God was very good to our family in 2007. We faced some serious challenges at work, in our finances, and in our relationships. He showed me the shortcomings and failures in my life more clearly than ever.
But the Lord is always gracious. He proved himself strong in every situation and carried us through some difficulties that brought me close to despair. He demonstrated his power in big things, like providing house and car payments when we didn’t know where they would come from. He showed that he cares even about little things, like providing a ride from the airport when my bank card wouldn’t process at the rental car counter. When I was overwhelmed with a Romans 7:24 desperation about all the ways I fall short, he poured out a Romans 8:1-2 encouragement that he dispenses freedom, not condemnation, in my life.
One of the marvelous things about the Bible is how God uses it to encourage and inspire us, sometimes in the most unexpected ways. This morning, at the outset of a new year, he gives me hope through a passage and a doctrine that in my experience have been more an occasion for arguments than encouragement.
Romans 8:29-30 says: “For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom he predestined, he also called; and these whom he called, he also justified; and these whom he justified, he also glorified.” (NAS)
Predestination. So many people see it in terms of God deciding who will go to heaven and who will go to hell. One friend bristles at the idea God would predetermine that someone would go to hell, as if the poor soul had no choice about it. Another friend resents the idea that any man would think his freedom to choose is more important than God’s. I find myself distressed with both friends. On the one hand, I see plenty of Scripture passages that make no sense if Christians aren’t faced with a real choice about obeying God and experiencing the consequences of our choices. On the other hand, how can you ignore a major theme of Scripture simply because it doesn’t sit well with your own opinions?
It’s tempting to resolve the tension by just saying that this verse is talking about God’s foreknowledge of human history, that he could make preparations for eternity based on what choices he knew each of us would make in regard to salvation in Jesus Christ. But while God certainly did know our choices ahead of time, that’s not what this verse is saying. It’s talking about God knowing a certain group of people ahead of time. This foreknowledge isn’t about God deciding the fate of all people before they had an opportunity to choose. It’s about God coming into a relationship with the people he would choose before they ever existed.
This context of these verses is about our weakness and trials and what God has done to rescue us. My lower nature constantly drags me down. I continually find myself choosing to do things I know God doesn’t want for me, and I don’t do the right things nearly as often as I should.
The good news is that Christ paid a tremendous price so I could be free to choose to not obey my lower nature. God placed the Holy Spirit in me to provide the strength I need to live the kind of life he wants me to enjoy. It doesn’t matter how difficult my circumstances, God is able to take the broken pieces of my life and fashion them into something truly beautiful. He is so strong and so faithful that nothing in this world can ever come between me and his love – not even my own disobedience.
When we drag a couple of verses out of context and put them under the microscope, we run a serious risk of misunderstanding what they are about. I’ve made that mistake with Romans 8:29-30. Whatever else you can deduce from this passage, it is first and foremost a message of encouragement, comfort, and hope for us as believers in the midst of great trials.
Verse 28 tells me to not get hung up on the “which came first, the chicken or the egg” issue about election and freedom. In one breath, Paul says the elect are both “those who love God” and “those who are called according to his purpose.” The truth is that somehow, in a way our time-bound minds can’t quite comprehend, before we were born, the Father had a relationship with those who love him now. And because of that relationship, he prepared a destiny for us: to make us over into the image of his Son, to write off our sins as debts paid by another, to continue his good work in our lives until we can stand before him holy and blameless on Judgment Day.
And all that is so certain that Paul puts it in the past tense. We are predestined, called, justified, and glorified. From where I sit in the mud hole of daily life, that’s hard to comprehend. I don’t know about you, but I’m a long, long way from looking like someone who has been glorified. But God’s Word says it’s true! And if we can’t take his word for it, who can we trust?
In raising Christ from the dead, God exalted Jesus in ways I can scarcely comprehend, and verse 29 tells me he wasn’t finished when he exalted Christ. Jesus was just the first among many brothers and sisters who also would look like their Father! When I find myself struggling in another pool of quicksand, when I’m at the bottom of another hole I’ve dug for myself, God’s Word for me is to not give up. All those difficulties play a part in his grand design to make me more and more like Christ. Even my failures don’t get in the way! There is no condemnation! What incredible hope that inspires in my heart!
In a sermon on Romans 8:29-30, John Piper says: “Hope is the most practical power in the world. It overcomes discouragement and depression and irritability and anxiety and suicide. It gives new life to old jobs and old marriages and old friendships and old churches. It opens the future and invites vision and dreams and planning and prayer. It conquers lust and greed and vain ambition, because these are just short term substitutes for people who have lost hope in something really great and beautiful and satisfying in their lives.”
That may not describe you, but it sure hits the nail on the head when it comes to my life. The point of the Gospel, however, is not that we are broken-down failures. That’s not even news, much less Good News. The point of the Gospel is that Christ set us free so we can live free. Instead of beating ourselves up over our shortcomings and failures, we should keep standing firm and not allow the enemy to make slaves of us all over again. As difficult as that is sometimes, we can be encouraged by the knowledge that God already has appointed for us a destiny of being glorified like Christ. That releases a powerful geyser of hope in me. It rushes up in my heart, explodes into my life, and floods this parched desert I’ve created for myself. What an incredible sense of freedom!
In that same sermon, Piper also says: “If we can be sure in our deepest heart of hearts that this promise is true, then we will be the freest of all people. In the freedom of hope, we will love one another and will shine like lights in a dark world.”
My prayer is that in 2008 we will all seize the hope we have in Christ and live free.