A principle or a law of works? No. On the principle of faith. For we reckoned that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law. How do you get connected with this glorious salvation by which wrath has been averted from the people of God, ransom has been paid for the people of God, a declaration of innocence and justice has been bought for the people of God and the righteousness of God has been vindicated and upheld for the people of God, how do you become a part of the people of God so that all of that is yours? And the answer is: in a way that eliminates boasting.
Put All Boasting Aside
If you try to get in on this by a pathway that undergirds boasting, you nullify grace and undermine all the land of redemption, because it is all meant to put boasting to an end and exalt the glory of grace. And so the question becomes the key existential question in this room right now for every soul is: What can I do — scary word — what can I do such that when I tonight have done it, there will be in the doing of it no ground for boasting in the doing of it? What is that? And his answer is: faith. Oh, is it any wonder, then, that he takes chapter four, chapter five, chapter six, chapter seven to tell us what faith is? It is the most important existential, internal reality that you can ever experience, because it connects you with the glorious finished redemption and it is the only act of the human soul that you cannot boast in.
And I finish my sermon there yesterday. I wed together here about six sermons tonight. So I finished at this point yesterday in my first service. I went out in front and I said: Let’s be a humble people. Oh, God, make us a humble people. Put all boasting out of this room and out of this church. And when people walk out of here and there is a nick in their door, don’t let them get angry, but be thankful they have got a car. Make us a humble people. And then I began... people crowd all around me and some want prayer. And two of them asked this fateful question. Why can’t you boast in faith? Why does faith exclude boasting?
So I am going to close so I reproached my sermon. See, I get to do it twice. There are good reasons for doing two services, but you have got good reasons for only doing one service. We do two, because I get to then fix all my mistakes in the second service or answer everybody’s question so the service always goes longer, right, John?
Unmerited, Undeserved Grace
So here was my answer in the second service at it came to the end of the service, I said: Now some of you are asking: Why does faith exclude boasting? Can’t you boast that you are a believer? And I said there are two answers to that. One is in this text and one is on other texts. The first answer is: It belongs to the very essence of faith that it looks away from itself to grace. And in the instant that faith. So picture me now as a human being who has faith and suddenly my faith starts to become a little bit conscious of itself and step outside of John Piper like this. So I am still standing there. And the faith looks at itself and says that is good. You were spiritually astute. Way to go. The reason faith cannot do that is the millisecond that faith takes its eyes off of grace and begins to look at the quality of its performance, it is no longer faith. That is just not what faith does. Faith does not do that. The very essence of the meaning of faith is that it is the gift by which we relentlessly focus on unmerited, undeserved grace that is lavishing us.
And there is one more reason and it is the final end of all boasting and you all know what it is and it comes either from Philippians 1:29 or Ephesians 2:8–9 or 2 Timothy 2:24–26. And the answer is: Faith is a gift of God. By grace are you saved through faith and that not of yourselves, not of works. It is the gift of God lest anyone should boast. The reason boasting is excluded at the end is that faith by its nature cannot contemplate itself and feel good about itself. And by its origin is a gift of God. It is granted unto PDI — I close with this. This is the word of God, Philippians 1:29. It is granted unto PDI both to suffer and to believe on the name of Jesus Christ. It is granted to you. It is given to you. It is freely given to you and that excludes all boasting from this movement. It exalts grace. It magnifies God. It brings down the gift of justification and it gives you the peace of God and makes you mighty and fearless in the world.