Article by Jon Bloom, Staff writer, desiringGod.org
It’s been ten years since my father died. A decade. Already? Nearly 20 percent of my lifetime has passed since I last saw him. Where did the time go?
My oldest child recently turned 24. To me it seems that almost yesterday I was holding that precious newborn, singing softly to him while slowly pacing in the hospital room. But in reality, I’ve since lived 44 percent of my lifetime. Where did the time go?
Thirty-six years ago, I began dating a beautiful 16-year-old girl whom I had the extraordinary privilege of marrying four years later. Scenes from that hot, sunny, summer day when it all began are still vivid to me, and have a hue of new about them. Yet 65 percent of my life has managed to slip by since that monumental moment became a memory. Where did the time go?
Where did the time go? Why do we all ask some form of that question — and ask it over and over as the years pass? It’s not like we don’t know. Each of the approximately 3,700 days since my father died, the 8,800 days since my son was born, and the 13,200 days since my wife and I began dating passed just like the ones before it. The days accumulated over time. It’s simple math.
But of course, it’s not the math that bewilders us. We’re bewildered by something far more profound — that this life we’ve been given, this significant existence with all its sweet and bitter dimensions, passes so quickly and then is gone.
We Are Marvels
We all intuitively discern that our lives have profound significance. Even when we’re told they don’t, we don’t really believe it — or if we really do, we no longer want to live. We also intuitively discern that there is profound significance to the great human story-arc, with all of its collective triumphs and tragedies. This isn’t mere human hubris, because most of us, including the greatest among us, have always been cognizant of our smallness in the cosmos. Truly did David pray,
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him,
But even in view of our smallness, it’s undeniable that there is something awesome about humanity. Just a brief glance around us shouts this. From where I’m writing (on a laptop computer wirelessly connected to the world!), I see automobiles driving by, a commercial jet flying overhead, an educational institution devoted to helping underprivileged children succeed in school, and a talented gardener carefully cultivating her organic artwork. These phenomena are just part of “normal” daily life for me, yet each represents staggering layers of human ingenuity. And to top it off, my (also wirelessly world-connected) mobile phone has just informed me that NASA has successfully launched its latest rover mission to the planet Mars.
Without denying our great and grievous capacities for evil, every single one of us is simply a marvel in our various ranges of intellect, capacities for language and communication, aptitudes for innovation, abilities to impose order upon chaos, and contributions to collective human achievements. Truly did David pray,
You have made [man] a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet. (Psalm 8:5–6)
God has endowed human beings with the glory and honor of being made in his image (Genesis 1:26–27). This is the profound significance we all intuit, even those who deny it. Our lives are imbued with tremendous meaning.
We Are Mists
Yet each of our profoundly significant earthly lives, no matter how short or long it lasts, is so brief. We look up to find 10, 24, 36 years have suddenly passed. Repeatedly we’re hit with the realization that our lives “are soon gone, and we fly away” (Psalm 90:10). Truly did David pray,
Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! (Psalm 39:5)
And truly did James say, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14).
It’s this existential experience of being marvels and mists that we find bewildering. We find it a strange phenomenon to watch our lives move relentlessly along a continuum, leaving experiences that are massively important to us in an increasingly distant past, while our earthly end — the end of the only reality we’ve ever known — approaches with unnerving speed. It recurrently catches us by surprise.
With Eternity in Our Hearts
But why do we find this experience strange and surprising? Many experts from various branches of the cognitive and biological sciences venture answers. But just as recounting the math of passing days doesn’t address the strangeness and surprise we feel when we ask, “Where did the time go?” neither do the chemical mechanics of consciousness. And there’s more to the deep longings this whole experience awakens than just the awareness and anticipation of our mortality. Truly did the writer of Ecclesiastes say,
[God] has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
God has given us the ability to conceive of eternity, yet in spite of conferring upon us many marvelous capacities, he has not granted us to peer into eternity past or eternity future, no matter how hard we try. And due to our efforts to seize forbidden knowledge, God has withdrawn our once-free access to simply eat of the tree of life and live forever (Genesis 3:22–24).
We are marvels of creation, whose lives are imbued with great meaning, who long for eternity, yet whose lifespans here are like a mist. No wonder we find time mystifying.
Teach Us to Number Our Days
Our strange experience of the passing of time is more than a by-product of consciousness, more than mere existential angst over mortality. It is a reminder and a pointer.
It is a reminder that we are contingent creatures and that the profound significance we intuitively know our lives possess is derived significance, not self-conferred significance. Though created in the likeness of God and given marvelous capacities, we are not self-existent or self-determining like God. Rather, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), receiving from him our “allotted periods” of life and “the boundaries of [our] dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). And the brevity of those allotted periods of life are meant to make us cry out, “O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!” (Psalm 39:4).
And our experience of deep heart longing for eternity in the face of such brevity is a pointer that we are actually designed for such a thing as eternal life. For those who have eyes to see, this is a gospel pointer. For God has reopened for us the way to the tree of life, to eternal life, and that way is through his Son, Jesus (John 3:16; 14:6; Romans 6:23; Revelation 2:7).
Those moments when we ask, “Where did the time go?” are reminders that “all flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it” (Isaiah 40:6–7). And they are pointers to the reality that though our “days are like grass,” yet “the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him” (Psalm 103:15–17). Those moments come to us in order to “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
Here we are, in mid-July, in what has amounted, for many of us, to be the strangest and most unnerving year of our lives. Think back to just February. How much has seemed to change in so short a span?
Psalm 30 has a word that we need to hear in 2020 as a prosperous and prideful generation that is being humbled. Verses 6–7:
As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.” By your favor, O Lord, you made my mountain stand strong; you hid your face; I was dismayed.
As for us, how many of us would have thought (or assumed) in our prosperity, just a few months ago, “We shall never be moved”? The global economy will never tank with such little notice. March Madness will never be canceled. Or the NBA season, or MLB (for sure, not the NFL and college football). We shall never be moved.
A policeman would never put his knee on a man’s neck for eight minutes, while bystanders captured it on video. Riots would never erupt in such a peaceful and tolerant city as Minneapolis and damage a thousand buildings, and cause more destruction than any other riots since 1992 in Los Angeles. We shall never be moved.
Surely, our healthcare system and our law enforcement and our economy are the best in the world and will not be challenged to the very core in a matter of weeks. We shall never we moved.
Yet we have been moved. By God’s favor, our mountain may stand strong. But when he chooses to hide his face, it crumbles overnight.
One question that Psalm 30 raises for us in 2020 is: How should we as Christians think about earthly prosperity? How many of us now, looking back just a few months, would say life seemed better then, easier then, more comfortable then, more prosperous then? How many of us have felt health and financial and civic anxieties and full-blown fears we have never felt so acutely? Perhaps some of us sail carelessly on with few changes. But many of us here in July of 2020 are not living in the same felt sense of prosperity we took for granted as recently as March.
From Prosperity, to the Pit, to Praise
Psalm 30 is what many have called a psalm of thanks. David, the psalmist, stands on the other side of some great distress and thanks God for rescuing him from a close encounter with death. Perhaps not unlike what many are experiencing right now in ICUs and elsewhere around the world, with or without ventilators to keep them breathing. David almost died, and he cried out to God for help, and God rescued him, and now David writes the psalm to thank God and to draw others into thanks with him.
Last summer when we turned to Psalm 6, we talked about three major types of psalms: (1) psalms of praise (orientation) when all seems well with the world; (2) psalms of lament (disorientation) when some danger threatens, and the psalmist cries out for mercy or justice; and (3) psalms of thanks (reorientation) that renew praise to God on the other side of the threat and his deliverance.
Psalm 30 may thank God for a specific rescue in a particular instance in David’s life, but it also may reflect back on a whole life, or season of life. We don’t know how literal or figurative it is when David says in verse 2, “You have healed me” — and that’s by design. The psalm is meant to draw others into worship, for all sorts of healings and rescues, not just David’s.
This psalm also has an interesting “flashback” (we might call it) in verses 6–10. It begins in the present (verses 1–3), then draws others in to worship (verse 4), and grounds the praise in the timeless nature of God (verse 5), then flashes back to David’s time of trouble, when he was in the pit and how he prayed for help (verses 6–10), and then ends with enhanced praise in verses 11–12.
One way we might summarize the coherence or flow of the psalm is to say it moves in David’s life from prosperity, to the pit, to praise. So, let’s follow that arc and see what the psalm has to teach us about each stage.
1. Earthly prosperity is a gift, and a test (verses 6–7).
Now we come back to the question about how Christians should think about our seasons of seeming prosperity in this age. The answer is not simple, but it is accessible. Verses 6–7 give us two truths here for how we should think about earthly prosperity:
On the one hand, earthly prosperity is “from God.” Verse 7: “You made my mountain stand strong.” God made David prosperous. It was a gift — not the ultimate gift, but a real, tangible blessing, fragile as earthly prosperity can be. Which means David should not have grown prideful about his seeming strength, but humble. And what would humility in his prosperity have looked like? Gratitude. He should have thanked God for what he had (as should we), rather than slowly swelling to being prideful about it.
On the other hand, God’s temporal favor in this age is not an expression of his enduring favor. Verse 7: “You hid your face.” David was God’s anointed, and yet God’s making David prosperous for a season was not a final word about God’s favor on David. In fact, because God did favor David, he tested him; he humbled him. David almost lost everything, on the brink of death itself.
Prosperity in this world is both a gift (for which to thank God) and also a test (in which to renew trust in God, not self). Both prosperity and poverty serve his eternal designs for his people.
And David now confesses in this flashback that he mishandled prosperity. Verse 6: “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’” That is pride talking. Prosperity gave space for David’s pride to swell. He came to think his strength showed he was strong, of his own doing, that he would not be moved. He grew numb to the truth that it was God who made him strong (like a mountain), and that God is able to make mountains crumble at his word, and for our eternal good.
What Psalm 30 shows us is that in this life neither mountain-strength nor God’s hidden face are the final word. The wicked can seem mountain-strong and be prideful; or the righteous can be mountain-strong and be humble; so also the wicked, in the end, will be humbled, and the righteous not only might but will go through seasons where God’s face and favor seem hidden and withdrawn. Earthly prosperity is not a sign of God’s eternal favor; nor is poverty a sign of his disfavor.
If you are in a season of seeming strength and prosperity, the word for you from Psalm 30 is: humble yourself before God now; thank him; realize the fragility of your prosperity; acknowledge his kindness and your unworthiness. Do not say in your prosperity, “I shall never be moved.” Have you seen all the mountains God has crumbled since February?
And if you are in a season where his face seems hidden, don’t take that as God’s final word to you. In Christ, it is not his final word (as we’ll see). We are fragile. Our world is fragile. Our economy is fragile. Our health is fragile. Our peace is fragile. When we are prosperous, God is the giver. And we should humbly thank him and not presume we shall not be moved. And when our mountain does crumble, God has taken it away, and he has eternal purposes for us in it. This is his test to reveal who we really are and purify us for his final favor.
2. The pit is fearsome, and purposeful (verses 3, 8–10).
Now, let’s finish David’s flashback with verses 8–10:
To you, O Lord, I cry, and to the Lord I plead for mercy: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? Hear, O Lord, and be merciful to me! O Lord, be my helper!”
David tells us how he pled with God when he was desperate and near death.
First, he reasoned with God in verse 9: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” In other words, “God, what good is it to you if I die? I cannot praise you if I lose my body, and mouth, and tongue.”
Verse 9 mentions “the pit,” as does verse 3. Another name for this “pit” is “Sheol.” Look at verse 3: “O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.”
What is this Sheol he mentions? We’ve seen this before in other psalms (6, 9, 16, 18). In Old Testament times, God had not yet revealed as much about the afterlife as he has now. And in particular, he had not yet altered the landscape of the afterlife by raising Jesus from the dead, and bringing righteous souls with him to heaven.
Sheol — or the pit or Hades — was the dark and shadowy place of the dead where the human soul would go once body and soul were torn apart in death. The body dies, and goes into the ground, and the soul/spirit then would wait in Sheol, where a chasm was fixed between the righteous and wicked (Luke 16:26). So, Sheol was a holding place for the souls of the dead, waiting for the final judgment — no bodies to move, or hands to works, or eyes to see, or ears to hear, or mouths to speak.
And David appeals to this. He knows that God made the world for his glory and that he rightly means to be praised (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14), and David begs that God spare his life to preserve his praise. He reasons with God on the basis of God’s glory. Which is a good way to pray.
That’s David’s argument in verse 9, but then in verse 10, no more reasoning — he just pleads for mercy: “Hear, O Lord, and be merciful to me! O Lord, be my helper!” And God does show him mercy. He heals him, rescues him, preserves his life and body and mouth and tongue. And David writes Psalm 30 to sing praise and thanks, and to draw others in to sing with him — and more than just sing.
3. Praise is audible, and bodily (verses 5, 11–12).
In verses 11–12, we come back to the present from the flashback of verses 6–10. David has been rescued, he still has his mouth, and he is using it to ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name. And his praise, on the other side of the pit, is not only audible. It is also bodily — and part of what we might call enhanced praise. Verses 11–12:
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!
Here are two things to see in these important, climactic verses. First, sorrow and joy are not equals. In God, and for his people, the sackcloth of sorrow and the garment of gladness are not equal and opposite sides of the coin. Sorrow and joy are asymmetrical for God’s people. Sackcloth always serves gladness. God takes our mourning, and turns it into dancing. That’s the final word. Not the other way around, not in the end. God removes the garment of our weeping and clothes us with joy.
In God, mourning does not have the final say, but morning — joy comes with the morning (verse 5). Mourning gives way to morning. The reason we know this is true for God’s people, and verse 11 celebrates it, is because this is rooted in who God is. Which is what David says in verse 5, at the bottom of Psalm 30 (note the all-important for). God’s people praise him,
For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
God is not only full of favor. He is not only gracious. He also gets righteously angry. But grace and anger are not equal in revealing who he is. Anger serves favor. Weeping does not have the last word for those who are his, but joy sounds the final note.
How can we say that? Because God is God. This is who God is. Because he has revealed himself as the God of verse 5, we can know that verse 11 will come true: that morning will come, rescue will come, relief will come, joy will sound the final note, no matter our present trouble or distress, if we are his people.
Joy Sounds the Final Note
When we sink the roots of our joy into the very nature and character of God (as verse 5 does), our roots of joy go down as deep as possible. Our joy, come what may, is grounded in who God is as the God of joy, who is infinitely happy. There is no greater foundation, no greater source, no greater reason for stability and security and genuine joy, when our joy is hidden in God himself — that his anger (though real and painful) is but for a moment, and his favor for a lifetime. Weeping may indeed tarry for the night. And it does. Oh, how often it does, for many long nights. But in God, morning is always coming — just a little while longer — and joy comes with the morning, and gets us through the night knowing that more is coming.
And as sure as David could be of this, as we see in verses 5 and 11, we now, in Christ, are even more sure. Even more secure. Even more enduringly stable. Because in a way David could not yet see we have the cross and the resurrection — which is not only another example of joy sounding the last note, but it is the once-and-for-all, objective accomplishment in history that joy will win. Joy will have the last laugh, the final say, sound the last note. As sure as Jesus conquered the grave, so will we.
Which is no promise about earthly prosperity — whether how soon the pandemic ends or whether any fresh and lasting peace is achieved in our city. The present pandemic might turn out far worse than current assessments. The previous riots might prove to be just the beginning of unrest to come. The nature and person of God doesn’t give us earthly assurances that we will have no nights of weeping. But in Christ, God does give us final assurance. The night will end. Morning will come. Joy will be the final note.
Sing with Your Whole Body
Let’s finish, then, with verse 12, which closes the envelope on “extol” from verse 1, and “praise” and “give thanks” from verse 4. This is the second thing to see in verses 11–12. God turns mourning into dancing, David says, “that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.”
“My glory” — what is that? This phrase “my glory” might be one of the most significant in the psalm. Literally, it is poetic for the whole being (Psalm 16:9; 108:1): “that my whole being may sing your praise and not be silent.” In other words, now, on the other side of the pit, David’s praise has been enhanced. He is not just praising with his mouth, but with his whole being. And what did verse 11 mention? Dancing. He doesn’t just say you turned my mourning into joy. Or my mourning into singing. He says dancing. This is whole-being joy.
In other words, the whole person matters for praising God. The mind matters, and the heart matters. The voice matters. Singing matters. Dancing matters. The whole self matters.
Remember David’s argument in verse 9 for not dying was that his voice would not be able to praise. And now his climactic declaration is that he will praise God with his glory, with his whole being: his heart and voice and whole body. He will dance to praise God with his whole being, clothed with gladness. Which, interestingly enough, is what it means to “image” God in the world: not just to think about him, and love him and praise and thank him inwardly and invisibly, but to speak, to tell, to praise, to extol, and to dance, clothed with good works, to project him into the world for others to see and hear the joy we have in him.
Which brings us to the Table.
Joy at the Table
For David, the bringing up of his soul from Sheol, from the pit, was figurative. He was as good as dead. He despaired of life itself. He thought he was a goner. And God brought him up from a near-death experience.
But for David’s greater Son, it was literally true. He died on the cross. His body and soul were torn apart, and his human soul went all the way to the pit. For Friday evening, and all day Saturday, and into Sunday morning, his spirit waited in the pit. And then God drew him up, and spoiled the joy of his enemies, and brought him up all the way, not just from the brink of death, but from death itself.
Because God hid his face on Friday, Joy came with Easter Sunday morning. And because of Jesus, we experience joy — not wrath — as our final note. Clothed with gladness. And so we are as we’re conformed to his image.
Does each of my sins cost me an eternal reward? Are we caught in a race to outweigh our sins by our good deeds in order to preserve any level of rewards in heaven? It’s a question today from a listener named Brandon. “Hello, Pastor John! I know the Bible talks about rewards in heaven in the form of crowns. I want to have the most joy in heaven I possibly can in the life to come. But in this life, I feel like I’m constantly sinning. And every time I sin, I feel like my eternal rewards slip from my fingers. I can never get ahead, always returning back to a balance of zero. At this rate, there won’t be any rewards for me in heaven. Or is my thinking backward? Pastor John, can you help me?”
Well, it’s right to want the most joy possible in heaven, if the aim is to be satisfied in God himself supremely, with the gifts of his grace as secondary echoes of his excellence that we then enjoy for that reason. So, amen to that. And I can confirm to Brandon that he not only feels he is sinning every day; he is. I can confirm that analysis — and so are all of us. None of us loves God perfectly the way we should. In our best deeds, there is something to regret. So far, so good in Brandon’s thinking.
No Heavenly Ledger
And then things start to go haywire. He says, “Every time I sin, I feel like my eternal rewards slip from my fingers. I can never get ahead, always returning back to a balance of zero.” Now, in this way of talking, I think he revealed a serious mistake in his understanding of the Bible. The mistake seems to be this: rewards are given — he would say, he seems to imply — not for each good deed, but only for the good deeds whose number surpasses the number of bad deeds.
In other words, if you do five good deeds and four bad deeds, you get a reward for one good deed. And if you do five good deeds and five or more bad deeds, he says (these are his words), you’re “back to a balance of zero.” Now, I’m not sure where he’s getting this notion that rewards are parceled out this way. But let me cite some passages from the Bible to show I don’t think that’s right. There’s a very different way of thinking about rewards for good deeds than in this kind of ledger approach.
The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.
There’s no hint here that if, later in the day, after you give the cup of cold water to a disciple because you love his Christ-exalting ministry, you speak harshly, say, to your child — there’s no hint, I say, that you will therefore lose your reward for the good deed of giving a drink of water to the disciple. It says you will by no means lose your reward.
Now, of course, if you prove yourself to be an unbeliever by a life of sustained lovelessness, then even your “good” deeds are not good deeds, because they’re not coming from faith. But if you are a believer, the good deed, the work of faith that you do in the morning is not canceled out by the failure of patience in the afternoon. That’s not the way Jesus is thinking — or anybody else in the New Testament.
Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
Now, what’s plain here is that fire is not an accountant. Fire is not counting up numbers of good deeds and bad deeds, or in this case, solid teachings and useless teachings (I think that’s the context of what good deeds he’s talking about). Fire doesn’t work that way, right? It doesn’t count; fire doesn’t count. It just consumes wood, hay, and stubble. It consumes useless, harmful works or teachings, which by implication means it does not consume useful, good, righteous works or teachings. They survive the fire. And presumably they survive no matter how many bad works got burned up in the fire. If we’re true believers, the good works survive.
The biblical picture of the judgment of Christians is not like Brandon’s picture of counting up bad deeds and counting up good deeds, and only rewarding the good deeds if there are more of them than bad deeds. That’s not a biblical picture of judgment.
Or consider Ephesians 6:8: “Whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free.” There’s no mention here that he really won’t receive back for doing the good deed if there are more bad deeds.
Or consider Luke 14:13–14: “When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” So if, one Thanksgiving, you invite lots of international students, and maybe some older folks who don’t have any family nearby, and maybe a homeless man that you met on the street, you invite them to Thanksgiving dinner, and you share your bounty joyfully with them in the name of Jesus, it says you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just. And that is true even if the next Thanksgiving you are in a bad place spiritually and selfishly let the opportunity go by. Thanksgiving number two gets burned up. Thanksgiving number one is rewarded at the resurrection.
All Good from God
Here’s the principle behind this way of thinking: good works in the life of a Christian are rewarded because they are beautiful, and their beauty is owing to the beauty of God’s regenerating and sanctifying grace in the life of the Christian. We are able to do what is truly good only because God caused us to be born again — made us spiritually alive — and because his Spirit goes on working in us what is pleasing in his sight (Hebrews 13:21).
The rewards are God’s way of confirming that we are truly born again, truly in Christ, truly the children of God. It is so crucial never to forget Ephesians 2:8–10:
By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast [even when the rewards are passed out]. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
The point of that text is to get God, God, God, as the source and goal of all of our good deeds. So, when we are rewarded for those good works, it is the workmanship of God that is being celebrated. And that workmanship does not cease to be properly rewarded because there are other remaining sins in our lives.
Friends: I will be away from my computer until Sept 15th. Taking a needed early Fall break. Stay focused. S.O.A.P. every day (study, observe, apply, pray). Talk soon. dh
Remember Who You Were Without Christ
Article by Scott Hubbard, Editor, desiringGod.org
It is a settled spiritual principle that small thoughts of sin lead to small thoughts of Christ. If we think we have been forgiven little, we will love little (Luke 7:47). The same principle applies, however, to those who have simply forgotten how much they’ve been forgiven. And to one degree or another, we are all prone to forget.
Hence the apostle Paul’s command to remember what life was like without Christ:
Remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh . . . were . . . separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. (Ephesians 2:11–12)
Remember, Paul tells the Ephesians, that you were once separated, alienated, estranged, hopeless. Because then, and only then, will it mean something that in Christ you are reconciled, welcomed, adopted, saved.
So too with us. If we are going to love Christ much, we need to remember the depths from which he saved us. If we are going to treasure all we have in him, we need to remember who we were without him.
The biblical authors never speak softly about our sin. Paul does not hesitate to describe us as “dead in . . . sins” (Ephesians 2:1), nor does John to call us “blind” (1 John 2:11). In Jesus’s eyes, even the most generous among us are nevertheless “evil” (Luke 11:13). We should not flinch, then, to apply to our pre-Christian selves the infamous label of “totally depraved.”
Despite popular misperceptions, total depravity begins with a rather modest claim. The doctrine does not suggest (as some mistakenly believe) that we are as bad as we could be, but only that every part of us is bad: our minds, hearts, wills, affections. None of our faculties left Eden unfallen. As J.C. Ryle writes,
We can acknowledge that man has all the marks of a majestic temple about him — a temple in which God once dwelt, but a temple which is now in utter ruins — a temple in which a shattered window here, and a doorway there, and a column there, still give some faint idea of the magnificence of the original design, but a temple which from end to end has lost its glory and fallen from its high estate. (Holiness, 5)
Fallen man walks the earth like a ruined temple, at once magnificent and miserable. Our minds, which once welcomed the light of truth, are now “darkened” and “futile” (Ephesians 4:18; Romans 1:21). Our hearts, which once pulsed with holy passion, are now “hardened” and “deceitful” (Ephesians 4:18; Jeremiah 17:9). Our wills, which once leapt at God’s commands, now refuse to heed his voice (Jeremiah 9:6; John 5:39–40).
The temple of humanity may still be standing, but sin inhabits every ruined room. Apart from Christ, we are totally depraved.
No, Not One
Total depravity becomes a more difficult doctrinal pill to swallow when we consider some of its implications. For example: in our fallen state, we cannot submit to God (Romans 8:7), we cannot please God (Romans 8:8; Hebrews 11:6), and most striking of all, we cannot do good (John 15:5; Romans 14:23). “No one does good,” Paul tells us — “not even one” (Romans 3:12).
How do we make sense of such a statement? Don’t we see non-Christians help their neighbors and care for their children every day? Don’t we ourselves remember doing various good deeds before we followed Christ?
To be sure, the biblical writers are willing to grant a kind of goodness to the godless. Even the evil can “give good gifts,” Jesus says (Luke 11:13). Likewise, Paul assumes that rulers know how to recognize “good conduct,” and that pagan citizens know how to display it (Romans 13:3). But God-ignoring goodness, helpful as it may be for a well-ordered society, can never please God — any more than a song of praise to Baal could please him simply because it had a few pleasant notes. If our goodness is not through God, for God, and to God (Romans 11:36), then we are singing in the service of an idol.
Perhaps if God were peripheral to this world, if he were of merely marginal interest and importance, then non-Christian goodness would qualify as true virtue. Perhaps if, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, God were less of a Father in heaven and more of a “grandfather in heaven, a senile benevolence . . . whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’” (The Problem of Pain, 31), then even he would be satisfied with our secular kindnesses.
But what if God is instead the blazing sun of the universe? What if our highest duty (and happiness!) is to love him with heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30)? What if the very breath in our lungs is his gift (Acts 17:25)? What if he is jealous to get the glory he deserves from us (Jeremiah 13:11)? What if history is rushing toward a day when he alone will be exalted (Isaiah 2:17)? If that is the case, then there is no true virtue without true worship. There is no good without God.
In ourselves, we are totally depraved; in God’s sight, we are wholly displeasing. Those two facts, taken together, lead us to a third: without Christ, we are hopelessly condemned.
The judgment, in fact, has already begun. Paul writes, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18). Is revealed, not will be revealed. And how is God revealing his wrath? By handing us over to our favorite sins. “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts. . . . God gave them up to dishonorable passions. . . . God gave them up to a debased mind” (Romans 1:24, 26, 28). We desired freedom from God, not realizing that, the freer we are from him, the more enslaved we are to sin.
The wrath of God already abides on us (John 3:36). And unless God himself intervenes to lift his wrath from us, our darkened minds become darker; our hardened hearts become harder; our bent wills become ever more crooked. We labor every day in service to our sin, stockpiling all the while the only wages this master can ever give: death (Romans 6:23).
Very soon, we will stand before the great Judge, whose eyes are too pure to look on evil, and before whom our secret sins are laid bare (Habakkuk 1:13; Psalm 90:8). What hope will we have in that moment? With every part of us depraved, and our best works displeasing, what can we say in our defense? Apart from Christ, nothing. We are hopelessly condemned.
Great Sinner, Greater Savior
The portrait of humanity under sin is a bleak one — so bleak that many would prefer to forget it altogether. Yet we do so at the cost of our deepest comfort.
When those in Christ heed Paul’s command to remember, and allow our sin to overshadow us, we arrive at a place we do not expect: not outside of Eden, with cherubim guarding the entrance; not beside the lake of fire, with the flames threatening judgment; but rather beneath the storm clouds of Calvary, where, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). While we could not escape our depravity, while we could not win God’s approval, while we could not avoid condemnation, the Son of God spilt his precious blood.
Remembering our sin in this way, far from sending us into despair, deepens our assurance. For if Christ loved us then, while we wanted nothing to do with him, will he not surely go on loving us now (Romans 5:10)? Our sin reminds us that the love of God never rested on our worthiness — for we had none — but only ever on Christ’s.
John Newton famously said on his deathbed, “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior.” The two statements always belong together. If our sin was small, then so is our Savior. But if we were depraved, displeasing, and condemned, then our thoughts of Christ cannot be too great.
Article by Greg Morse, Staff writer, desiringGod.org
Possessing the power to make the timid brave, the good better, or the bad devastating: crowds. When passions are shared, they swell, exciting actions to the status of legend or infamy. The power of assembly can build a better society or destroy it.
We have already witnessed (and perhaps taken for granted) the good and sanity of groups. We have seen peaceful protests in our own day, as well as read stories about those who have stood (and suffered) together for transcendent causes in the past — some of us fortunate enough to hear them firsthand from parents and grandparents. Above these, the church itself is a gathered people, an unassuming congregation that is taking over the world. But for what feels like the first time, my generation has begun to see the destructive power of the assembly — or, to use a phrase from a recent book title, the madness of crowds.
Old proverbs have become visible: “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals’” (1 Corinthians 15:33). Bad company, when a company, can make the good corrupt and the bad worse. It takes brazen wickedness to attempt to burn down a business, loot a Target, or break into a town hall, but even a decent man, drunk on the adrenaline of the herd, may do just this when others are doing it too.
Anatomy of a Riot
In a time of uncertainty, fear, anger, and corruption, we can take some solace in the realization that there is nothing new under the sun. Today’s issues, as real as they are (and can grow to be), were first yesterday’s issues. That makes it an unspeakable blessing to own a Bible. Its solutions never expire.
The stirring up of the people to madness is everywhere in Scripture (something I notice more now than ever). Perhaps one of the most unconsidered characters in the Bible is the crowd — none more infamous than the one who used its voice to sound with Satan, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
So also we see the madness of crowds in Acts 19. A mob was stirred up against Paul, an experience he likely later summarized to the Corinthians: “I fought with beasts at Ephesus” (1 Corinthians 15:32). If beasts are let loose in our land, I pray that as with Paul in Ephesus, the madness of crowds would be met with the insanity of Christian love. But first, the anatomy of the riot in Ephesus.
About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius . . . (Acts 19:23–24)
What many citizens recognized as a religious riot in Ephesus started, as I venture many do today, with smaller, less-visible motives. Men with hidden agendas conspired together and utilized the masses to their hushed purposes. This “no little disturbance” began with the greed of a silversmith named Demetrius.
Demetrius made his fortune crafting idols in service of Artemis, the Ephesian fertility goddess, rumored to have been born in Ephesus. Several times a year, the Ephesians hosted month-long celebrations in her honor, with music, theater, banquets, athletic contests, and even death matches. These festivals attracted many visitors, and even more money. Such celebrations “brought no little business to the craftsmen” (verse 24), craftsmen such as Demetrius.
Now Christianity, through the apostle Paul, hurt this business by persuading many “that gods made with hands are not gods” (Acts 19:26). In an attempt to protect his wallet, Demetrius employed three strategies to destroy Paul.
First, he created a tribe. He did not go after Paul himself, nor pursue legal recourse; rather, he assembled a tribe. Demetrius “gathered together” his fellow craftsmen, “with the workmen in similar trades” (Acts 19:25). He rounded up others hemorrhaging money on account of the Way. Demetrius knew the power of a mob, and he needed a small one to beget a bigger one.
Next, he did what all demagogues do: “He gathered together . . . and said” (Acts 19:25). Inciters are talking men. They speak, persuade, impassion. He begins,
Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. . . . This Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship. (Acts 19:25–27)
Observe his well-crafted propaganda. He is careful to include multiple incentives to enlist them in his cause. He begins first with his primary concern, wealth, and then moves on to a tertiary concern directly tied to the first: religion. The best hunters lay several traps. In religious societies, agitators often twist religious sentiment to their own ends.
“When [the craftsmen] heard this they were enraged and were crying out, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’” (Acts 19:28). But what about “this” made them enraged? Was it the threat to their goddess’s fame — or the loss of wealth tied to that fame?
Yet notice that Demetrius’s and the craftsmen’s chief concern of finances isn’t visible once they move into the streets. Their mantra becomes simply “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” They mask financial incentives with religious. They consider how they might be heard. They know their campaign would not survive if their narrow interests were championed, shouting, “Great is the wealth we accumulate from the idols of Artemis of the Ephesians!” So do all effective demagogues today.
The (Clueless) Crowd Swept Up
Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together. (Acts 19:32)
Mobs often depend on general slogans, unspecified grievances, vague (if any) purposes for uniting, and little to no solutions for change other than destruction. They think with their rage, and many get caught in the tide. Something important seems to be happening — many seem to know why they gathered, so why not join? It is just a Tuesday after all, nothing better to do. The uproar of the group quiets the small voice of the conscience.
So it was in Ephesus. After the small mob fills the streets with, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians,” “the city was filled with the confusion” (Acts 19:29). Not the confusion that causes you to pause and ask questions, but the confusion that participates in assault and abduction: “They rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel.”
Now the Holy Spirit informs us that — wait for it — “most of them did not know why they had come together.” Most had no clue why they were really there. They weren’t craftsmen, they didn’t attend Demetrius’s pep rally, and they agreed that Artemis was great, but what that had to do with taking hostage two Jews most could not tell. But they remained, aiding and abetting those who did know.
Installment of Cancel Culture
And Alexander, motioning with his hand, wanted to make a defense to the crowd. But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all cried out with one voice, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.” (Acts 19:33–34)
The time it took for me to learn what “cancel culture” meant embarrasses me as a millennial. But as new as such terminology was to me, the concept wasn’t. The Ephesians practiced it two millennia ago.
Alexander’s appearance marked him instantly. Everyone knew that Jews were no friends to Artemis. He belonged to that narrow monotheistic religion. He had nothing to say that they wanted to hear. Ironically, it is most probable that since the Jews put him forward, he was an enemy, not a friend, of Paul (possibly the same Alexander that Paul “handed over to Satan,” 1 Timothy 1:20; 2 Timothy 4:14). His “defense” would most probably have been an attempt to distinguish Paul (a Jewish man) from the Jews who were there to persecute him and his Christian companions. Regardless, the crowds wouldn’t hear it.
The clueless majority, not knowing why they were there to begin with, knew enough to shout down someone who sought to speak — for two hours. Here identity politics and cancel culture were on full display.
A Just Man Speaks
The situation in Ephesus was defused through the almighty God giving the common grace of a cool head to the town clerk. Words incited a mob; perhaps words could defuse it.
You ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. . . . If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. . . . There is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion. (Acts 19:36, 38–39, 41)
He does not pretend to be judge in matters he knows so little about. He states his views about Paul’s innocence, but points to the open courthouses for resolution of the matter. He does condemn, however, the injustice he sees with his own eyes, calling out the leader, Demetrius, by name.
This is the common courage it will always require to stand against a mob. Sometimes good men, just men, stand up and succeed. Other times they stand up and get killed. And sometimes no good men can be found, and tyranny thrives unchecked.
Insanity of Christian Love
There really is nothing new under the sun. Today’s issues, as desperate as they can be, were first yesterday’s issues. This means one convenient and profound truth for the Christian: the solutions have not changed.
Christ is still the only hope for the world. He, as the light of the world, still shines, and the darkness — with all its cold and confusion — has yet to overcome it. This world is still full of condemned masses, rabid with sin, following the devil, and teetering upon the edge of eternity — as we once did — breaths from everlasting ruin. All while a narrow way still exists — a hard way, a dangerous way, yet the only way that leads to heaven. A way that might attract a mob or lead you — in love for others — to desire to enter the heart of one as Paul did.
Paul wanted to run toward, not away from, the murderous mob: “Paul wished to go in among the crowd” (Acts 19:30). When he considered his brothers Gaius and Aristarchus captured by the crazed multitude looking for him, he wanted to enter the theater to stand (and die, if needed) with his companions. The madness of crowds in that theater set the stage for the madness of Christian love — a dramatization of Christ’s: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Only If the Dead Are Raised
Paul did not go into the theater that day, for “the disciples would not let him. And even some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of his, sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater” (Acts 19:30–31). It was not wise — this time — to venture so boldly into harm; God had other means for deliverance. But his faith, his hope, his trust in Christ, his love for his brothers are recorded for us. Does it not stir you?
What gave Paul his boldness? He tells us,
I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Corinthians 15:31–32)
Fighting with the madness of crowds is nothing if there is nothing after this life. If death were the end, Paul and his companions would go out for drinks, have some laughs, and never cause a commotion for Christ. But Paul believed in the resurrection. He believed he possessed eternal life. He knew his God. He knew his Savior. He knew he was immortal. He was free to face the mob (and the consequences), as he did from city to city and persecution to persecution.
Perhaps a time is coming, perhaps the stage is being set — though I pray we might live peaceful and quiet lives — for Christians in the West to be treated as most Christians have been throughout most of church history (and as many are treated now throughout the world). And should it come, we must decide now, will we be mad enough, should our God call us, to face the mobs and persecution in the name of Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit? Only those who know this world is not the end can do so.
Article by David Mathis, Executive Editor, desiringGod.org
In the image of God — it may be one of the most often invoked, and yet least understood, catchphrases among Christians today. Whether defending the unborn, or protesting injustice, or advocating for the elderly and disabled, Christian voices often appeal for common ground, across other differences, by declaring that all humans are “in the image of God.” And so they are; we’re right to remember it.
But what does it mean to be made “in God’s image”? Rarely is that explained, and when it is, the answers can be quite speculative — that we are thinking or deliberative creatures. Or feeling creatures. Or that our will is “free” and not enslaved to instinct. Are such essentially invisible abilities really what it means to image God? Doesn’t the Bible have more to say and clarify the issue for us?
Pixels, Paintings, and People
In one sense, the image of God is (surprisingly) not a major theme in the Bible, at least in terms of explicit repetition. It is, however, the climactic declaration in the opening chapter of the Bible — and in the voice of God himself, no less. God’s poem, in just three lines, pours a foundation for theological anthropology (the Christian doctrine of humanity):
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26–27)
An all-important initial question, right here at the outset, is, What is an image? Images flood our screens, fill our magazines, and catch our eyes on billboards. We are no stranger to images, though we are so awash in them we might be numb to their significance.
In the ancient world, images were not pixels and paint but more typically like what we think of as statues or monuments. Pagan religions employed such carved images as physical, visual representations of otherwise invisible gods. Into such a context, then, the voice of the one true God rings out, at the climax of Scripture’s first chapter, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”
While fallen men make images of their gods, the true God made man in his own image — to image himself in the world. We humans are living, breathing, speaking, singing, moving images representing the invisible God to his world, so that others would remember and reverence him.
God made us to image him, to show him, point to him, display him. He means for humans, through the words and actions of other humans, to get a greater sense of what he is like, and to appreciate and adore him for who he is — that is, to glorify him. Images glorify. They bring to mind someone great, and reveal admirable, praiseworthy traits, so that we honor the imaged one. This is why the theme of man in God’s image is so profound in Scripture, even if it’s not often explicit.
Value of Human Life
As for that explicitness, only two more verses in all the Old Testament refer to man in God’s image, and both are in the immediate chapters that follow. Genesis 5:3 tells us, “When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.” The image-and-likeness language recalls Genesis 1:26 and signals, significantly, that while tainted by sin, humanity’s calling to image God endures beyond Adam. Because of human sin, however, our words and actions display God as much (if not more) by way of contrast, rather than by way of example.
The third and final mention of man being made in God’s image, then, is Genesis 9:6, after the parking of the ark and recommissioning of Noah. Again, it’s divine speech and poetry:
Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.
Man’s uniqueness and dignity among all the creatures in imaging God makes the taking of human life the gravest of offenses, against both God and fellow man — so grave, in fact, that the shedding of human blood warrants the death of the killer. Such is the value of human life, made in the image of God, in God’s created world.
Then, after only three mentions, the Old Testament goes silent about God’s image. Almost.
While the explicit notion of man in God’s image disappears, related concepts resurface. For instance, Psalm 8, while not mentioning “God’s image,” celebrates humanity’s exalted position in the world. Also “image” as “carved image” and “metal image” appears dozens of times (more than fifty) in the Old Testament, and as we’ve already implied, there is a connection to be made.
Beginning with the second commandment, God’s people knew, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything. . . . You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:4–5). Which, of course, became the very sin the nation collectively embraced. As Psalm 106 narrates the events of Exodus 32,
They made a calf in Horeb and worshiped a metal image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt. (Psalm 106:19–21)
This was enough to certify their destruction “had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before [God], to turn away his wrath from destroying them” (Psalm 106:23).
So, the nation’s temptation to image-making regularly returned throughout the ups and downs of their history. Made in God’s image, “they forgot God” in their sin and turned to making images of gods with their own hands — a tragic picture of the reversal and irrational, self-destructive nature of sin. As the apostle Paul later would decry, “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:22–23).
Behold the Image
Then, at last, after centuries of (near) silence, this same Paul would reveal for the world the depth — and keystone — of what it has meant all along to be made in God’s image. In all, Paul mentions the divine image nine times in his letters, and does so in service of two clear and distinct revelations.
1. Jesus is the image.
First, Jesus, the Son of God incarnate, as man, is the image of God. Twice Paul makes this game-changing claim:
The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Corinthians 4:4)
The man Christ Jesus — not merely as God the Son, but as God the Son become man — is the great answer to Scripture’s previously unsolved riddle of what it means, at bottom, to be “in God’s image.” Humans are in God’s image; Jesus is God’s image. He is the full and complete embodiment of what it means for God himself to enter into his created world as a creature. Which means that God created the first man and woman in Genesis 1 and 2 in view of what he himself would be as a creature (“in his image”), when he would enter in as man in the person of his Son.
To be human is to be the creature, in body and soul, that God built for himself to be in Christ. When God designed and constructed the human body, he was devising the very vessel in which his Son would perfectly glorify him as a creature in his world. And thus he did, as he prayed the night before he died, “I glorified you on earth” (John 17:4; see also 17:6, 26).
And Jesus, as the image of God, did not just live perfectly to his Father’s glory, but also uniquely gave his own untainted life, to glorify his Father (John 12:27–28), so that we tainted and marred imagers might be snatched from the justice we deserve and restored to our original calling and what it anticipated.
2. Humans realize our destiny in him.
The second revelation, then, is that human destiny, through faith, is our being conformed to the image of Christ: “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” (Romans 8:29).
Christians are, literally, “little Christs.” He is the image, the singular lamp from which the glory of God streams into his new world (Revelation 21:23), and we are remade in God’s image, after Christ’s likeness, to glorify God as we are increasingly conformed to Christ. That it will happen, in Christ, is certain: “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam], we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven [Christ]” (1 Corinthians 15:49). And how it will happen is through “beholding the glory of the Lord” — that is, by looking in faith to Jesus, the image of God par excellence, we “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
In Christ, as we “put off the old self with its practices and . . . put on the new self,” we are “being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:9–10).
Our Minds, Hearts, and Wills?
But now that we’ve located the essential meaning of the image of God in the Son of God become man (and the restoration of our capacity to physically image him in his world), we have an important question to address: What of the invisible qualities that set humanity apart — qualities like thinking and feeling and willing that theologians and laymen alike have so often pointed to when asked what it means to be “in God’s image”? Does it matter for imaging God that we think and feel and will as humans?
Begin with Jesus. How did he perfectly image God? Doubtless, his mind, heart, and will were not irrelevant. Imaging is indeed visible, but mind and heart and will matter related to imaging when they give rise to visible actions and audible words. While our (invisible, internal) thinking and feeling and willing are not themselves what it means to be in God’s image, these capacities are not irrelevant to our irreducibly visible and external calling. In fact, that humans think and feel and choose gives meaning to our words and actions in the world.
Because of what we know about our own inner life as humans, we invest human words and acts with significance. Because humans think and meditate and ponder and consider and deliberate, we hear meaning in their sounds (words) and see meaning in their movements. Yet, in doing so, we do not reduce imaging God to anything less than how we, in Christ, live to God in the world for others to see and hear.
Let There Be Light
Jesus anticipates our task as restored divine-imagers, when he says, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). This is what images do. They shine. They display. Others see, and give glory to the imaged one.
Which means our task as divine-imagers in Christ, in this life and forever, never gets old or boring. Because God is never boring. There is always more of him to see and enjoy and show. The most exciting, never-ending, ever-creative, ever-enthralling calling in the universe is to visibly (and audibly) image (and echo) the invisible God in his created world. This is amazing dignity, and the greatest possible ground for human dignity: designed by God as his special representatives in this world — and not just in creation, but as recreated ones in Christ. Even greater than our original design and commission is our being brought back from the dominion of sin, through the death of the sinless image of God, and then conformed to his image.
‘Image’ Is Not Enough
So, as we advocate for human life and dignity and justice — from the unborn, to the poor, to the mistreated, to the disabled, to the elderly, to the sojourner — we are not content to leave our plea at “in the image of God.” Not as Christians. We have more to say, gloriously more to say. Bad news first: sin has tainted all our imaging. Then the best news in all the world: God himself in Christ came as the image, and is now the dividing line of human destiny. In him we offer a dignity that surpasses even that of the pinnacle of creation.
We never say less than “image of God” for fellow humans, but as Christians, we say more. We dream of more. We pray for more. To speak of “the image of God” as a Christian is to hope for more than a return to creation. It is to do more than “go back” to Genesis 1. To speak as Christians, we speak of sin and salvation. We speak of a destiny fulfilled only in Christ. And we remind ourselves of our calling to real, tangible, sacrificial acts of love and good works that bring glory to our Father.
Friends: Part 3 is a full meal deal. Chew and then chew some more…then digest…let it nuture your spirit man …then grow and ‘go’ and love. dh
Love Is a Fulfilling of the Law, Part 3
3 Part Study provided by John Piper
Romans 13:8-10 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
Three times in this text Paul says, more or less, that loving your neighbor as you love yourself fulfills the law. Verse 8b: “For the one who loves another has fulfilled (peplëröken) the law.” Verse 9 at the end: “. . . and any other commandment, are summed up (anakephalaioutai) in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” And verse 10: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling (plëröma) of the law.” Let’s clarify some of the terms here from the context.
First the word, “law.” “Law” here is referring most immediately to the ten commandments from Exodus 20. You see that in verse 9: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet [these are all commandments from the ten commandments in Exodus 20], and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” There is a lot more in the first five books of Moses, which are sometimes called the law, but here Paul is focusing on the commandments. That’s his main meaning for “law” in these verses.
Second, the word “fulfill.” The words “fulfilled” (v. 8) or “sum up” (v. 9) or “fulfilling” (v. 10) refer to the attitudes and actions of love that correspond to what the commandments require. If you love, your mindset and behavior are what the law requires. Your attitudes and actions satisfy the demands of the law when you are loving as you ought. That’s what “fulfill” means. It’s not talking about prophecy being fulfilled. It’s talking about attitudes and behaviors which correspond to what the law requires.
Third, let’s clarify the word “wrong” in verse 10: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” Why does Paul focus on what love does not do instead of what God does do? Why focus on not wronging a neighbor instead of focusing on blessing or helping or doing good to a neighbor? I think the reason is that Paul is quoting the commandments and they are all negative. Verse 9: “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet.” This is what he is dealing with: the law as prohibition. He takes all those “don’ts” and says: the point in all these prohibitions is “Don’t wrong your neighbor.” Then he says: love fulfills that.
He doesn’t mean that love is not positive. He has said already in Romans 12:14, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” And in 12:20: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him.” He doesn’t mean love is not mainly positive and helpful. He simply means that here in these ten commandments the focus is on not hurting and not wronging. And yes, when you love, those commands are fulfilled. Love covers that. Love does more than avoiding what is wrong and hurtful. But it does not do less. It fulfills these commandments. And, if he chose to mention positive ones, it would fulfill them too.
Question #1: Why Does Paul Bring Up the Law of God?
So with these three clarifications my first question is: Why does Paul bring up the law of God—the ten commandments? This is going to lead to an even more important question that will affect the way we live and relate to God.
I think he brought up the law here in verse 8 because he had just said something so sweeping that it sounds dangerously overstated, especially to those who love the law of God and believe it is holy and just and good and a great blessing to man. Paul had said, in verse 8, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other.” This is so sweeping. Only love! Only owe love!
To many, especially Jews and Jewish Christians, this would sound like the law is seriously neglected. What about God’s law? Don’t we owe that? Are we not obliged to keep that? Do you mean that the law of God—the ten commandments—can just be ignored? I suspect that this kind of question would lead Paul to bring up the law and deal with the objection.
So he says at the end of verse 8b, “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” In other words,no, I am not neglecting the law. I am not acting as though the fulfillment of the law does not matter. I am not talking as though God gave the law in vain or that it was a mistake. On the contrary, when I say, “Only owe love,” I am saying the very thing that will bring the law to its fulfillment. If I took the shortcut, and said, “Only owe the commandments . . . only fulfill the law . . . Owe no one anything except to keep the commandments . . . Owe no one anything except to fulfill the law,” I might be saying something true (if you saw it in a certain way, as in 1 Corinthians 7:19), but it would not give the kind of guidance that Paul believes this church needs. It would not send the message he wants to send about how to live the Christian live.
Question #2: If Paul Cares About the Fulfillment of the Law, Why Does He Call for Love Instead of Directly Calling for Keeping the Law?
So here’s our main question: If Paul cares so much about the law being fulfilled—so much so that he makes it the ground of his call for love in verse 8 (only owe love because the one who loves another has fulfilled the law)—then why does he call for love instead of calling directly for law-keeping, law-fulfilling? What’s he telling us about the law, and about love, and about faith, and about how to live a Christian life that pleases God?
I pray that you will listen very carefully because what we are about to deal with takes us to the very heart of Christianity and to the heart of salvation and to the heart of how to live the Christian life. Let’s reach out across Romans and Galatians and let Paul take us step by step in his understanding of the law to this very place where love is a fulfilling of the law.
We start in Galatians 3:17. Paul speaks of the law coming 430 years after the promise to Abraham. So he means the Mosaic law, in particular the ten commandments. Then in Galatians 3:19 he asks, “Why then the law?” and he answers, “It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come [Christ] to whom the promise had been made.” Then he asks in verse 21, “Is the law then contrary to the promises of God?” And he answers, “Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.” In other words, the law that God gave through Moses could not give life.
Why? Not because the commandments were bad. Paul said in Romans 7:12, “The commandment is holy and righteous and good.” And not because faithful law-keeping was not in principle a legitimate way to life—it was the way God gave to Adam. In Genesis 2:16-17, notice the word “commanded”: “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” So if you want life, trust me and obey the commandment. That was the way to life. It was not a bad way. It was not a way that dishonored God.
But here’s the problem: ever since Adam and Eve fell into sin, we have all become sinners and that original way to life—the way of faithful law-keeping—is closed to sinners like us. So when God gives the law, Paul says in Galatians 3:21, “it can’t give life.” Then why did he give it?
Paul gives a series of answers. 1) In Romans 3:20 he says, “Through the law comes knowledge of sin.” We know sin intellectually and we know sin experientially because of the law and what it does to us. 2) Then in Romans 5:20 Paul says, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass.” Oh, how many ways the law increases trespasses! 2a) It provokes outright rebellion in some who don’t want any authority over them. 2b) It turns vague sinfulness into specific transgressions by its detailed prohibitions. 2c) It provokes religious people to make two mistakes: one is to try to keep it in their own power as a way to life, and 2d) the other is to try to keep it in the power of God as the way to life, yet without a redeemer—without Christ. In every one of these responses to the law transgressions multiply. The law given by Moses cannot give life.
The summary effect of the law is given in Romans 3:19, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” The law cannot give life; it stops our mouths and makes us all accountable to God. If we are going to have life—eternal life—we must have it not from the law, but from Someone who bears the curse of the law that we deserve and who keeps the law in a way that we can’t—namely, Jesus Christ. Every human being needs Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
In all of its negative effects this is where the law was leading—to Christ. The law was not leading from self-dependent law-keeping to God-dependent law-keeping as the way to life. No, no. The problem is far greater than that. We don’t just need a new motive. We need a Savior. The law was leading from all law-keeping (self-dependent or God-dependent) to Christ as the way to life.
Paul says it in at least three different ways. In Galatians 3:24 he says, “The law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.” And in Romans 10:4 he says, “Christ is the end [goal] of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” And, most important for us this morning he says in Romans 8:2-3, “The law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin,he condemned sin in the flesh.”
In other words, something had to be done for us that the law could not do. If we are going to have eternal life, even though we are sinners and deserve eternal death, we need a Redeemer, a Savior, someone to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, and what the law cannot do for us. We need someone to bear the curse of the law that we deserve and to satisfy the demands that we can’t.
That is why we need Christ. And that is what he came to do. Romans 8:3, “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.” How? “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin,he condemned sin in the flesh.” That is he bore our condemnation. He died for our sin. He took our penalty. Galatians 3:13 puts it like this: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”
Ever since Adam fell, and we became sinners in him, the only way to eternal life was through a Redeemer, a Savior, a Substitute. And Christ became that substitute both by bearing the curse, the condemnation of the law that we deserved, and by fulfilling the righteousness that we could not perform.
And all of this work by Christ on our behalf—the deliverance from the law’s condemnation, and the provision of his righteousness (Romans 10:4; 5:19; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:9)—all of this great work of Christ we receive freely as a gift through faith alone, not works. We are forgiven all our sins and clothed with all Christ’s righteousness by faith alone. Romans 3:28, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (see Romans 5:1; Galatians 2:16).
What Does Life Look Like Now?
And so the great question that Paul is dealing with now in Romans 12–16 is what does life look like for people who know that by faith alone all their sins are forgiven, and all their condemnation is removed, and all of God’s righteousness in Christ has become their righteousness—what does life look like? How do you live the Christian life? What do you pursue? What do you focus on?
Two Different Answers
Do you say, “Now I am forgiven by faith alone, and now I have the imputed righteousness of Christ by faith alone, and now I have the Holy Spirit within me by faith alone, so now I will go back to the law—the ten commandments, and whatever other commandments there are (Romans 13:9)—and I will focus my new God-given ability on the these commandments and fulfill them”?
No. I don’t think that is the way Paul guides us. I think he wants to speak rather like this: “Now I am forgiven by faith alone, and now I have the imputed righteousness of Christ by faith alone, and now I have the Holy Spirit within me by faith alone, so now I will continue to make my focus Jesus Christ every day, and I will look to him for everything my soul craves. And from my union with Christ, nurtured hour by hour by focusing on Christ as my great Savior and mighty Lord and infinite Treasure, I will love people. Christ will be my focus, love will be my fruit.”
Why Does Paul Want Us to Speak One Way and Not the Other?
Why do I think Paul wants us to speak that way and not the other? Lots of reasons,1 but I close with only one—the one that has been most precious and powerful in my life in the last four and a half years (since I first preached on it): Romans 7:4, “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ.” That is, when Christ died to bear the law’s curse you died in him, and when he obeyed in death to fulfill the law’s demands, you obeyed in him. The law is not your focus anymore. What is? Wrong question. The question is, “Who is?” and the next part of the verse gives the stunning answer: You have died to the law through the body of Christ “so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead.”
Paul puts the risen, living Christ where the law was. Once you were alive to the law, but now you belong to Christ. In the place of law is a Person—a great Savior, a mighty Lord, an infinite Treasure. Our daily, hourly focus is now on him—his deliverance, his help, his guidance, the beauty of his love and justice and power and wisdom and truth, and all the joy of knowing him. And what comes of this union with Christ at the end of Romans 7:4?
Fruit. “. . . so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.” And what fruit is that? The fruit is love (Galatians 5:22; 5:6; 1 Timothy 1:5). And, yes, that love does fulfill the law—not perfectly2 (Christ alone has done that for me), but truly, because my life now in Christ has a new spirit, a new passion, new direction.
The Short Answer
That’s a long answer to the question: Why does Paul call for love as a way to fulfill the law instead of directing our focus directly to the law? The short answer would be: because he wants Christ to be glorified as our sin-bearer and our righteousness-provider and our love-enabler through faith alone. Therefore, owe no one anything except to love them. And to that end make Christ your everything.
What the Law Could Not Do, God Did Sending Christ, Part 2
3 Part Study provided by John Piper
Romans 8:1-4 Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3 For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
We are picking up in verse 3 where we left off three weeks ago. “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh.” We said that it has four statements in it.
God condemned sin in the flesh.
He did this by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin.
The law was not able to do this.
The reason the law could not do this was because of our flesh.
Last time we focused on the first two. Now we focus on the last two.
So what I hope to do this morning is answer two questions: What was it that the law could not do? And, Why couldn’t it do it? The reason I think this is worth a whole message is that the two things that the law could not do are things that are absolutely necessary for us to experience if we are to have eternal life, and, even though the law could not and cannot do them, people still turn to the law to get them done. In other words, it is tremendously relevant to your life to know what the law cannot do for you, lest you go there for the help you can only get from Jesus Christ.
The Law Could not Justify or Sanctify Us
First, then, what is it that the law could not do? The answer is given twice in Romans 8:1-4, once in verses 1-2 and once in verses 3-4. Verse 1 says, “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” This is what we call justification – if we are in Christ Jesus – that is, if we are united to Jesus by faith in him – our condemnation from God because of our sin is taken away. God acquits us. Counts us righteous. Justifies us. He does not look upon us any longer as guilty and condemned, but as forgiven and righteous because of what Jesus did for us.
Then comes verse 2: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” This is what we call sanctification. After we are justified, and because we are justified, the Spirit of God is poured out in our lives and begins to free us from the dominion of sin and death. This means that Christians are not only “counted” righteous in justification, but actually transformed by the Spirit of God into more and more actually righteous, loving, holy people. This is the practical evidence that we have trusted Christ and are united to him and are justified in him.
Now my answer to our question is that these two things are what the law could not do. The law could not justify us and the law could not sanctify us. It was powerless to do both of these things. The first sign of this is that verse 3 begins with “for.” You could read it like this: Justification is “in Christ” (verse 1), and sanctification is “in Christ” (verse 2), for the law could not do these things, only Christ could, and so God sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. That’s the first answer to the question from verses 1 and 2. Justification and sanctification come to us by union with Christ Jesus (“in Christ”) for the law could not make them happen.
Now the same answer comes in verses 3 and 4 as well. Verse 3 says that what the law could not do is condemn sin in the flesh, that is, it could not deal with sin, absorb its punishment, remove our condemnation. So God did this by sending Jesus into the world to die for us: “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh.” So here we have the same point as verse 1: There is no condemnation because God executed the condemnation for our sin on his Son. That is the basis of our justification. That is what the law could not do. It could not remove the condemnation for our sin. It could identify it and name it and point away from it and stir it up and rub it in. But it could not remove our punishment. God did that in Jesus’ death. So again we see that justification is something the law could not do.
Now verse 4, like verse 2, says that this justification leads to sanctification, which was also something the law could not do – since it could not justify us. Notice verse 4 begins with “so that.” This is a purpose of God’s condemning sin in the flesh. God put our condemnation on Jesus and provided the basis for our justification “so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Walking according to the Spirit is what we mean by sanctification. So what we see here again, as in verses 1 and 2, is that sanctification is the result or the effect of justification. And that means that both justification and sanctification are what the law could not do.
You can see it most easily if you just say verses 3 and 4 like this: What the law could not do God did, namely two things: he condemned sin by sending his Son to die for us, and because of this basis for justification he enables us to fulfill the essence of the law by giving us the Holy Spirit. That is what the law could not do: justify us and sanctify us. It could not remove our condemnation or bring about our transformation. And yet both of these are absolutely necessary if we are going to be saved in the last day and have eternal life.
The Law Could not Justify Us Because We Were of Flesh
So we need to ask now: Why could the law not do these two things? Because if we can see the reason for this weakness clearly, we will be protected from the deadly mistake of counting on the law for justification and sanctification. And, even better, we will know where to look for the declaration that we are right with God and for the transformation that follows.
And that is so crucial for us all. You may have come today wondering how these Baptists think about salvation and about how to get right with God and have eternal life. Well we think about it the same way Biblical Christians have thought about it for centuries: this is historic Christianity, not just Baptist Christianity. The law – the ten commandments and the other rules that Moses gave the people of Israel – cannot make you right with God and cannot transform you into the kind of righteous and loving persons you want to be.
Why not? Verse 3 answers: “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did.” The problem with the law is not that its commandments are evil (Romans 7:12), but that we are evil (Romans 7:14). The word “flesh” does not mean skin, in Paul’s vocabulary. It means our old fallen nature. We will see this next week in the following verses where he contrasts the mind of the flesh and the mind of the Spirit. The flesh is what we are and what life is without God and his gracious, saving work by the Spirit. That is what the law encounters when it comes to us.
So what is the weakness of the law? The weakness of the law is that it was not designed to redeem fallen, condemned, rebellious, selfish people like us.
Think about this first in relation to justification. The reason we need to be justified is that we stand under the condemnation of God because we are fallen. Remember Romans 5:18, “Through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men.” Flesh is what we are by human nature, and what we are by human nature is under condemnation. What is the remedy for condemnation? If you are guilty of a capital offense and under the condemnation of a death sentence from God, what will save you?
I’ll tell you what will not save you. Commandments will not save you when your problem is guilt and condemnation. What happens when commandments come? Paul tells us in Romans 7:9, “When the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.” The commandments don’t bring about redemption, they bring about wrath. Romans 4:15, “The law brings wrath.” A man who is guilty and under legal condemnation will not be saved by commandments; he will be saved by acquittal. He needs a judge to pardon and forgive. He needs justification by faith and not by works of the law. That’s why Paul comes to the end of his long indictment of the human race in Romans 1-3 by saying, “By works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).
So the law could not do what absolutely has to be done if we are to be rescued from our guilt and condemnation: it could not justify us. It could not set us right with God. It could not take away our guilt. It could not absorb our condemnation. What it did was show us our guilt (Romans 3:20; 7:7) and to make us even more sinful by stirring up the rebellion of our flesh (5:20; 7:5). “Through the commandment sin [becomes] utterly sinful” (Romans 7:13).
Trust Jesus, not Law-Keeping
So this morning, if you want to be set right with God, don’t look to the law. If you want to be acquitted and justified, don’t depend on law-keeping. No amount of law-keeping can turn the verdict of guilty to not-guilty. One thing can change that verdict that hangs over your head: the perfect Son of God living and dying in your place. For his sake alone God counts you to be righteous when you trust him. Hence Romans 3:28, “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” Trust Jesus, not law-keeping.
So the law cannot justify us because we are in the flesh, meaning we are fallen and condemned. And commandments of the law cannot remove guilt and condemnation. Only Christ can.
Why Is It that the Law Could not Sanctify Us?
Now we turn to sanctification. Why can’t the law sanctify us? Why can’t it make us holy and righteous and loving people? Now here there is so much to say that I think I would do a disservice to the truth if I tried to pack it in here at the end of the message. So let me just tell you where we are going, Lord willing, next week as we take up this question and move with it into verses 4-8.
It is a burning issue today how Christians can live in love and righteousness in the fragile world we have just moved into where fear and anger lie just beneath the surface of our lives. Fear of anthrax and bombs and the collapse of life-sustaining infrastructures we have always taken for granted. And anger at someone or some people and we are not even sure who.
Do you have the resources in you to be confident and fearless and courageous and patient and kind and fair and loving and sacrificial, not returning evil for evil, but blessing those who curse you and praying for those who persecute you (Romans 12:17; Matthew 5:44)? Where will you look for this? Will you look to the law?
It won’t work. Look to Christ. The living, divine, loving, omnipotent Lord who died for you and rose again and promises to be with you and help you and satisfy your longings in life and death. Look to him. The law cannot sanctify you, but Christ can. That is what we will take up next week, if God wills.
Till then, if you need to get right with God this morning, look to Christ, not the law. And if you need help being a loving and righteous person this week – and who doesn’t – look to Christ, not the law. (Part 3 tomorrow)
Friends: The next 3 days will provide incredibly powerful and discernable ‘light’ and truth that will give you new strength and spiritual energy…to see yourself as God sees you…and thus, by faith, begin to grow stronger and deeper in your daily fellowship with our Lord…to produce more eternal fruit. And ‘that’ is why we are here…to make an eternal difference. Dig in, absorb, pray about what you see and learn. Blessings…dh
What the Law Could Not Do, God Did Sending Christ
3 Part Study provided by John Piper
Romans 8:1-4 Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3 For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Verse 1 declares that in Christ Jesus there is no condemnation. God does not condemn us for our sins if we are in Christ Jesus. Jesus is a safe place from the hurricane of God’s holy and just wrath. Verse 2 declares that in Christ Jesus there is freedom from the power of sin. Not yet perfect and final freedom, but decisive and irrevocable freedom. That is, the triumphant blow has been struck, the dominion of sin has been broken, and its final defeat is sure.
The reality of verse 1 is called justification, and the reality of verse 2 is called sanctification. And the relation between them is that the freedom of verse 2 supports acquittal of verse 1 as evidence, but not as cause. We are not justified because our lives have changed. Our lives are changing because we have been justified.
Now we look at verse 3. “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh.” It has four statements in it. 1) God condemned sin in the flesh. 2) He did this by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin. 3) The law was not able to do this. 4) The reason the law could not do this was because of our flesh.
“God . . . Condemned Sin in the Flesh”
Let’s draw out some of the wonders in these statements. First, “God condemned sin in the flesh.” Notice three wonderful things about what this statement says.
1. Sin Has Been Condemned, not Merely Shown to Be Condemnable
First, sin has already been condemned. What does that mean? It does not mean that sin has been criticized and called condemnable – as when we say, President Bush “condemned” the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. We know it does not mean this because this is something the law could do and did do quite well. The law criticized sin and called it condemnable. The law says, for example, “You shall not covet” (Exodus 20:17). And the law pronounces punishments on law breakers (Deuteronomy 28:15). So the law clearly “condemned” sin in this sense.
But Romans 8:3 says, “What the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did.” So God did something more than merely criticize sin and call it condemnable. What then does Paul mean when he says, “God condemned sin in the flesh”? He means that in Jesus’ flesh – in his suffering and dying body on the cross – God executed a final sentence of condemnation on the sin of everyone who is in Christ. In other words, “God condemned sin” means God found sin guilty and sentenced sin to be finally punished and carried out the penalty of suffering in the death of his Son.
That’s the first wonderful thing about this statement, “God condemned sin” – in the death of Christ, sin was not merely shown to be condemnable, it was condemned, it received its full and just sentence and penalty – for all who are in Christ Jesus.
2. Our Sin Was Condemned in the Suffering and Death of Christ, Since He Had no Sin to Condemn
Now here is the second wonderful thing about this statement: There was no sin in Jesus Christ to condemn. Paul says it here indirectly and says it directly elsewhere. Here he says, “Sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh.” Notice that word “likeness.” He says “likeness of sinful flesh” because he was not sinful. Jesus had no sin. His flesh was human, and it was like sinful flesh. But it was not sinful.
So how could God condemn sin in his flesh? There was none there to condemn. The clearest answer is given in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “[God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” There it is. Paul says it as clearly as it can be said: “He knew no sin.” Jesus never sinned. Of all the people who have ever lived, Jesus is the only one who did not deserve to die. Jesus is the only person who ever lived who did not deserve to suffer. But he died and he suffered.
So the question is: Whose sin was condemned when Jesus’ flesh was tortured and killed? God condemned sin in the flesh of his completely innocent Son. Whose sin? The answer is given clearly. Romans 4:25, “He . . . was delivered over because of our transgressions.” 1 Corinthians 15:3, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” Galatians 1:4, “[He] gave Himself for our sins.” 1 Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.” 1 Peter 3:18, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous.” Isaiah 53:5-6, “But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.”
The answer is that our sin was condemned in the suffering and death of Christ, not his. He had none. Which practically means what? Let Paul say it the way he likes to say it in Romans 8:33-34, “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; (34) who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died.” When the question rises, “Who can condemn God’s elect?” the answer understood here is, “Nobody.” Nobody in heaven or hell or on the earth. Why? Answer: “Christ Jesus is he who died.”
And now we know why the death of Jesus Christ takes away all my condemnation. Because when he died God was condemning sin, sentencing it, and punishing it completely and fully and finally for all God’s elect – all who are in Christ by faith. Therefore it was my sin that was being condemned and sentenced and punished completely and fully and finally when Christ died. And if my sin was punished there finally and fully, I will not be punished for it again.
Brothers and sisters, there is no other cleansing agent in all the universe that can clean your conscience, besides this one. There is no other shield that can protect you from the white hot wrath of God, besides this shield. There is no other argument that will hold up in the final courtroom of heaven than this argument: Christ died for my sins. Christ bore my condemnation. Christ absorbed all the divine wrath that would and should have come on me.
I need no other argument, I need no other plea, It is enough that Jesus died, And that he died for me.
That’s the second wonderful thing about this statement that “God condemned sin in the flesh.” The first is that sin has already been condemned, sentenced, punished, executed in Jesus. The second is that Jesus had no sin to condemn. It was ours that was punished. “[God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf.”
3. God Condemned Sin in the Flesh
The third wonderful thing about this statement is that God did it. “God condemned sin in the flesh.” Two things are powerfully relevant for us here.
The Love of God Rescued Us from the Wrath of God
3.1 One is that Jesus Christ did not put himself forward between God and man to reconcile them to each other. It’s not as though God is only angry at sinners, and sinners are hostile to God, and Jesus loves sinners and puts himself between his angry Father and sinful man to rescue man from God’s anger. That is not what Christianity teaches. That is not what happened.
The text says – and the whole Bible is built on this view – that God did this. “Sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, [God!] condemned sin in the flesh.” Jesus did not put himself forward between God and man; God put Jesus forward between God and man (Romans 3:25). God “sent His own Son.” God saw to it that the eternal, uncreated Son of God took on “the likeness of sinful flesh.” God poured out his wrath on the Son as the condemnation and punishment of our sins. Jesus didn’t butt in to save us from God. God sent him in to save us from God. God himself saved us from the wrath of God.
When you ponder the cross, don’t just ponder the love of Jesus rescuing us from the anger of God. Ponder the love of God rescuing us from the anger of God. If you know Jesus, you know the Father. The heart of Jesus is the heart of the Father. Jesus is as angry at sin as the Father is. And the Father is as caring for sinners as Jesus is.
Jesus said in John 14:7-9, “‘If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.’ (8) Philip said to Him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.’ (9) Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been so long with you, and yetyou have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how canyou say, “Show us the Father”‘?”
So be crystal clear on this: the work of Jesus the Son of God is the work of God the Father. If you know Jesus, the Son of God, you know God the Father. If you love Jesus, the Son of God, you love God.
God did it. God condemned sin in the flesh. And the first thing that is so relevant about that for us is that it keeps us from playing Jesus and God off against each other. It helps us see that the Father and the Son have one heart and one mind as they take their different roles in saving us from our sin.
The Exclusivity of the Gospel of the Glory of God in Christ
3.2. The other thing that is so relevant about this third point (that it was God himself who condemned sin in the flesh of the Son of God), is that this does not fit in with other major religions, like Islam or Judaism or Hinduism or Buddhism. The point here is not to be inflammatory in a tense global situation. The point is to preserve the gospel of the glory of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4), the divine Son of God and only sin-bearing Mediator between God and man, in the midst of a cultural stampede toward inclusivism.
What I mean by inclusivism is the teaching that all religions are legitimate paths to God. There is a fear today to speak of the exclusivism of the gospel of Jesus – that he is the Way the Truth and the Life and no one goes to the Father but by him (John 14:6). But this is what Paul is saying here in Romans 8:3. God – the one and only Creator of the universe – sent his Son (his pre-existing, divine, eternal Son) in human flesh to bear the outpouring of his wrath in condemnation on sin. THAT is who God is. If you say, “God did not do that,” then the God you worship is not God.
Who is the true and only God? The true and only God is the God and Father of Jesus Christ who was in “the form of God” and “equal with God” (Philippians 2:6) and took on the form of a servant in the likeness of sinful flesh, so that all the fullness of deity dwelt in him bodily (Colossians 2:9). The true and only God sent this divine Person into the world and in his flesh condemned sin – sentenced it, punished it, executed it. Yours and mine. And everyone’s, who by faith are in Jesus Christ.
This is the gospel we preach to the entire world – to every religion. There is one God, the Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the uncreated, eternal, divine Son of God, whom God sent in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin in order to die for sinners, so that all who believe might be saved – from his wrath and for his glory. The most loving thing we an do for Muslims is to peacefully, meekly, and sacrificially proclaim to them the gospel of Jesus Christ, without which no one will be saved.
To love people like this will require that you have come to see Romans 8:3 as the most precious event in the history of the world. God did it. God condemned sin in the flesh of his own Son. There is no other cleansing for the conscience. No other protection from wrath. No other argument in the last judgment.
Let’s believe it, bank on it, live it, and sing it.
My faith has found a resting place, Not in device nor creed; I trust the ever living One, His wounds for me shall plead.
I need no other argument, I need no other plea, It is enough that Jesus died, And that he died for me.
Enough for me that Jesus saves, This ends my fear and doubt; A sinful soul, I come to him, He’ll never cast me out.
My heart is leaning on the Word, The written Word of God, Salvation by my Savior’s name, Salvation through his blood.
My great Physician heals the sick, The lost he came to save; For me his precious blood he shed, For me his life he gave.
Review and this article by Douglas R. Groothuis PhD, Philosophy, University of Oregon
As one of the greatest Christian philosophers of the 20th century, Francis Schaeffer made it his mission to relate Christianity to the surrounding culture’s worldview. His works continue to have relevance today as Christians grapple with current issues in metaphysics, morals, and epistemology. In this redesigned apologetic work, Schaeffer encourages readers to have a deeper understanding of who they are, who God is, and how they know him as they encounter the infinite-personal God who is there and is not silent.
Shortly after becoming a Christian in 1976, I read Schaeffer’s books, starting with The God Who Is There. Not long after, I read He Is There and He Is Not Silent, and I’ve read it many times since. I developed a Christian worldview through his books, and Schaeffer gave me an intellectual courage that has only grown over the years. Indeed, many Christian thinkers were inspired by Schaeffer’s books, including Charles Colson, Michael Card, John Whitehead, Os Guinness, and Nancy Pearcey.
Schaeffer’s Breadth of Insight
Schaeffer had a sharp mind, a warm heart, and what jazz musicians call “big ears”—the ability to listen well and respond sympathetically. Although some may want his arguments to be more thorough and his references to philosophers more nuanced, he had a nose for truth and knew how to defend it in ways that mattered to “the watching world,” as he put it. When people wanted him to discuss arcane apologetic theory, he’d say, “I am an evangelist!” He had an apologetic method, but reaching real people—not making a mark on academia—was his passion.
Schaeffer was a deep thinker. His thought penetrated cinema, philosophy, theology, and much more. For him, apologetics was never a matter of merely winning arguments, but of leading real people to the living God he knew. Schaeffer’s books often use the phrase “with tears” or refer to the anguish of those lost in the meaninglessness of his time. Even in his most philosophical books, Schaeffer shows his pulsing concern for people. On the same page he might switch from intellectual history to recounting an encounter with a lost person.
For Schaffer, apologetics was never a matter of merely winning arguments, but of leading real people to the living God he knew.
In He Is There and He Is Not Silent, Schaeffer speaks of a couple who stayed at L’Abri and spent hours talking with each other, trying to completely understand one another. Since they didn’t have the “infinite-personal God” as their final “integration point,” they couldn’t get to the bottom of what it means to be human or to be in a loving relationship. Schaeffer saw both the philosophical issue to be solved and also the existential problem to be faced. Unlike some other Christian thinkers, Schaeffer wrote with a profound sense of the lostness of modern people, which is evident throughout the book. That awareness gives his writings a vibrancy and pathos not often found in apologetics books.
Touring the Book
He Is There and He Is Not Silent advances a brief philosophical argument for the existence of the Christian God. Unlike many other apologetic books, it acknowledges the history of ideas (sometimes in a rather swashbuckling way), tying in myriad cultural illustrations. Schaeffer considers the basic Christian worldview, rather than evidence for the reliability of the Bible or Jesus’s resurrection—although he never denied the worth of these arguments. He focuses on how the Christian account of reality explains what is (metaphysics), what we should do (morality), and know we can know (epistemology).
“The Metaphysical Necessity” gives the possibilities regarding the origin of existence. Either there is (1) no explanation for everything, (2) an impersonal explanation (mystical or materialistic), or (3) a personal explanation (Christianity). A “personal beginning” explains both human uniqueness and the order of the universe, since a divine mind is behind it. That infinite-personal being is three-in-one (the Trinity), which solves the problem of the one and the many, which other worldviews are unable to do. The unity and diversity in creation is based on God’s own unity (one God) and diversity (three persons).
In chapter two, “The Moral Necessity,” Schaeffer argues that we all have “moral motions,” or a sense of right and wrong. This is because we’re made in God’s image and have a conscience that answers to him. Without God, morality dissipates into merely human opinion, which can so easily turn ugly. Rather, the character of the infinite-personal God is the basis of morality.
Chapters three and four explain epistemology, or the basis for knowledge. The deepest problem in Schaeffer’s day, he grasped, was that people were alienated from a reliable source of knowledge due to their rejection of the God who speaks, revealing himself in nature, conscience, Scripture, and Jesus Christ. Both the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the film director, Ingmar Bergmann, said that only silence greets our quest for meaning and reality. But Schaeffer shows that the biblical worldview makes meaningful communication between God and people possible. We live in an orderly universe open to God’s communication and to human significance. He is there and he is not silent!
Schaeffer shows that the biblical worldview makes meaningful communication between God and people possible.
The book concludes with appendices on the meaning of biblical revelation and the nature of biblical faith. If an infinite-personal God exists, it would make sense for him to communicate to us verbally, since we as persons communicate verbally. God’s revelation in Scripture wouldn’t be exhaustive, but it would report the truths we need to know. Last, biblical faith isn’t a blind leap off of a cliff, but a well-informed choice to trust a reliable authority.
Take Up and Read
He Is There and He Is Not Silent condenses years of reading and conversation with thoughtful people about what matters most—God and our need to hear him. Please read it, since the essential issues and answers haven’t changed.
Souls are at stake.
Douglas R. Groothuis (PhD, Philosophy, University of Oregon) is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary in Denver, Colorado, where he directs the Christian Apologetics and Ethics MA program.