More than that, we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ. —Romans 5:11
Here’s why we don’t have 400 people crammed into church this morning. Too many people in Nashville think that Christianity is about our performance. It’s what they’ve been taught all their lives. Performance-based Christianity is the religion of our city. Nashville isn’t a secular city. Nashville is a religious city. What is our religion? Performance-based Christianity. Is it working? Is it setting people free? Is it breathing new life into people? If it were, the churches of Nashville couldn’t contain the crowds. But whenever non-performance-based Christianity comes to any town, whenever justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone apart from all our works, apart from all our performance – whenever the gospel comes to town, people light up, and churches fill up, and Christ is honored. There is a gospel deficit in our city. People do not know how wonderful Jesus is.The problem is, performance-based Christianity is a perfect fit for Music City USA. Nashville is all about performance. Our mentality is, “I’m on stage, keeping up appearances, performing for others, measuring up.” We deeply desire the spotlight, to be impressive, to win people’s approval, because then we’re successful, then we can feel okay about our lives. We even perform in front of ourselves, in our minds. We fantasize about how highly other people should think of us, and we get depressed when they don’t. What is going on down in our hearts? It’s all theater. We’re validating ourselves, saving ourselves, by going onstage, we’re proving something, building emotional capital from other people’s applause, and maybe most of all from our own applause of ourselves. We crave being adored and praised. We fear that the instant we let our guard down and people find out what frauds we really are – we fear that we’ll be condemned, and that would be hell. We have a religion here in Nashville. Our god is human approval. Our heaven is being raved about. Our hell is being rejected. Our ritual of worship is keeping up appearances. But is it working? Serving an idol never works. Idols always let us down in two ways. One, they never deliver on their promises when we obey them. Two, they never forgive us when we fail them. So our local religion creates disappointed people feeling condemned and sad, but smiling all the time.
God looks down on Nashville with great compassion. He has sent Immanuel Church here as a group of missionaries to this tribe of human beings suffering in the darkness of performance-based Christianity. Our mission as a church is bring the gospel to Nashville, to make it clear, clearer than it’s ever been before, so that people pull down the idols in their hearts and lift up Jesus, the only One who can honestly say to us, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
The Bible says, “Whoever believes [in Christ] will not be in haste” (Isaiah 28:16). That means, when we stop the role-play, the self-centered drama, when we bring the curtain down on the performance and let Christ be all the approval we need, we are not in haste, no longer compulsively self-focused, no longer scurrying about to make the right impression, no longer frantic to save ourselves from the hell of human rejection, no longer driven by fear, no longer restless and anxious and intolerant and furious with people who don’t applaud loudly enough in the theater of Self. When we turn to Christ for the validation we long for, he gives it. He gives it freely. And he is the only One whose judgment matters. And when he approves of us, we change. We discover peace. The Bible predicts it. “Whoever believes [in Christ] will not be in haste.”
How does that actually happen? I’ll tell you how it doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen by believing justification by faith in just the right way. It’s a good thing, too. Otherwise, we’d think, “Martin Luther was a smart theologian. He got it. But what hope do I have?” You can demolish that thought. The gospel of justification not by performance but by turning to Christ, by believing that we are more evil than we ever feared and more loved than we ever dreamed – the good news of his performance for us sets us free even from having to get the theology perfect. No matter where you turn in your fretful anxiety and excuses and self-pity – and every one of us is frantically going somewhere in our thoughts and feelings – Christ is saying to you today, “I’ve thought of everything. I am all you need. Come to me, and I will give you rest.” That’s his promise. And he is the only peace we’ll ever find anywhere.
It’s so perfect that here in Romans 5:1-11, where Paul is explaining the practical value of being justified and approved of not on the basis of our performance but on the basis of Christ’s performance for us – it’s so perfect that Paul uses the word “boast.” Remember that the word “rejoice” in verses 2, 3 and 11 can also be translated “boast.” We boast in hope of the glory of God. We boast in our sufferings. And we boast in God himself. How does the gospel help us? We turn from boasting in our own hard-won trophies of human approval – in the living room of our minds we have a mantelpiece displaying those trophies – we turn from deriving our personal significance from all of that, and we turn to Christ and we learn to boast, to feel significant, to stand tall, as we savor what we will be in heaven (verse 2), as we see in our sufferings right now that our connection with Christ will endure (verse 3), and as we thrill to having no one less than God as our Friend and Ally forever (verse 11). The word “boast” addresses our personal worth. And God has given us our worth back, and not on terms of performance-based Christianity (which is a false religion) but through the cross of Christ. The idol in our hearts that doesn’t value Jesus or understand what he did for us – let that idol fall. Cast that thought down. The religion of Nashville has got to go. And the change begins with us. The gospel is coming to town.
Two weeks ago we saw in verse 5 that God floods our hearts with the experience of his love. The Holy Spirit makes the dying love of Jesus on the cross real to us existentially right now. That’s how we become certain that Christ will never fail us – not through a philosophical line of reasoning but through the personal experience of his love. Now in verses 6-8, Paul tells us more about the love of God. In verses 9-10, he tells us more about how Christ cannot fail us. And in verse 11, he tops it all off with our third boast – in God himself. Let’s think it through.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. —Romans 5:6-8
Here’s the question Paul is answering. How far will the love of God go, as we struggle along? How far will the patience of God go? What is the outer limit of his love? At what point will God say, “Okay, that’s it. I’ve had all I can take. You’ve gone too far this time. The deal’s off. I am so outta here”? And the Bible is clearly saying, there is no breakpoint with God. His love is wildly extravagant. His love knows no limits of sacrifice. God’s love is infinite and therefore inexhaustible. There will never come a moment when God will say to a sinner for whom Christ died, “The deal’s off.” It won’t happen, because God doesn’t love nice people who perform well. God loves weak people, ungodly people: “While we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly.” God loves sinners: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Obviously, God’s love is not like our love. Paul is saying that. It’s one thing for a soldier to throw himself on the grenade to save his loyal buddy there with him in the foxhole. We understand that love. We admire it. But God threw himself on the grenade for his enemies. We don’t understand that kind of love. We only marvel and worship. The Bible says, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
Do you see the present tense verb in “God shows us his love” and the past tense verb in “Christ died for us” (verse 8)? 2000 years ago, Christ died for us sinners on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem. It was a concrete event in history. If you had run your finger down that cross, you would have gotten a splinter. It was real. But by now it’s in the remote past. How then can that love back then translate into our needs today, moment by moment? How does God show us that love in the present? Through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (verse 5). Christ died in the past. We sin in the present. And God shows us his love moment by moment as the Holy Spirit carries on a conversation with us that might go something like this:
Spirit: “You just sinned. That ugly thought – did you notice that? – that was sin.”
Self: “I don’t even want to face it.”
Spirit: “But if you’ll face it, I’ll show you God’s love.”
Self: “Okay. I admit it. You’re right. It was sin. I’m so sorry.”
Spirit: “Christ died to pay for that sin. It’s covered forever by his precious blood. God loves sinners, and God loves you. Now go ahead and rejoice.”
That’s how it works. He is not asking you to perform. He is inviting you to stop performing, stop faking it. All he’s asking for is trust, honesty, open lines of communication, because Christ put in the perfect performance for you a long time ago. If you’ll believe it, you will know the love of God in your present experience.
Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. —Romans 5:9-10
Put two things side by side in your mind. One, God has enemies. Two, God died for his enemies. When we see how extreme each of those truths is, how opposite they are to one another – our hostility toward God, God’s kindness toward us – when we see how far God’s love reached to pull us in, can we doubt that he’ll love us forever? Can we fear that he might bail on us along the way?
Let’s face the fact that we were God’s enemies. We weren’t just confused and misled. We hated God. Do you doubt that? Jonathan Edwards, in an essay entitled “Men Naturally God’s Enemies,” explained. At the intellectual level, we had low thoughts of God and high opinions of ourselves. We resisted the truth of God and rejoiced every time somebody somewhere claimed he had disproved the Bible. At the volitional level, in our wills, we hated correction and defied God and stubbornly went our own way. We did wrong on purpose, for the fun of it. At the emotional level, we gave away our deepest, most intimate feelings not to God but to others, to any others who made us feel good about ourselves. We didn’t see God as worthy of our emotions. When Jesus died on the cross, the earth shook, the rocks split open, the sky darkened; but our dead hearts felt nothing. That isn’t a simple misunderstanding. That is hatred.
What did God do in the face of our hostility? How did God treat us God-haters? He didn’t hate us back. He didn’t declare war; he declared peace. “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God.” At what cost? “The death of his Son.” That humbling truth gives us something to say to our own consciences, when they accuse us. We now have in the Son of God a reason to declare peace to ourselves. Martin Luther wrote to a discouraged friend, “When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we should say this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does it mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means, for I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.'”
If you are in Christ, God has settled everything in your favor. It is settled now: “We have now been justified by his blood” (verse 9). Not five years from now when we’re better people but right now. And here’s the point. If God made all the commitment up front, can he fail to love you all the way home to heaven? Think of a Coast Guard helicopter rescue team. They fly out over the ocean in search of survivors from a wreck. They expend their effort. They deploy their technology. They risk their own lives. They spot the wreckage and swoop down over a lone survivor struggling in the water. A man in scuba gear jumps in to support him, while the boom is lowered to the sea. The diver helps the man into the harness and he’s lifted safely into the helicopter. The team administers first aid. They wrap him up in a blanket. They radio ahead for an ambulance to be ready at the base. They speed toward the coast. Just as the helicopter approaches the coast, after all the team’s heroism, suddenly they change. They look at each other and say, “Hey, are we crazy? Why are we risking our necks for this guy? What’s he ever done for us? He’s not in the Coast Guard. He’s not one of us.” So they chuck him out the side of the helicopter and he falls to his death in the sea.
After all that rescue team had done, doesn’t it stand to reason that they’ll bring the man all the way home to safety? Equally absurd is any scenario that says God may abandon us and finally leave us in our sins. “We have now been justified by his blood.” “We were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” This was not a small thing for God to do. He paid a price to rescue us. So think about it. Does it stand to reason that he’ll abandon us now, when we’re almost home? We see justification as a small thing, followed by our lifetime efforts to earn it, to deserve it, to keep up our performance. God sees justification and reconciliation as the difficult, improbable and costly thing, followed by the triumphant certainty of our full salvation. “Much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved.” If you are in Christ, all you will ever experience from God, now and forever, is love. Believe it. Receive it. Enjoy it. But even that is not all. The ultimate blessing is not that we would be reconciled to God but that, having been reconciled, we would enjoy God and revel in who God is to us now:
More than that, we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. Romans 5:11
John Stott, in his commentary, concludes this passage, “It seems clear from this paragraph, then, that the major mark of justified believers is joy, especially joy in God himself.” I wonder how you or I might complete that sentence. “The major mark of justified believers is ____.” John Stott proposes “joy.” A joyful boasting in God.
What does it mean to boast in God? Every junior high kid understands this. Every insecure junior high kid understands how cool it is to walk down the hallway next to the captain of the varsity football team as his best friend. He hopes everybody notices. He boasts in that relationship. It’s worth a lot to him. It gives him status. And Paul is saying that God’s former enemies now boast in the God who means so much to them. When we had no way forward, God found a way. When we resisted, God broke through. When we were dead, God made us alive. When we had no hope beyond next weekend, God opened up the doors of heaven. We boast in him.
If you felt that in becoming a Christian you were depriving yourself, giving up the good life, if you felt that you were sacrificing, are you really a Christian? Christians boast in God. They thrill at the privilege of having God as their Friend and Ally forever. They’re not feeling sorry for themselves. They marvel that God loves them. They’ve given up performing and begun worshiping.
When your heart is breaking, you still have God and everything he promises. When your world is devastated with tragic news, you still have God. When you’re fighting against a strong sin, and sometimes failing, you still have God. And when you come to the end and lose your very capacity to think, you still have God.
Performance-based Christianity – where is that in Romans 5:1-11? But grace-based Christianity is the gospel. Justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone apart from all our performances takes us into love for God, joy in God, prizing God. Jonathan Edwards, in his sermon “The Christian Pilgrim,” said this:
Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but the shadows; the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams; God is the sun. These are but streams; God is the fountain. These are but drops; God is the ocean.
God gives himself freely to hostile sinners through the finished work of Christ on the cross. Will you receive him today?