10 Steps to Holiness – Ten: The Bottom Line

10 Steps to Holiness[1] – Ten: The Bottom Line

Romans 8:37-39

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Over the summer, we have been learning that believers are to work out our salvation by applying gospel truth into our lives because the Holy Spirit is working in us to will and to do according to his good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13). But what is the Spirit’s “end game?” What is the goal as He works salvation into us and we respond by working it out? What is the bottom line to salvation (both justification and sanctification)? The answer is: GLORY. We were created to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Ultimately, we will enjoy him forever because we will share Christ’s glory. Paul wrote in Romans 8:29-30:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. [2]

We don’t work out how the gospel applies to our lives to EARN glory, we work out gospel living because glory is already our sure and certain possession. Holiness/sanctification is the outworking of our minds being renewed by the love of God in Christ Jesus so that we act according to what we trust – that God loves us perfectly, unconditionally, and eternally.

One of Paul’s major pastoral concerns in Romans is: How can those who trust into Christ be convinced they are special, glory-bound objects of God’s love? “Does God truly love me when bad stuff is happening to me? Does God really keep on loving me when I find myself thinking and doing sinful things? What if I am not measuring up to God’s demands? Isn’t it possible my failures can cut off God’s love?

The apostle has been clear in this letter that when we feel guilt and condemnation and pressure, it is NOT God who is attacking us. It is our own sin nature and the evil one who bring condemnation and guilt and nurture the belief that God has become unloving or less loving. The Holy Spirit will use God’s holy law to bring loving conviction of sin and repentance to believers. But he doesn’t bring guilt and condemnation. Why? Because, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1); and, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?” (8:33-34).

One teacher sums up Romans 8 this way:

“We are free from judgment because Christ died for us and we have His righteousness. We are free from defeat because Christ lives in us by His Spirit and we share His life. We are free from discouragement because Christ is coming for us and we shall share His glory. We are free from fear because Christ intercedes for us and we cannot be separated from His love. No condemnation! No obligation! No frustration! No separation!”[3]

SUPER-CONQUERING SHEEP (8:37)

Right-side Up Perspective

In 8:36, Paul quotes Psalm 44: “we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” Then, immediately after that quote, he wrote: “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Do you see that strange image in your mind’s eye? We are conquering sheep. Isn’t that interesting? Usually, we think of lions or bears or wolves or sharks as conquerors; but not the meek and timid sheep. Prey conquerors predators, says Paul – a very upside-down idea!

Even more interesting is the fact that Paul says we are super-conquering (hypernikōmen) sheep. How can despised, rejected sheep be conquerors? How can those who are troubled, persecuted, exposed to famine and nakedness, danger and sword be super-conquering sheep? We are super-conquering sheep because the world is broken by sin and human beings inherit an upside-down perspective of God’s love from Adam. Maybe a better way to put it would be: sin creates an entirely HORIZONTAL perspective. We draw our views from what we see around us, next to us. Our sin natures live by observation, not revelation.

Fallen human beings cannot think like God thinks without being given the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16). Even when we are re-born of the Spirit, it still takes a lifetime of hard training to trust with the eyes of revelation. We look around far more easily and frequently than we look up at Mount Calvary and Mt. Zion. So, things that feel and seem terrible to us, are the very things God says are good for us. Our grasp of who we are in Christ, NOT the illusion worldly success or failure, is how God makes us more than conquerors. We STAND in the reality of grace despite the illusions of worldly circumstances (good or bad).

If you belong to Jesus, he counts you worthy to suffer (Acts 5:41) for his name, to be made strong in weakness, to be made a winner by losing, to be rich by being needy, to be freed by being imprisoned – all for [his] sake (8:36). Your reality is eternal, not temporal! That’s how we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. The demonstration of God’s love for us is NEVER to be found in the horizontal circumstances of our lives; our sin nature is expert at misinterpreting circumstances, at confusing illusion and shadow with eternal reality. The demonstration of God’s unconditional, one-way love for us is found at Mt. Calvary (8:32).

So, the first way we are made into hyper-conquering sheep is by trusting God’s revelation over our observation. The Holy Spirit turns our thinking right-side up; he transforms us by the renewing of our minds in God’s Word. It’s a life-long supernatural process.

Supernatural Struggle

We are more than conquerors because we are fighting an enemy who is more than human. It’s a supernatural battle. That’s how Paul ends his letter to the Church of Ephesus, reminding them that:

…our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12).

Satan is not God’s equal. He is a created being so he’s not all-knowing, all-powerful, and everywhere-present at once; only God has those attributes. But he is a higher creature than humans and very dangerous to Jesus’ followers. The devil devises more schemes in a minute than we can conceive in a lifetime, and all of them are directed toward our destruction. How can we stand against such an evil, crafty foe, let alone be a “superconqueror” of him and his forces? It is not in our own strength, of course. It is as the text says: “through him who loved us.”[4]

Jesus prays for our perseverance, our ability to stand in God’s one-way love as the world quakes around us and evil powers assail us and our own sin nature craves after glory. The devil wants to sift us like wheat. We, like Peter, will fail. But those failures are opportunities to see more of God’s love in Christ so that we can strengthen our brothers and sisters in their struggles (Lk. 22:31-32). That is NOT “celebrating sin.” That is acknowledging the reality that God uses even our sin and all the forces of darkness for the ultimate purpose of glorifying Christ, who shares his glory with his sheep.

We read last week what Paul wrote to the Corinth Church of his fight against the spiritual forces of evil in 2 Cor. 12:7-10:

7 …to keep me from becoming conceited …a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me…. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Do you see how God sovereignly uses the forces of evil to accomplish his goal of making his people reflect Christ’s glory through weakness, suffering, and even sin and failure? God uses even your most powerful enemies to bring victory in Jesus! We are superconquering sheep because our sovereign, all-powerful Father turns the enemy’s efforts into a force for Jesus’ glory!

Maybe you’re worn out and frazzled as a struggling mom or dad. Your energy is low. Perhaps your bank account has more cobwebs than cash. You’re terrified that whatever process you are using to produce excellent children is not producing the results you demand for your own sense of accomplishment and happiness and the ability to control your kids’ future.

Maybe your business is not where you need it to be. Perhaps your future is uncertain and unplannable. Maybe you feel utterly defeated because you continue to struggle against some personal failure, some recurring sin, no matter how many resolutions you make to try harder and do more.

And in all these things YOU are a loser by observation (not revelation). The Holy Spirit has a word for you this morning: “GOOD!” It’s not YOUR strength that’s sufficient; God’s grace is sufficient for you. The gospel is for losers; not winners – for sheep not lions. Elders are meant to be under-shepherds not lion-tamers! Your Old Adam’s thinking is upside down. But God is turning your mindset right-side up. When you see yourself as a loser you are ready to learn something more of the Theology of the Cross: the struggle now is bound together with the victory later.

CONVINCED SHEEP (8:38-39)

Persuasion

Paul writes that he is persuaded (convinced, sure, certain) that [nothing] in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. That is the REAL theology of victory! This is revelation of which we need to be persuaded. It’s not something we can just work out in the power of our own intellect. You can have a solid understanding of theology and have no assurance of God’s love at all. You need to be inwardly persuaded by the power of the Gospel through the work of Christ in you, the hope of glory. I think one large reason Christians complain so much about politics, economics, and public morality today is because we are afraid to rest in the absolute assurance of God’s love.

Isn’t it possible that what you’re really saying is that God cannot work in circumstances beyond your approval and control – that His love is not powerful enough to reach to you and your loved ones in a different cultural or moral climate? If that is true of you, and very often it is true of me as I think from observation and not revelation, then you and I need to be more and more convinced of the superconquering love of God in Christ Jesus.

The question is not what the future holds, but who holds the future. For PAUL to be convinced of this superconquering love he endured countless beatings, imprisonments, and dangerous circumstances, personal conflicts with hateful angry people, illnesses, discouragements, failures, and constant God-ordained afflictions by demonic forces, and ultimately, decapitation. And all of it was the true “victorious Christian life”!

Paul’s life was utterly upside-down from the “Great Roman Dream,” or the “Great American Dream.” And it was all the upside-downesss that produced an apostle with nothing left to which to cling but the unshakeable, eternal one-way love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Persuasion comes from losing; not winning. I’m not minimizing your fear or your pain and suffering. I feel it. But, if you’re lacking and losing this morning, Jesus says to you, “Good! You’re beginning to win. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Matt. 11:28). You are and shall be a superconquering sheep; your trials are making you right-side up in an upside down, temporary world.

You need to know that your persuasion of God’s love is the focal point of Satan’s attack on your life.  It has been since Eden. It will be so as long as you live on this earth. Your superconquering status comes from Christ’s eternal victory; it ensures you an eternity of victory following a lifetime of struggle to trust into the revelation of God’s love in Christ Jesus. Glory follows the cross. That lifetime struggle to be persuaded of God’s love is why we must come to have God serve us through preaching and sacraments Sunday after Sunday.

No “What If” or “Who”

In verse 35-36, Paul makes it clear there is no “what if,” no situation that can take us away from God’s one-way love in Christ Jesus. Whatever you go through, Paul has been there, done that, and has any number of physical and emotional scars to prove it. In these couplets of v. 38, he lists two more “what ifs,” death and life. Death separates us from this present, upside down world and the people we love in it; but “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). We gain uninterrupted glory because death has been swallowed up in Christ’s victory over the grave (Isa. 25:8; Hos. 13:14; 1 Cor. 15:54-57; 2 Tim. 1:10).

Life can become so complicated, so exhausting that we “feel” cut off from God.  But Paul has been telling us that revelation trumps observation as we learn to stand in grace through our sufferings. And then, in these last two verses, he gets down to the “who” of our opposition – creatures of God outside our normal experience: angels and demons [ESV: rulers] that might have power to take us away from God’s love.

It is good for us to know this, because—although we do not fear the elect angels (they are “ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation,” Heb. 1:14)—we are rightly on guard against the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). These forces produce separations, because evil divides. Indeed, the very name “devil” (Greek, diabolos) means “separator.” But although the fallen angels can produce many kinds of divisions, there is nothing they can do that can ever separate us from Christ.[5]

We know it because Jesus has defeated these evil forces at the cross. Paul told the Colossians:

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. …And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 2:13–15).

No spiritual being, either good or bad, can ever point out ANYTHING unlovely about you to the Father because, by God’s eternal and unalterable decree, you have been folded into Father’s love for the Son. You are in union with Christ. So, when God looks at you he sees only Christ! He is infinitely pleased.

“…nor things present nor things to come….” Hard things are pressing down on some of us right now. If not, then be patient for hard days will come. That’s how God conforms you to the image of his Son; he pries the idols out of your clenched hands so you will cling to him in trust and stand in his all-sufficient grace. Even Jesus, in his perfect humanity, learned obedience through what he suffered (Heb. 5:8).

“…nor powers…..There is no dynamic in the universe – situational, physical or spiritual – that can take you away from God’s one-way love. Paul is summing up all the couplets he’s mentioned so far: powers of death and life, powers of angels and demons, powers of the present and of the future—and says in summary fashion that there are no powers anywhere that can divide us from Christ.

“…39 nor height nor depth….” Paul might be speaking about heaven and hell here – the unseen places. So, there is no place the love of God for his people does not reach. God is everywhere at once; his love is everywhere at once.

Finally he says, “nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” There is no situation, no item, no power of which you can possibly think, nothing you can imagine or invent, nothing that actually exists now, nothing that will come to pass in the future that can or will steal you away from your place in God’s eternal and unchangeable love for himself. The sheer force of divine love is unconquerable, hyperconquering! It is the most dynamic force in the universe!

What does “anything else in all creation” include? The answer is that it includes everything that exists except God, since God has created all these other things. So, if God is for us and if God controls everything else, since he has made it, then absolutely nothing anywhere will be able to separate us from his love for us folded into his love for Christ Jesus.

That brings us right back to the beginning of the passage: in all these things we are superconquerors through him who loved us.  Let me leave you with an image of a superconquering sheep.  It sounds so utterly upside down, doesn’t it?  How could a helpless lamb be a conquering predator? How could something that died in humiliation live in triumph?

Turn with me to Revelation chapter 5. There John sees a vision of a scroll representing God’s perfect plan for time and eternity; but no one is found worthy to open the scroll.  John starts to cry. Then we read this, beginning at verse 5:

And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” [There’s our conquering predator.] And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, having been slain…. [But our conquering predator is actually a murdered-but-living sheep!] And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll /and to open its seals, /  for you were slain, /and by your blood you ransomed people for God / from every tribe and language and people and nation, / 10and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, / and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:5-10).

Beloved, if you are trusting into Christ Jesus this morning, you ARE a superconquering sheep because you are united into Christ, the Lion-Lamb, and you will share eternally in Christ’s glory. That’s the bottom line!

 

[1] This series, with otherwise-noted sources, is a condensed version of Devoted to God: Blueprints For Sanctification by Sinclair Ferguson. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust (2016). Part 10 is much more “mine” than Ferguson’s – so don’t blame him if you don’t like it.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ro 8:29–30.

[3] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 543.

[4] Boice, 2:993.

[5] Id., 1003.