Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Love of Christ

Over the last couple of weeks, we have been looking at how Paul has been applying what he has explained in his letter to the church at Rome. And he has expressed these applications as questions. The first was, ‘If God is for us who can be against us?’ The second was, ‘Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?’

Today, we look at his third question.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Romans 8.35

Quite the question. And it is the right question to ask because so much hangs on the thought that we are loved by Jesus. It’s right to ask whether something can happen so that we are no longer loved by Jesus. That’s what we’re going to look at his morning.

The first thing we need to do, as usual, is to be clear on definitions. There has been so much confusion on so many things because people weren’t clear on what exactly they were talking about. Here, we need a clear definition of love. Let me be more precise. We need God’s definition of love. I say it that way because these days love has been defined in ways that actually don’t match God’s definition.

So, here’s one dictionary’s definition of love.

a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person.

Then, another dictionary adds this.

unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another.

If we put these two together we have two aspects, two ingredients, if you will, when it comes to love: affection and concern.

What do you think? Does that give us a good handle on God’s idea of love? Does it match how the Bible defines love? I think that we need to say that it’s fine as far as it goes. But I also think that we need to say that it’s lacking something.

Go back to Paul’s first question of these three. ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ What is this but a different way of talking about an aspect of God’s love for His own. And what is highlighted in that question? Commitment. God is committed to His people. So, I think it would be good to add a third ingredient to our definition of love. To love someone is also to be committed to that person and to his or her welfare. It is to be for that person. So, it’s affection, concern and commitment.

This third ingredient is important. I say that because for so many people these days love certainly is affection and concern. But the idea of commitment is lacking. That’s why we have so many talking about falling in love with someone and then falling out of love with that person. The affection and concern that were once there no longer exist. So, they conclude, the relationship is over. ‘Love comes, and love goes. Affection and concern can be quite fleeting. What are you going to do?’

Imagine if that described God’s love for you. Imagine Him saying to you, ‘I used to feel this affection and concern for you, but I don’t any more. Bye.’ That is a tremendously scary thought. How good to know that it does not describe God’s love.

But think about it. There is no good reason for the holy God to have affections for and concern about sinful people like us. But, having decided to love us from before the foundation of the world, He has been committed to us. And that is why the Son came to save us. It’s because He loved us: affection, concern and commitment. It’s that kind of love that Jesus continues to have for us. That’s the kind of love that Paul is writing about. And his question is quite appropriate.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?

Affection, concern and commitment. That’s our definition.

What happens next is that Paul offers a list of things that some might think will interfere with and separate us from this amazing love of Christ.

Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? Romans 8.35

Let’s take a look at this list. First, where did it come from? Did Paul just throw some things together out of the blue? No. First, the items on this list - except for one - were situations that Paul had already faced. And the one, the sword, was waiting for him. It would end his life, something that I suspect that he knew would happen, sooner or later. Is it stretching things to say that Paul understood that these sorts of things would soon enough confront the young churches that he and others were planting? After all, Jesus did say,

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. ​If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. John 15.18-19

Paul is reminding the saints in Rome about the conflict that exists between the Church of Jesus and the world all around them. Some ways that that conflict will present itself will be tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger and sword. And that is something for us here to remember.

However, Paul’s list is not just him being realistic. This is also about Paul being a good pastor. Mentioning the things on this list is required, pastorally required. Paul is preparing those saints for hard situations, terrible situations, where they will be forced to ask the question, ‘Does Jesus still love me?’ That became a real question for them. And if it has not already been, it certainly will be a real question for you. You need to have your answer ready for the time when the troubles of life confront you with that question.

Now, let’s be honest. Some Christians will answer that question with a clear, ‘No, He doesn’t.’ These will think that life has been too hard. So, they will give up. To use Jesus’ words, they do not endure to the end and therefore they will not be saved. (See Matthew 24.13.)

Then, there are those who will answer, ‘I don’t know’. How frightening. For these people what follows is another question. ‘Am I going to have to face these conflicts all alone?’ And who can be in that kind of situation and continue faithful? It would require being faithful to someone you’re not sure is being faithful to you. How can that end well?

When life is hard, when someone finds himself in some really trying situation, what is needed is a clear answer to the question, ‘Does Jesus still love me?’ What is needed is a resounding, ‘Yes, He still loves me. He still has that same affection, that same concern and that same commitment to me. He is still for me. He will make sure I get through this.’ What is that? It is faith in action. Though faced with hardships that tempt him away, this Christian is saying, ‘I believe this part of the Gospel. I believe that nothing can ever separate me from the love of Christ’.

Now, take a moment and consider. Is it possible that Jesus will not respond graciously and powerfully to such a faith? Can’t we say with great assurance that seeing such belief, Jesus will make sure that that saint endures to the end? It need not be a perfect faith - whatever that might be. Jesus blesses even a weak faith, a struggling faith. Remember that father’s, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief’. Not a strong faith, but a true faith. And that is what makes the difference. Jesus will certainly bless a true faith in Him, a true faith in His promises, a true faith that believes that He will always love us. And thanks be to God for that. How else could any of us make it?

Ah, but now for a question that some would bring up at this point. Why the list? Why do we have to face the various hardships of life? If Jesus loves us, why doesn’t He just get rid of all of that? Why does life have to be so hard?

Paul, being the wise pastor that he was, anticipates this question. He responds to it in what he writes next. And let me say, ‘Of course, it’s a quote from the Psalms’.

As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” Romans 8.36

For the longest time I was confused by this quote. What is it doing here? But the Spirit gives more light, and I understand it better now. So, let’s take it apart.

Let’s begin with the last phrase.

…we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered…

Regarded by whom? Who looks at the saints in this way? We’re back to the conflict between the Church and the world. Or I could put that as the conflict between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. (See Genesis 3.15.) Here, recall the saints who, down through the ages, have been martyred for the faith. Or if you aren’t into history, you can read in this week’s news about how Muslims are attacking and killing Christians in Nigeria, as well as in other places. We who are older have grown up during a time of truce between the Church and the world. I’m not sure that was good, but I think that it is an accurate statement. But I’m sure that you can see that that truce is slowly but surely coming to an end. That is our situation as Christians in America. That doesn’t mean that there will be wholesale killing any time soon. But it does mean that we will be targets to be attacked in a variety of ways. Jesus warned us. We need to be ready.

But I still haven’t answered the question, ‘If Jesus loves us, why doesn’t He just get rid of all of that hard stuff?’ The first phrase in that quoted Psalm answers this question.

For your sake we are being killed all the day long;

Christians face the various difficulties of this life for the sake of Jesus.

Let me remind you of something Jesus said when Paul was converted. Jesus told Ananias,

Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name. Acts 9.16

This suffering is not limited to people like Paul. No, it is for all who follow Jesus. Remember how Jesus defined discipleship for all of us.

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. Matthew 16.24-25

Part of being a Christian is suffering for Jesus’ sake and in that way spreading His Gospel. And He decides what kind of suffering it will be. It could be dying as martyr or living with a thorn in the flesh.

What am I reacting against? It is a popular notion these days that being loved by Jesus means life will be good. It will be pretty smooth and enjoyable. ‘Become a Christian and be happy.’ This simply reflects our very self-centered, pleasure-seeking age. It’s all about me and my feeling good. How sad.

Here is a part of reality that is too often forgotten by Christians.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Ephesians 6.10-12

We are in the midst of a war. And it is a ferocious war. Eternal destinies are at stake. And the battle cry of the Church is, ‘Jesus is Lord!’ We are called to give up whatever, including our very lives, for the sake of the one who has loved us so. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be faced with all of the terrible things that Paul had to endure - though it might, which is something for you to think about. But it does necessarily mean that you will face hard, painful, troubling situations for Jesus’ sake. Satan is after you, using all his schemes to get you.

That question will no longer be some theoretical idea to play with. It will be a very real question that demands a confident answer. ‘Does Jesus still love me?’ You need to be ready to answer that question with a resounding, ‘Yes, I know that He still loves me!’ Much will depend on your being able to do that.

Now, Paul isn’t done. And what he writes next is very important for us to embrace.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. Romans 8.37

Let me mention how a couple of other translations render this.

No, in all these things we have complete victory through him who loved us!

No, but in all these things we prevail completely through the one who loved us.

Do you see Paul’s point? We are going to win this war. We are going to completely vanquish all those who oppose Jesus and His Church. The serpent and his seed will be crushed - completely crushed. If you think about it, this is the point of the book of Revelation.

And when will this happen? The answer is clear. This will happen when Jesus returns to usher in the new heavens and new earth. And knowing this is so very important because knowing that we will be completely victorious gives hope. And there will be times when hope - that assurance that God will keep all of His promises - is all you have.

And it all hinges on this question and its answer. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? No one!

So, what do you need to do? That seems to be the right question to ask at this point. And the answer is obvious. You need to work at believing this part of the Gospel. And you work at that not to save yourself but so that Jesus will save you as He sees your faith in action.

And what are you to do so that you will be able to work at believing this part of the Gospel? Here’s the first answer that the Bible will give. Be here on Sundays to join with the rest of the saints as we meet with God to worship Him. It is as we worship Him together that He blesses us with what we need so that we will be able to believe, to fiercely believe, the Gospel. And one result of being blessed in this way is that we will declare with Paul,

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor 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. Romans 8.38-39