January 2, 1993
Listen to this Sermon
Certain passages of Scripture stand out in God’s Word as mountain peaks. By virtue of their theme, their content, their exalted message, certain passages seem to rise above the ordinary landscape of the Bible. Psalm 23 comes to mind. So does Isaiah 53, John 3, Philippians 4 and Hebrews 11. Christians the world over have been drawn to those texts because they speak the universal language of the heart.
Our text today is one of those mountain peaks of Holy Scripture. Beyond all controversy, these verses are among the greatest in all the Bible. I think it’s fair to say that more people have gone to heaven because of this passage than from any other passage in the book of Romans.
In these verses you have a clear portrayal of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They show us our need and God’s supply and the results that accrue to us. In writing this message I am asking God to help me take these profound truths and make them simple enough for anyone to understand.
I. Our Impossible Problem
We begin by looking at four words Paul uses to describe your spiritual condition apart from Jesus Christ. Here is God’s estimation of the human race as each one of us comes into this world.
Verse 6: When we were still powerless,
Christ died for the ungodly
Verse 8: While we were still sinners
Verse 10: We were God’s enemies
Powerless … ungodly … sinners … enemes. Not a very pretty list, is it? But those four words describe what you were by nature from the moment you were born. They also describe the spiritual state of every person in the world apart from Jesus Christ.
I’m going to attach a little phrase to each of those words. Each phrase is a simple way to bring the verses home to your heart. Together they show us our impossible problem.
First of all, we are …
A. Unable to Change Our Basic Nature 6
That’s the basic meaning of “powerless.” Some translations use the word “helpless.” The King James Version says “without strength.” The Living Bible renders the phrase this way: “When we were utterly helpless with no way of escape.” The word itself actually means “weak” and usually refers to a physical weakness of the body. Here the meaning is not physical, but spiritual. Paul is saying that as we stand before God, we are completely powerless to change our basic nature.
It was Poor Richard’s Almanac that gave us the phrase “God helps those who help themselves.” Perhaps no greater heresy has been foisted upon the American public. The Bible nowhere teaches any such thing. The biblical view is radically different: “God helps those who can’t help themselves.” Or if you prefer, “God helps those who are willing to admit they cannot help themselves.”
As I thought about this truth, my mind was drawn to the current debate over the roots of homosexuality. Is it learned behavior? Is there some genetic predisposition? What part does family upbringing play? Is sexual orientation fixed at the moment of birth? Can a homosexual ever change?
Radical gay activists have succeeded in co-opting the mainstream media with the view that homosexuality is a fixed reality for a certain percentage of the population. They argue that any attempts to “cure” gays and lesbians is a cruel hoax, because no one can change his basic sexual orientation. How can you “cure” someone of a condition over which they have no control?
In reply, two things must be noted. Without regard to the murky question of origins, the Bible clearly and always presents homosexual behavior as sinful. Romans 1:26-27 settles the issue forever by showing that widespread homosexuality is one mark of a godless and depraved society. On the question of changing basic nature, the gay activists are partly right and partly wrong. They are right that those who practice homosexuality cannot change themselves. But they are wrong when they suggest a homosexual cannot be changed. I would argue that it is virtually impossible apart from Jesus Christ to re-direct the sexual drives of a committed homosexual. That’s what Paul seems to be saying in Romans 5:6. Once sin grips us, we are powerless to change ourselves.
Homosexuals need what every person needs: A life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ. Only in him is there power to change the unchangeable.
By the way, that is why all efforts to improve society based on moral reformation must ultimately fail. You can change yourself on the outside; you can learn new patterns of speaking and thinking; you can reprogram yourself to stop certain kinds of self-destructive behavior. But you can never change your basic nature by self-effort. It simply is not possible. You are powerless to change your basic nature. If it is to be changed, the power must be provided by some outside source.
A second phrase further describes our impossible problem. By nature, we all …
B. Live as if God Did Not Exist 8
The word is “ungodly.” One commentator explains this word as being “mighty in evil.” Precisely because we cannot change our basic nature, we live our lives as if God did not exist. We invent our own morality; we live to please ourselves; we go our own way; we do that which is right in our own eyes. In short, we set ourselves up as God and then worship ourselves.
Remember, to be “godless” doesn’t mean wallowing in sin like a pig rolling in mud. It applies as much to the moral man as to the mass murderer. The one is just as godless as the other. It’s just manifested in more socially acceptable ways. But fundamentally the Wall Street tycoon is just as godless as Jeffrey Dahmer. It’s really not that far from the country club to the state pen. Only the outer things are changed. Inside every man (and every woman) lurks a desire to be his own God.
The third phrase describes the futility of life without Jesus. Apart from him, we …
C. Always Miss the Mark 8
Verse 8 says, “While we were yet sinners.” The word means to “miss the mark.” It’s the picture of the archer who takes aim, looks straight at the bull’s eye, pulls the bowstring taut, shoots the arrow … and misses the entire target. He thought he was aiming in the right place, but something happens and the arrow never hits the target. No matter how many arrows he shoots, the result is always the same. He always misses the mark.
That’s what it means to be a sinner. You try and you fail. You try and you fail. You try and you fail. You do your best but your best isn’t good enough. You set high standards for your life, but somehow you always fall short.
One final phrase describes your life without Jesus. You are therefore …
D. Hostile Toward God 10
Verse 10 says, “When we were God’s enemies.” Think about it. Before you came to Christ, you were one of God’s enemies. You say, “But I always loved God.” No you didn’t. Apart from Jesus Christ, it is impossible to truly love God. How can you love him without also loving his Son? How can you love the Father while rejecting the Son? No amount of sentimental sugar-coating can reduce the stark truth. You were an enemy of God!
First there is hostility which leads to the fear of facing God someday. It’s the picture of prisoners of war now facing their captors for the first time. They attempt to be brave but their hearts are filled with fear. They were
captured on enemy soil. They can be put to death at any moment. They have no means of escape. They are enemies of the state. They have good reason to be afraid.
It’s the same with sinners the world over. Beneath the bravado, the bluster, the big talk, they fear standing before a righteous God someday and giving account for their actions.
The Stark Truth About You
Let’s sum up what we’ve discovered so far. To be powerless means you can’t change your basic nature. To be ungodly means you live as if God does not exist. To be a sinner means you constantly try and fail because you keep on missing the mark. To be an enemy means hostility toward God and a fear of facing him someday.
This is God’s judgment on the entire human race. No one is excluded. Search the four corners of the globe and you find no exceptions to the truth. Not only are all men sinners, but all men by nature are powerless, ungodly and the enemies of God.
And may I say that it doesn’t matter whether you accept this truth or not. These things are true without regard to your personal opinion. You may say, “I’m not ungodly” or “I’m not God’s enemy” or even “I know lots of people who are worse sinners than I am.” But God’s Word simply washes away your limp objections. This is the truth about you as you stand on your own before God apart from divine grace.
This truth leaves us with no hope in ourselves. You might somehow reverse one or two of these facts but no one could escape all four. As a result, you are utterly unable to save yourself. Your condition is hopeless apart from Jesus Christ.
We may therefore draw one major conclusion from all this: God’s love is not dependent on anything in you because there is nothing in you worth loving. That is, there is nothing in you that forces God to love you. It’s not that you are such a naturally loveable person. You aren’t. And neither am I. Sin has infected your life so that it has distorted and destroyed even the parts of you that you believe to be beautiful. Sin “uglyfies” everything it touches. Sin has made us so ugly that God finds nothing in us that forces him to love us.
There is, then, no reason for God to love us. No reason except this: That’s the kind of God he is. He loves you and he loves me because God is love and he can’t help loving us even when we are his enemies. His love is both greater than our sin and in spite of our sin. God shouldn’t love us … but he does. This is the wonder of the ages. That God would love his sworn enemies.
(I pause to interject this point. Someone might find this point very discouraging because we all like to think of ourselves as naturally loveable. I would reply that God is actually very comforting. If God loves you only when you are loveable, then when you stop being loveable, God would have to stop loving you! Where would you be then?)
No, it’s better to admit the truth. God loves us in spite of our unloveliness. That means that God’s love is sure and certain because it doesn’t depend on anything you say or do.
II. God’s Incredible Solution
Now we turn to God’s incredible solution to man’s impossible problem. Verses 7-8 reveal the unearthly nature of God’s love. His solution to our problem is so unusual that it goes far beyond human reason. We would never think this up on our own. Only God could conceive of this solution. Two statements summarize this truth:
A. He went far beyond what we would do. 7
“Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.” Here’s a good question for you to discuss over lunch tomorrow. How many people are you willing to die for? If the chips were down, the moment came, and in a split second you had to make a decision, how many people would you be willing to lay down your life for—with no hesitation or reservation?
Let’s say you and your son are eating in an Italian restaurant in North Carolina when a gunman comes in and without warning begins to fire at the diners. What do you do? Duck under the nearest table? Attack the gunman? Or somehow shield your son? For James F. Kidd of Wheaton the answer came in a split second. He was visiting his son who was stationed at Fort Bragg. They decided to try an Italian restaurant near the base. While they were eating a man burst in and began shooting at random. When it was over, 11 people had died—including James Kidd. In the confusion he had shielded his son from the gunman. He died of a fatal gunshot to the back.
“He was a good man, a good father and a good husband. He died saving his son. What more can you say?” his widow said. Indeed, nothing more can be said. He gave his life to save his son.
So how many people would you die for? Only a few. A handful and no more. Your parents, your children, your husband or wife, and perhaps one or two very close friends. But that’s about it. As I thought about it, my list is very small. In the first place, you never know until the moment comes, and you pray never to be put in that agonizing position. But what if you were?
Our text is telling us that all of us would die for a few other people—close friends and family members, people we greatly admire—but even that is very rare. The circle is very small. To be honest, there are many people you love dearly but you’re not sure you’re ready to take a bullet in the back for them.
There are some people we would die for. There are many more we admire but we probably wouldn’t die for. There are others we barely know that we would never consider dying for. There are millions and billions of others whose lives don’t even figure into the equation.
We’ve all read those heroic stories where someone gives his life to save a stranger. This week I read a story about a mining disaster. Two men were trapped in a mine. They had two oxygen masks but one had been broken in the collapse of the walls. One man said to the other, “You take it. You’ve got a wife and children. I don’t have anybody. I can go. You’ve got to stay.” The one man voluntarily died so the other might live. When we hear a story like that, we feel as if we’re standing on holy ground. And indeed we are, for such sacrifice is rare indeed.
Or we can imagine a situation during the Vietnam war. It’s late at night and a Marine sergeant is talking with his men. They are far into the jungle, deep in enemy territory. It’s cold and the men huddle around a tiny fire to keep warm. Suddenly a grenade flies in from the darkness, landing at the sergeant’s feet. Without thinking, he throws himself on the grenade, taking the full force of the blast with his body. He is blown to pieces, but in his death he saves his men. He gave his life for his friends.
But listen carefully. Romans 5:7 is telling us that God’s love is not like that. Those examples show us friends dying for friends and loved ones dying for loved ones. As great as that is, God’s love is much greater. We can at least understand what those people did when they sacrificed themselves for those they loved. But God went far beyond what we would do. We would never think of doing what he did.
B. He did what we would never do. 8
“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” When we read it, we like to emphasize, “Christ died for us,” but the emphasis is clearly on the first phrase—”While we were still sinners.” The wonder is not that Christ should die for us—though that would be wonderful enough. The wonder is that Christ died for us while we were still sinners, still ungodly, still powerless and still enemies of God! He didn’t die for his friends. He died for his enemies. He died for those who crucified him. He died for those who hated him. He died for those who rejected him. He died for those who cheered as the nails were driven in his hands.
Let’s go back to Vietnam, only this time the Marine sergeant has been captured and is taken up the Ho Chi Minh trail to Hanoi. Because he is a sergeant, he is beaten unmercifully. His teeth are broken, his cheekbone shattered, his legs disfigured, his ribs cracked, his back permanently stooped from hanging upside down in mid-air. His captors torment him day and night, trying to break his will.
At length a rescue operation is mounted. As the American forces move in, his captors surround him. Suddenly out of nowhere comes a projectile. It’s an American grenade. It lands in the middle of the group. Two seconds, one second. Just before it explodes, the Marine sergeant throws himself on the grenade, taking the full force of the blast, dying in the process but saving his Viet Cong captors. Blown to bits, he dies so that those men who savagely beat him might be spared.
You say, “Who would ever do anything like that?” I know only one person who would do something like that. His name is Jesus Christ. He did something like that when he died for us while we were still sinners 2000 years ago.
He didn’t die for good people. He died for bad people.
He didn’t die for saints. He died for sinners.
He didn’t die for his friends. He died for his enemies.
He didn’t die for people who loved him. He died for people who hated him.
We would never do anything like that! We might die for our friends but never for our enemies. But that’s what Jesus did for us.
The death of Jesus is the final proof of God’s love. Sometimes in this crazy, mixed-up world, people say, “Where’s the love of God?” We see so much killing, so much heartache, so much tragedy, so much pain, so much anger. Where is the love of God?
Look to the cross. Gaze upon the bleeding form of the Son of God. There you will see the love of God.
See from his head, his hands, his feet.
Sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
And I said, “Lord, how much do you love me?” “This much,” he said. Then he stretched out his arms, bowed his head, and died.
Let no one who reads these words ever doubt that God loves you. Does he love you? Yes he does. He proved it when Jesus died on the cross for you.
III. Our Infinite Gain
One question is left. If Jesus has died for us, what difference does it make? What have we gained by his bloody sacrifice? Is it just an event in history and nothing more? It is just one more religious act that has no meaning in the 20th century? What difference does the cross make for you and for me?
Paul answers those questions in Romans 5:9-11. He does it by reasoning from the death of Christ to our personal experience. He says, “If this is true … then this much follows.” His major point is to move from the death of Christ to the certainty of our salvation.
There are two parallel statements in verses 9 and 10. They may at first seem rather complex to you. But I’d like you to focus on one statement in verse 9 and one statement in verse 10:
Verse 9: “How much more”
Verse 10: “How much more”
It’s a form of argument that is called “from greater to lesser.” If the greater thing is true, then the lesser thing must also be true. He reasons from that which we know to be true to that which must therefore logically also be true.
What results from all of this is the greatest statement on eternal security in the New Testament. Paul sums up our infinite gain through the death of Christ in three tremendous statements.
A. Justified by his blood. 9
“Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” The word justified means to be declared “not guilty.” By virtue of Jesus’ death, we have been justified before God, we have been declared “not guilty.” What is the result of our justification? We are now saved from God’s wrath. Put simply, no child of God can ever go to hell. We are not only saved right now, we are saved forever.
Why can we be so sure that we will never go to hell? Because God’s wrath is his punishment for sinners who have never accepted what Jesus did on the cross for them. But that doesn’t apply to us because we have placed our full trust in Jesus Christ. That’s why we can say that once you are saved, you are saved forever. If you have trusted Jesus Christ, you will never face God’s wrath. It is impossible for a born again child of God ever to go to hell. That’s what it means to be justified. You are declared “not guilty” in the sight of God. God will never send his blood-bought children to hell.
B. Reconciled by his death. 10
“For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” To be reconciled means that once you were enemies but now you are friends. It means peace has broken out where once war reigned. It means that the guns have been put away, the army has been sent home, and the killing has finally stopped.
Through Jesus Christ we who once were enemies of God are now called his friends. Through Jesus Christ we who once were far away have been brought near to God. We who once were aliens and strangers are now part of God’s family. We who once had nothing to our credit are now declared to be heirs of God and joint-heirs with Jesus.
C. Saved by his life. 10-11
“How much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved through his life!” This is the final great gain that comes to us. For years this verse was a mystery to me because I thought it referred to Jesus’ life while he was on earth 2000 years ago. I didn’t get the connection. Then I discovered that this verse is not talking about his earthly life 2000 years ago but his resurrection life right now. We’re saved right now because Jesus is in heaven interceding on our behalf. When you think of this verse, you might jot down Hebrews 7:25 beside it: “Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” We have a Man in heaven—Jesus Christ. When we sin, our Man in heaven speaks up for us. He pleads his blood on our behalf. He speaks in our defense. And because his Father is the Judge, when the Son speaks to the Father, his plea is always heard.
Have you asked yourself, “What is Jesus doing in heaven right now?” I can give you at least two clear answers to that question:
1. He is an Advocate on your behalf. Sometimes the devil comes and says to God, “I know what Jim has been doing. I saw him do it. He calls himself a Christian but he’s nothing but a hypocrite. You ought to get rid of him. He’s no credit to you.” Jesus stands up and says, “Father, everything he said is true. But he’s one of your children. I shed my blood on his behalf. I ask you now to forgive him.” And the Father forgives Jim every time—not because Jim is such a good man—but because of the intercession of his Son.
2. He is interceding for you. That comes from Hebrews 7:25 which says that Jesus is able to “save completely” those who come to God through him. The word “completely” means both totally and forever. That means Jesus is praying for you. He’s praying that you will stay strong, that you will grow in grace, that you will follow God’s will, that you will resist the devil’s temptation.
Andrew Murray said, “O how bold I would be if only I could hear Christ in the next room praying for me. But distance makes no difference. He is praying for me in heaven.”
Is it important that we are saved by his life? Yes it is. Some of you have heard Billy Graham say it this way: “I don’t preach a dying Jesus. I preach a living Christ.” Thank God, it’s true. Jesus is alive today. As long as Jesus is alive, we will live with him. As long as Jesus is in heaven, that’s how long we’ll be with him in heaven. Our salvation is secure as long as Jesus is alive. And since Jesus is alive forever, we shall be saved forever.
Let me sum up the argument of these three concluding verses:
If God has done the most, will he not do the least?
If God has done the best, will he not do the rest?
If God gave his Son to die while we were sinners, will he not now save us to the end?
If God reconciled us while we were enemies, will he not save us now that we are his friends?
If Jesus died for his enemies, will he not now take his friends to heaven?
The answer to all those questions is the same: Yes!
If God has done all this, how much more will God make sure that all his children end up in heaven!
For the helpless, he died.
The ungodly, he justified.
The sinner, he saved.
His enemies, he reconciled.
Our impossible problem has been completely solved through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Two Things We Have Forever
Let’s wrap up this study with two simple statements of application.
1. We can have complete certainty of our salvation.
Can you be certain that you are going to heaven? Is that possible or is it just wishful thinking? You can be absolutely, positively, beyond any shadow of a doubt certain that you are going to heaven when you die. Why? Because of Jesus Christ.
—Your past is forgiven by his death.
—Your present is secure through his intercession.
—Your future is guaranteed by his sacred promise.
This week I read of an Irish saint who loved to testify this way: “I often tremble on the Rock, but the Rock never trembles under me.” You may tremble but the Rock of our salvation is secure. You may be weak—that’s okay—Jesus is strong.
The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no, never forsake!
Last Thursday I heard E.V. Hill—the great black preacher from Los Angeles—speak at Founder’s Week at Moody Bible Institute. He was speaking on the subject, “What to Say to the Devil.” He said, “When the devil comes and whispers in your ear, hit him with the Bible.” He came to the end and said, “Sometimes the devil is gonna come and say to you, ’You’re not really saved. Christians don’t act like that. You’re living a sorry life. You’re not really saved.’” E.V. Hill said, “When the devil comes and whispers that in your ear, shout back to him Romans 8:1, ’There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.’” If there is no condemnation, then we are eternally secure. If we are eternally secure, then we can we be certain of our salvation.
2. We have grounds for continual rejoicing.
The passage ends with these stirring words: “We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” Christians ought to be the most positive, optimistic people in the world. We ought to be the happiest, most up-beat people in the world. But some of us go around like we’ve been sucking on a sour pickle.
Look how many times the idea of rejoicing shows up in Romans 5. Verse 2 mentions rejoicing in the hope of glory. Verses 3-4 speaks of rejoicing in the midst of suffering. And now verse 11 speaks of rejoicing in God.
The commentators say that verse 11 could be translated this way: “We shall be saved … rejoicing.” The word actually means “boasting.” It’s a picture not only of this life, but of what our experience is at the moment of death. God intends that you should have a triumphant entrance into heaven. We shall pass from this life
—not with sorrowful looks
—not with downcast eyes
—not with a guilty conscience,
but we will pass into heaven with assurance, with joy, and with full confidence. We shall march through the pearly gates boasting in Jesus Christ. “We not only go to heaven, but we go triumphantly. Not only do we get into the harbor, but we come in with full sail,” said Matthew Henry. We shall be saved rejoicing.
One final question. Do you have that assurance? Do you know that if you died right now, you would go to heaven? Would you be saved rejoicing? All these great benefits are ours through Jesus Christ.
But what will you do if you don’t know Jesus? And where will you go when you die?