Romans

“The Master of the Jigsaw Puzzle of Our Lives” (Sinclair Ferguson on the Providence of God)

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315In his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson includes a chapter dealing with what Romans 12:1-2 has to say about the doctrine of sanctification.  In v.2 the Apostle Paul says the following:

“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.” (ESV)

There Paul describes the will of God as “good and acceptable and perfect.” Now this passage, strictly speaking, primarily refers to what is known as the preceptive will of God. That is, the will of God as it has been revealed in Scripture regarding how we as believers in Christ are to live. We are to seek to discern and do the will of God. And in doing so, we will find His will to be good, acceptable, and perfect.

But, as Ferguson points out, this passage also has application to the will of God in general, and so even to what is known as His secret or decretive will. And so that means that it has application to the providence of God as well. He writes,

” . . .God’s will is ‘perfect’ because his wisdom is flawless. We see this in small things, perhaps sometimes in great things. The Lord is the master of the jigsaw puzzle of our lives. The pieces may be strangely shaped; often we cannot see how they fit together; but eventually when the big picture is complete we will see that each piece was perfectly shaped. He leads us by ways we could not have guessed, into situations we never expected, to fulfil [sic] purposes we never could have imagined.” (p.52)

What a beautiful way to describe the believer’s perception of God’s providential care over his or her life. It is sometimes very difficult for us to understand what God is doing in our lives. But God truly is the “master of the jigsaw puzzle of our lives.” And He knows what He is doing in our lives, even when we do not. It brings to mind the old, classic hymn by William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” One of the verses of that hymn puts it this way:

“Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.”

What a comfort to know that the will of God is indeed perfect, and that behind every frowning providence He hides a smiling face. Our lives may sometimes seem like a jigsaw puzzle to us, but never to God!

A Mutilated Faith

calvin-commentaryWhat does it mean to believe in Jesus Christ? What is faith? The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines faith as follows:

Q. 86. What is faith in Jesus Christ?
A. Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.

So saving faith is faith that ‘receives and rests upon’ Christ alone for salvation. And true saving faith receives and rests upon Christ “as he is offered to us in the gospel.” It must be said that much of what often passes as preaching of the gospel of Christ does not fit that description. For how is Christ offered to us in the gospel? Is Christ offered as the Savior from the penalty of sin only, or as the Savior from sin – from its penalty, power, and (in the life to come), even its very presence?

The Scriptures plainly tell us that Jesus came to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21), and that His gospel is sent forth to offer both forgiveness and sanctification (Acts 26:18). Clearly, then, Christ is offered to us in the gospel both for our justification as well as our sanctification, and He must be received as such.

Calvin (in commenting on Romans 8:13), puts it this way:

“It is, indeed, true, that we are justified in Christ by the mercy of God alone, but it is equally true and certain, that all who are justified are called by the Lord to live worthy of their vocation. Let believers, therefore, learn to embrace Him, not only for justification, but also for sanctification, as He has been given to us for both these purposes, that they may not rend him asunder by their own mutilated faith.” (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 10, p.167)

Those who would believe in Christ for justification alone (i.e. for forgiveness and acceptance before God as righteous as in His sight), but not also for sanctification, have a (to use Calvin’s phrase) “mutilated faith” that effectively seeks to ‘rend Christ asunder’ (or split Him in two). But a divided faith in a divided Christ saves no one. So let us learn, as Calvin says, to embrace Christ for sanctification as well as justification, for “he has been given to us for both these purposes.”

The Difference Between Justification & Sanctification

WCFWhat is the difference between justification & sanctification?  Good question. The Westminster Larger Catechism (not surprisingly) supplies us with a very helpful answer:

Q.77. Wherein do justification and sanctification differ? A. Although sanctification is inseparably joined with justification, yet they differ, in that God in justification imputes the righteousness of Christ; in sanctification His Spirit infuses grace, and enables the exercise thereof; in the former, sin is pardoned; in the other, it is subdued: the one does equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation; the other is neither equal in all, nor in this life perfect in any, but growing up to perfection.

So the first thing this tells us is that we must distinguish between the two, but never separate them. You cannot have one without the other (as they are “inseparably joined”), but they differ in significant ways. How, then, do they differ?

First, justification involves the imputation (or reckoning, accounting) of Christ’s righteousness, while sanctification involves the actual infusion of grace and the enabling to exercise it in daily life.  You may recall that the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification mistakenly teaches that justification involves the infusion (rather than the imputation) of Christ’s righteousness. But the biblical doctrine of justification is that in Christ all believers are declared righteous, rather than made righteous. This is what Paul is speaking of in Romans 4:3-5,

“For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness . . . .”

Abraham was not justified by works, but by believing God at His Word in the promise of the gospel. Justification is (to borrow the words of v.5) a matter of God ‘justifying the ungodly’ (or the “wicked” – NIV), not matter of God making the ungodly person godly. (That would be sanctification.)

The second difference noted above in the Larger Catechism is that in justification sin is forgiven, while in sanctification it is subdued. In the former, all believers in Christ are forever freed from the just penalty of their sins – the wrath of God. But in the latter, the  grace of God works in the lives of believers to subdue the power of sin over their lives. In other words, in justification we are viewed and accepted by God as sinless because we are in Christ; but in sanctification we begin to actually and objectively sin less than we did before coming to Christ by faith.

The third difference is a very important one, and that is that all believers are equally & perfectly justified, but sanctification can and does differ from one believer to the next in this life. There are no degrees of justification (i.e. you are either justified before God or you are not), but there most certainly are differing degrees of sanctification. Not only that, but while all believers are perfectly justified in this life, none of us are perfectly sanctified in this life. Not a one. In this life all believers are, by the grace of God, “growing up to perfection.”

So let us never separate justification and sanctification – they belong together. The one who has been once and for all time justified in Christ will also presently be in the process of being sanctified in this life. But let us also avoid the opposite mistake of confusing the two or mixing them up. To do that is to (at minimum) hinder our growth in grace, or even (at worst) to deny the gospel itself.

The Most Important Sentences In All of Literature

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In his commentary on the book of Romans, James Boice makes the following observation on Romans 1:16-17:

In the sixteenth and seventeenth verses of Romans 1, we come to sentences that are most important in the letter and perhaps in all literature. They are the theme of this epistle and the essence of Christianity. They are the heart of biblical religion. (Romans Vol.1, p.103)

What are these sentences that are the most important in the book of Romans (arguably the most important book of the Bible) and perhaps all of literature?

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17 ESV)

Why are these simple sentences in the opening chapter of Romans so vitally important? Boice explains:

The reason this is so is that they tell how a man or woman may become right with God. (ibid)

Could there be anything more important (or relevant) than that? 

That is why the gospel is the theme of Romans.

That is why the gospel is the essence of Christianity.

That is why the gospel is the heart of biblical religion.

We are all in desperate need of righteousness – perfect righteousness – but on our own we are anything but righteous.  And it is only through faith in Christ Jesus as he is offered to us in the gospel that God imputes or accounts to us the perfect, spotless righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ by faith.

Not only are our sins fully and forever forgiven because of the death of Jesus Christ in our place, but His perfect righteousness is also accounted to us by faith!   We don’t just have a clean slate – we have a perfectly righteous slate – the slate of Jesus Christ himself! (No wonder they call it the good news!)

That is why God can accept sinful men and women like us as righteous in His sight, “only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.33).  God Himself provides us with the very righteousness that He requires of us!

Are you trusting in Jesus Christ alone for salvation?  If so, you can know that even though you are a sinner who deserves the wrath of a holy God, you are fully and forever accepted by God on the merits of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, accounted to you by faith.  What could be more important than that!

“At Home” In Sin?

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Some strong, but ever-so-timely words from the late John Murray (1898-1975) regarding the effectual calling of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers:

“If we find ourselves at home in the ungodliness, lust, and filth of this present world, it is because we have not been called effectually by God’s grace.” (John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, p.92)

What is effectual calling?  The Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q.31) defines it as “the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convicting us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, He does persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.”

So in other words, if we (to use Murray’s phrase) still “find ourselves at home in the ungodliness, lust, and filth of this present world” it shows that the Holy Spirit has not worked in us to convict us of our sin and misery.  Sinners who are “at home” in sin do not perceive the sinfulness of sin.  Sinners who are “at home” in sin do not see it as the source of their misery.

And so Murray is also saying that being “at home” in sin is also evidence that one has not truly been enlightened in the knowledge of Christ, nor has he or she truly embraced Jesus Christ by faith as He is freely offered to us in the gospel.  All this is to say that being “at home” in sin is evidence that one is not yet truly a believer in Christ at all.

Are you “at home” in sin?  Then, simply put, you are not yet a Christian.

But there is a world of difference between being “at home” in sin (in other words, seeing nothing wrong with it, being quite comfortable in it), and being a believer who simply struggles with sin.  Struggling with sin shows that one is convicted that it is, in fact, sin.  Struggling with sin shows that one is convicted of the misery of sin.

If you are a believer in Jesus Christ and are struggling with sin, welcome to the club!  You are in some pretty good company.  Even the Apostle Paul himself struggled with sin!  Look at his words in Romans 7:15-23 (ESV):

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

Sound familiar? Feel familiar?

And what was his solution?  Look at what he wrote in the next two verses:

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:24-25 ESV)

When you feel the weight of your struggle with sin, let that drive you all the more to Jesus Christ.  Cling to Him by faith.  Thanks be to God through Jesus our Lord, for He is the One who will deliver us from this body of death!

Obstacles to Evangelism Part VII – Laziness?

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Some convicting words from Richard Phillips:

Many of us are ineffective evangelists simply because we are too lazy and self-centered. We are not willing to cross the street to meet people. We do not care enough for the eternal destiny of friends, family members, and co-workers to risk the social hazard of talking about the Lord. (Jesus the Evangelist, p.111)

Sadly, this might be one of the primary reasons behind our lack of evangelism & outreach.

We might well be pleasantly surprised by what the Lord would do through us if we would just step out in faith by reaching out to someone with the gospel or even just a simple invitation to worship with us at church on Sunday.

As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 10:14-15,

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”

May more and more of us have such beautiful feet!  And may the Lord Jesus be glorified in the making of many disciples in his name!