Five Unanswerable Questions
By Neil Earle
“In the last twelve verses of Romans 8,” writes John Stott, “the apostle soars to sublime heights unequalled elsewhere in the New Testament…His great Spirit-directed mind now sweeps over the whole plan and purpose of God from a past eternity to an eternity still to come, from the divine foreknowledge and predestination to the divine love from which absolutely nothing will ever be able to separate us” (The Message of Romans, page 246).
It was Pastor John Stott’s great gift to package the Bible for our easier consumption. With Stott’s masterful introduction in mind let’s look today at what Paul is getting at in Romans 8. Like Bill O’Reilly of FOX News however we should say, somewhat in jest, “CAUTION – You are about to enter a life-changing zone! The Book of Romans can change your life.”
What do I mean?
Well, when that serious and earnest Augustinian monk Martin Luther (1483-1546) began to teach the Book of Romans to his students at Wittenberg he found in Romans 3:21-26 something he had not noticed before. There he found the answers to his frustrated yearnings for a strong assurance of salvation and a Gospel truth that had been long buried. It all began and ended with what God had done in Christ. The troubled cosmos and the troubled conscience made sense in the light of God’s move towards his creatures for salvation and justification we accept by faith. The initiative was God’s not a host of religious rules and rituals. Said Luther: “Now I felt I had been reborn altogether and had entered Paradise.”
The Protestant Reformation of the Church was a result.
Switch the scene to London in 1738. A failed Anglican missionary to the American Colonies, the Reverend John Wesley, went along to a Moravian preaching service at Aldersgate Street where Luther’s “Preface to Romans” was being read. Having earlier that day attended a service at Westminster Abbey where the sincere confession of human inadequacy in Psalm 130 had been sung by the choir, Wesley was ready to hear Luther’s sublime explanation of the “righteousness which comes by faith, the passive righteousness of God that does not depend on human works.” About a quarter to nine in the evening the young cleric felt his heart strangely warmed by the words of Romans and knew he had been mercifully rescued from what Romans 8 calls the “law of sin and death.”
Once again the initiative was God’s. The Wesleyan Revival was the result and the evangelical movement was about to be born.
One more story. During World War One (1914-1918) a young Swiss pastor near the French border could almost hear the guns of the Great War booming in from the Western Front. Karl Barth realized that the Liberal Theology of man’s increasing perfection he had been taught at world-famous Tubingen was not adequate to meet the needs of the stormy 20th Century. Rather than beginning with man’s search for God, Barth saw in Paul’s letter to the Romans a view of humanity that began with God’s powerful word to man. Romans 1:16 made an impression: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.”
Barth saw little of that power evident in modern European culture. Human beings had their own ideas of God when what they needed was to hear from God – that human beings could do nothing for themselves apart form God’s grace.
Barth wrote about this new Theology of Crisis to confront a new Age of Crisis in his first book in 1919. It was based on Romans and called “Der Romerbief.” Said one historian: “It fell like a bombshell on the playground of the theologians.”
So, be careful I say half-jokingly. Romans might just radically alter your life. Let’s get back to what John Stott’s masterful reorganization of Romans 8:28 to 39 means for us. Stott the gifted teacher breaks Romans down to fifteen core principles. Here they are:
I. FIVE UNSHAKEABLE CONVICTIONS (Romans 8:28)
a. God is at work in our lives
b. God is at work for good
c. God’s work is for the good in all things
d. God works on behalf of those who love him
e. God works for those called according to his purpose
Stott gets all of this important teaching from one verse and of course he is right. This verse reminds us that God is not always acting for our comfort, says Stott, but certainly for our eternal good. There are so many examples of this in Scripture from Joseph being sold by his brothers to rise to Prime Minister of Egypt and Food Administrator for the Near East. “You intended to harm me but God intended it for good,” he told his once estranged brothers (Genesis 50:20). Christians from Augustine to Calvin to today have that thought always at the back of their mind – evil is parasitic and feeds on good but good wins out in the end.
II. FIVE UNDENIABLE AFFIRMATIONS (Romans 8:29-30)
a. Our foreknowledge by God, indicating his care and affection (Isaiah 63:9)
b. Our predestination – we decided for him because he first decided for us (1 John 4:19). Stott quotes J.I. Packer: “On our feet we may have questions about it, but on our knees we are all agreed.”
c. Our Calling – the Gospel message is the Call (1 Thessalonians 1:5), thus the urgent need to proclaim it as the way the Called ones are found (Acts 2:21)
d. Called and Justified – “Justification is a completed work; sanctification is progressive” (Bruce, Romans, page 147). Our progress in the Christian life is by degrees.
e. Those justified are glorified – Paul boldly puts this in the past tense. It has been called the most daring anticipation of faith in the New Testament (Stott, page 253). Paul knew that Christians have it almost as good as “made.” Jesus is their defense attorney and even in the Old Testament God the Father sits on the Mercy Seat. God sees all history in a span of time, like a range of mountains before us outside Denver or Calgary. But foreknowledge does not make God the author of evil. The bad decisions we make, says John Calvin, are still our own. This is why the Called are also Justified by the saving work of Christ. There is no other way to start out on the Christian life.
To those called and justified Paul holds out the supreme hope embodied in five questions. He knew the world, the flesh, the devil arrayed against Christians are far far too powerful for us to meet on our own. That is why the Five Questions that follow build on the 10 points that have gone before. Here they are:
III. FIVE UNANSWERABLE QUESTIONS (Romans 8:31-39)
a. If God be for us who can be against us?
b. He who offered up Jesus to the cross – how will he not give us all things?
c. Who will bring any charge against God’s elect?
d. Who is he that condemns? Stott says even our own conscience tries to condemn us (1 John 3:20) but that is why Paul draws the vivid picture of Jesus interceding for us in heaven, unceasingly (8:27)
e. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?
We have been climbing a grand staircase with these 15 declarations, says Stott. Our confidence is not in our love for Christ which is fickle, frail and faltering but in God’s love for us, which is faithful and persevering. We are guilty in ourselves but through Christ’s atoning work we have been cleared of all the charges against us. That is Christian freedom, that is something to be thankful for, that is real Good News.