(With thanks to Rev. William Cwirla for the thoughts in this sermon)
“We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). As we continue this summer’s journey through the book of Romans, we come to a text that is about everything and about nothing. It is about nothing in all this world being able to separate the baptized believer from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. Nothing, not even tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, nor sword. Not even death. And this text is about everything working out for good in Jesus. Everything, even all that tribulation, distress, persecution and death stuff, along with the nicer things in life – everything is weaved by God into a beautiful tapestry of good for those who love God. And nothing can separate us from His love.
Do we actually believe this? In the face of real troubles and distress and danger, do we as God’s baptized children trust that God will make everything wrong in our lives to be right in the end? Do we actually live as though God has given a divine purpose and meaning to our sufferings?
If you have ever wanted to know why God allowed something to happen in life, I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is that He gives the answer in Romans 8. The bad news is that you are going to have to stay with me here, because we are going way beyond the simple Sunday School Bible stories of God making it all right in the end – we are heading into the deep waters of God’s wisdom and love.
Paul writes that those whom God foreknew, He also destined in advance to be conformed to the beautiful image of His Son, in order that Christ would be the firstborn of many brothers (8:29). What does it mean to be predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s Son? It means that the Father looks at Jesus and sees in His Son perfected and glorified humanity. In the beginning, God made man through His Son to reflect His Son’s image into the world.
Adam epically failed as he let temptation separate him from loving God and listening to His Word. That sin drew us into all this tribulation, distress, danger and ultimately death in a Hell that was never intended for human beings, but prepared for the Devil and his demons. Adam stopped reflecting Christ into the Creation. Sin brings about God’s wrath, and He is plenty angry over it. Your sin deserved damnation, and we must not think that we can talk our way out of this mess with some excuses and good deeds.
Especially since the Father has already embraced our sinful humanity in this way – “He did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all” (8:32). Despite the world being filled with sinners like you and me, He gives His only begotten Son to die, so that whoever believes in Him, trusting in life through death and resurrection, you will not perish in Hell one bit, but will have eternity with God. This is your destiny that God gives you in Christ, a destiny the Lord worked out before He began creating the world.
It all happens in Christ who undid what Adam did. In Christ you were foreknown by the Father. Apart from Christ, the Lord at the gates of eternity says, “Depart from Me. I do not know you.” In Christ, even before you existed you were destined to be conformed to the image of Christ, who is the image of God. That divine plan was worked out long before you had any say in it, the Holy Trinity's plan from all eternity to save the world in the death of God's eternal Son in our flesh.
In Christ it is all a done deal. You were called in Christ, baptized into His death and resurrection, having heard the good news of Jesus which has worked its good way with you. And that good news is that you are justified. The blood of the Son takes away your sin. Therefore the judgment from God’s throne is that you are innocent. All you can say to that not guilty verdict is “Amen.” So be it. Do not bother arguing, trying to excuse your sin. You do not have a case. Besides God has said that in Christ any need you have for justifying yourself is taken away. If God says you are innocent, that settles it. This very moment, as I speak, you stand before the all-holy Judge, who is a consuming fire. You stand before Him spotless and blameless. For you are clothed with the perfect life and death of Jesus. That is what it means to be justified.
Apostle Paul does not stop there with that blessing, so neither can we. “Those whom [God] justified He also glorified” (8:30). Note that all these verbs are done by God, and they are in the past tense, done deals. He takes everything eternal out of your hands. He foreknew, predestined, called, justified, glorified. Even as you sit here with all your earthly distresses, you are now already seated in Christ at the right hand of the Father in glory as Ephesians 2 declares. You are glorified in the glorified risen flesh of Jesus. He embodied you in His perfect life, death and resurrection – and now He embodies you in His ascended glory. As Paul says elsewhere, your life is hidden in Christ. When Jesus appears again, then your glory will be seen by all (Colossians 3:1-4). You see that all by faith. But sight sees you in yourself, and it is not all that glorious. In your self, you suffer, you sin, you die. But in Christ you are glorified, pure, and holy.
Because all the above is true, because you are foreknown, destined, called, justified and glorified in God’s beloved Son, what on earth can mess you up? You are safe in Christ, wearing Him like a spiritual bullet-proof vest – or bodysuit, really. If God is for us – and He is in Christ – then who can be against us? If God gave us His own Son, how will He hold back on giving us the lesser things of everything else? If we are justified by God, declared righteous with all charges laid on Jesus, who can condemn us? Jesus was literally damned on the Cross in our place. He who hung to death with our sins now lives to intercede with the Father for us. He never lets the Father forget those nail-marks which He still bears. And Jesus never lets us forget the wounds that earned our salvation either, as He gives us that gift in His Body and Blood.
So who can condemn us? Satan is left with no true charges to bring against us. Who else can condemn us? The world? We ourselves? Yes, it certainly happens that the human mind condemns us – but only because people get it in our heads that we are greater than God. For when you say, “I cannot forgive myself” in reality you are trying to overrule God. The Bible says not one word about forgiving yourself because that is not the way it works. True and holy forgiveness always and only comes to you from others. So repent. God forgives you. See yourself as God sees you in Christ, not as you see yourself. Stop disagreeing with Him.
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (8:35). Do you actually think it is possible to make Christ stop loving you? Throw everything at His love – tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword. Bad childhood. Broken marriage. Failure to be wholly devoted to God. Sickness. Think of anything – even death, devil, angels, earthly governments; the past, present and future. High things, low things, any and every thing. The Apostle tells us that in all these things we more than conquer – we literally “hyper-conquer”. Not by ourselves. But in Christ who loved us enough to conquer these things for us with His painful death.
On this side of our graves, our victory can look an awful lot like defeat. That is why Paul emphasizes the “in Christ” stuff so much. It must be trusted and believed for Christ’s sake. In this world, you must walk by faith in Him and not by sight. For the victory Jesus gives looks like a Cross and a tomb. No matter what other people say about the victorious Christian life bringing success for all the world to see, most of the time it looks nothing like that. Paul describes it as being filled with failures, tribulations, distresses, persecutions, famines, nakedness, dangers and violence. Paul makes sure we know that this is not just his idea, but that the OT people said it too. Psalm 44 describes the godly life as facing death all day long. The sheep following Good Shepherd Jesus are seen as sheep being led to the slaughter. Hardly what the world would describe as victorious.
Thus Paul emphasizes how important it is for us to be in, with, and under Christ. For only there is your destiny, your justification, your glorification a done deal. At your baptism, God put you into the safest place there is – the death and life of Jesus. Only here is everything worked out for your good. Only here can you say to your dying day: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen.