Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"GOD IS HAPPY WITH THOSE WHO ENTRUST THEMSELVES TO HIM."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ!
What do you think: is God happy with you? I mean: as you think of God, do you see in the eye of your mind a God Who smiles at you or a God Who is frowning at you? He is pleased with you, or displeased because of your performance this morning?
Some of us will no doubt say that, ‘Yes, God is happy with me’, others of us will say ‘No, given what I did last night, this morning, He is not happy with me’, and others again will say they’re not really sure….
Is God happy with you? Some of us will answer the question with reference to the covenant God established with us so many years ago in our infancy. And we’ll tell each other: God promised to be our Father, to care for us, to supply us with all good and avert all evil or turn it to our benefit. He promised in Jesus Christ to forgive all our sins, and so those sins of yesterday and of this morning are completely gone. He promised to dwell in our hearts by His Holy Spirit, and so we can be sure that He does. Yes, He’s happy with me, for He has made me His….
But others of us find ourselves focusing on those sins of last night, of this morning, and we’re sure: the Lord is not happy with us, and so we’d better pray and then God will be happy, we’d better go to church and we gain His approval again, and we’d better visit family members and write cards for sick congregation members because we know we should do that and then God will be more favourably inclined to us again…. And we push ourselves to get into God’s good books, to make God happy with us…, but the more we strive to impress God the less convinced we are that we’re succeeding…, and the whole thing gets us so disillusioned…; I’m just not good enough for God to be happy with me….
Is God happy with you, my brother, my sister? How can you get into God’s good books? These are the questions that the apostle deals with in the passage we read from the book of Romans. His answer is this: God is happy with those who entrust themselves to Him.
That, then, is our theme for this morning:
GOD IS HAPPY WITH THOSE WHO ENTRUST THEMSELVES TO HIM.
I draw out with you three points:
1. "God is happy with those who entrust themselves to Him." The sentence sounds rather Arminian to our ears. We hear in this sentence the notion that we need to do something ourselves before God is happy with us, namely, we first need to entrust ourselves to Him. Might I ask you, beloved, to reserve judgment on this point till later. Meanwhile, let’s turn to our text and consider what the apostle wrote.
Paul says, "But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness." This statement on the part of the apostle contrasted radically with the way in which the Christians of Rome had been brought up. These Christians of Rome, we need to understand, had been raised as pagans, and characteristic of all pagan religions is that one needs to win the approval of the gods lest those gods in displeasure afflict you with some calamity. And how do you win the approval of the gods? Well, you make, for example, ample sacrifices and do them carefully according to prescribed rituals. If you make enough sacrifices, and if you perform them carefully enough, you curry the gods’ favour, get into their good books, win their approval and hence their blessing. And you need to keep it up every day, for the gods can be whimsical and you can fall into disfavour with the gods quickly enough. So always need to stand on your toes, do your best to maintain the approval of the gods. We understand: this type of thinking is in effect slavery; always you’re watching your step, always anxious as to whether you’re still in the good books of the deity, always paranoid that you’ve misjudged and brought divine wrath down upon yourself. Slaves to the whims of finicky gods.
To persons brought up with such thinking came the gospel of Jesus Christ – a way of salvation that contrasts so radically with the way in which the Romans used to approach their gods. At the end of chap 3 Paul reminds the Romans of the glory of the gospel that had come to them. This gospel insists first of all that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (vs 23). That is: God is impressed with nobody, there’s not a single soul on all the earth able to win the approval of God, none who can work his way into God’s good books. As Paul wrote in 3:10ff:
"There is none righteous, no, not one;
There is none who understands;
There is none who seeks after God.
They have all turned aside;
They have together become unprofitable;
There is none who does good, no, not one."
But if none can do good, the conclusion of 3:19 stands: "all the world [is] guilty before God." People can try as hard as they like, but no amount of effort and no amount of labour will earn a single sinner any approval from God. Over against the way in which the Christians of Rome had been brought up, Paul insists that it is simply impossible for sinners to crawl their way into God’s good books.
Does this inability on man’s part to get into favour with the God of heaven now mean that it is impossible for God ever to be happy with any one?? No, beloved, it does not mean that. For: what did God do? This: freely He declared people to be in His good books –how?- by making Jesus Christ to be the atoning sacrifice for sin. That’s 3:25: God in heaven set Jesus Christ "as a propitiation by His blood." That’s a big word the apostle uses, but the meaning captured in that word is bigger yet: the point is that sin provokes the wrath of holy God, but God, instead of pouring out that wrath on the sinners who deserve it, poured it out instead on Jesus Christ. So, as far as those sinners are concerned, that wrath is gone, those sins are gone. Instead of God being angry with those sinners, and so pouring His displeasure out on them, He gives them a place in His Family, adopts them as His children, declares them innocent, not guilty of sin; He is happy with them. In the words of vs 24: these sinners are "justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." Or, in the words of our text: God "justifies the ungodly."
And what’s the cost of all this to the sinner? Says Paul in vs 24: the sinner is "justified freely by His grace." So: the cost to the sinner is zero! The sinner doesn’t have to perform particular rituals to get into God’s good books, doesn’t have to do particular deeds either to maintain God’s approval; this decision on God’s part to declare a sinner just is made without cost to the sinner.
We understand: it’s a gospel that contrasts radically with the religion of the pagans. What do the Romans have to do to get into God’s good books? How can they obtain God’s approval, how can they maintain God’s approval? For that matter: what do you have to do to get into God’s good books? What do you have to do to obtain God’s approval, maintain God’s approval? Paul is emphatic: the notion that you have to do anything to make God happy with you is wrong, is offensive to the gospel. God’s favour is not obtained by men; God’s favour is given by God, given without price.
So: there’s no room for anyone to boast before God, no room for anyone to think in terms of: God is happy with me because I go to church regularly, is happy with me because I help so much in the communion of saints, is happy with me because I pray faithfully, etc. Not a thing a person does counts for anything in gaining or maintaining God’s approval. And that is why, brothers and sisters, shortcomings don’t lead to loosing this approval either!
That’s the apostle’s argument in chap 3. And that, my beloved, is behind those words of our text where Paul speaks about ‘not working’. God’s approval is freely granted; it is not earned. Nothing you do can give you a right to that approval; in the whole equation of God’s justification there is simply no room for work, for your contribution. This sets the Christian faith radically over against all pagan religions of the world, for every last one of them involves some sort of input from human side to either gain or maintain the approval of the deities. And this is also a central point of Satan’s attacks on the church and on the comfort of God’s people; he would have people think either that we need to do something to gain God’s favour or we need to do something to maintain that favour. And Satan doesn’t pass us by in placing this heresy in our minds; witness the person I described at the beginning of the sermon, the person who thought that ‘God is not happy with me because I don’t do enough and what I do isn’t done well enough’.
2. God’s favour, then, cannot be earned; there is no room for work. Yet the apostle says more in our text. For he speaks about ‘believing on Him who justifies the ungodly’ and ‘his faith is accounted to him for righteousness’. Somehow, then, this ‘believing’, this ‘faith’ is critical. In fact, in chap 3 Paul also mentions this faith time and time again. But what is this ‘faith’? What is ‘believing’ actually? And why is it so important?
In the first verses of chap 4, the apostle sets out to explain what this faith is; he does so with reference to Abraham. He asks in 4:1: "What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found?" He was justified before God, Yes; God was happy with him. That wasn’t, though, because Abraham earned God’s approval through his deeds, for the Scripture says: "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness" (vs 3). Via the example of Abraham, Paul would instruct the Romans about what ‘believing’ is all about. To follow Paul’s argument, we need to turn briefly to Gen 15, that passage of Scripture from which Paul obtains his quote.
Gen 15 begins with a vision from the Lord, in which the Lord assures Abram that he ought not to be afraid. After all, the Lord was his shield and his exceedingly great reward (or, as we might better translate, "your reward shall be exceedingly great").
Abram’s response to God’s promise in that vision was negative. It was fine for God to speak about a great reward, fine for God to reassure Abram that he ought not to be afraid. But look: in time past God had said some very wonderful things to Abram and they hadn’t panned out. Chap 12:2: "I will make you a great nation." Chap 13:15: "all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever. And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth…." But years went by…, and nothing happened…, except that Abram and Sarai his wife grew older, and older, and older…, and so the possibility of receiving a child became increasingly impossible…. Any reward, then, as God promised it in vs 1 was useless for Abraham had no children anyway; more, would God really give that reward, seeing that His earlier promises about children proved to be empty…? Abram gets to the point of his concern in vs 3: "Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir." In other words: despite God’s promises, Abram has organised his will and stipulated that the heir of his possessions is a slave born in his own house. By his deeds Abram demonstrates that he does not at all expect God to fulfil His promise; God’s promise about children is empty. The Abram of Gen 15 was certainly not a ‘hero-of-faith’ who never doubted God’s promises….
In the midst of Abram’s doubt comes another word from the Lord: "not your servant," says the Lord, "but your son shall be your heir." In other words: Abram has to tear up his will and start anew! And to impress His promise upon Abram, God takes him outside and challenges him to count the stars…. And of course, the longer you look, the more you see…, the longer you look the smaller you feel…. As Abram craned his neck to gaze at the stars and felt so small under the infinite expanse of God’s endless heaven, the Lord spoke again: "that’s how many descendants you shall have."
How absurd. Millions upon millions of stars glittering in the sky, miles and miles above the tiny dot of a man on earth staring by his lonesome into the big never-never. And in yonder tent an old woman…, sound asleep…, his beloved wife of so many decades…, barren…. Children? That many children?! Absurd! Surely the promise was as empty as God’s previous promises about children had been…. But this was the word of the Lord…, the word of the God Who spoke a word and so called into existence every star Abram now saw….
Abram’s response to the promise? No, he didn’t laugh at the absurdity of it all. Instead, that little millimetre of a man marvelled at the infinite expanse of heaven above and saw something of the glory of the God who called those stars into existence. Then he did the only thing that’s fitting in the presence of such a God: "he believed in the Lord." That is to say: he entrusted his lot into the hands of this sovereign God whose majesty and glory was written all over the skies. Who was he –he felt so small as he stood on the ground with his neck tilted back, looking, looking at the countless stars above- who was he to challenge the word of heaven’s Creator??! "He believed in the Lord," he accepted what God said, entrusted his future to this God. See there, my beloved, what faith is; Abram accepted what God said, took God’s word for what it was…, and so expected that this God would do as He’d said and give him children; after all, He was the almighty Creator. Abram "believed in the Lord" … and so distanced himself from the unbelief expressed by designating Eliezer as his heir.
The apostle Paul tells the Romans that God’s gift of salvation in Jesus Christ is freely given to the unworthy, it comes at no cost to the sinner. This gospel of free grace is communicated to sinners, just as God’s word about children being as many as the stars of heaven was communicated to Abram. As Abram had to respond to God’s word about children, so also do sinners need to respond to God’s Word about salvation in Jesus Christ. In Abram’s case in Gen 15, one response alone was fitting, and in like manner for the Romans and for us one response alone is fitting to God’s word of promise about Jesus Christ. Given Who the God is who prepared this gospel of free grace, the only response that fits is –as with Abram of old- is this: Lord, if You say so, it is so. Let it be fixed in your minds, beloved: if God is God, only an attitude of accepting God’s Word is in place.
To be more specific: God says that He "justifies freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." God says: ‘I take the displeasure that you earned by your sins and pile it onto Jesus Christ. Then I pour out my wrath on Him so that there is no displeasure left for you. Instead, I declare you innocent, righteous before Me. All of that comes at no cost to you; I give it to you freely. The result is that you are approved in My eyes; I am happy with you.’ That, beloved, is God’s Word of promise – a word spoken first to you in your baptism and spoken again to you countless times over the months and years. Now tell me: what response is fitting??
I know what response is possible. It is possible to accept what God says, it is also possible not to accept what God says. If I don’t accept it, I can do one of two things. I can reject God out-right, ignore Him, pretend He doesn’t exist. That, of course, is blatant unbelief. I can also say: ‘God is certainly there, and I want to very much to be in His good books. So I shall try to gain, or maintain, God’s approval.’ I put it to you, brothers and sisters, that this last attitude –that I should still try to gain God’s approval through my conduct- is unbelief just as much as ignoring God’s word altogether is unbelief.
If God is God, one reaction alone is appropriate to God’s Word, and that reaction is accepting what God says, is entrusting oneself to this God. In Gen 15 Abram didn’t see the children God promised to him, but that didn’t cause him to dispute God’s words; he accepted what God said nevertheless, simply because He worked with Who God was. We today may not feel approved by God, may not experience that God is happy with us, but that’s no reason to dispute what God says; like Abram it is for us to accept God’s words simply because it is God who speaks.
And that accepting, that entrusting oneself to the God Who says He is happy with me: that is faith, that is believing in God. That attitude of accepting, of entrusting oneself to God: that’s what the apostle means when he speaks in our text about "believing on Him who justifies the ungodly." The person who ‘believes’ accepts the good news that God "justifies the ungodly", accepts the good news that God declares sinners to be righteous for Jesus’ sake, is happy with me. I accept what God says, acknowledge it for true, and so I’m content; I don’t need to seek God’s approval any more, for I have God’s approval. That’s ‘believing’. And I say it again: given Who God is, this is the only response acceptable to anything God says.
Well now, the gospel of Jesus Christ has come to you so many times, has come to you this morning too. The gospel is: God tells you that His wrath upon your sins has been poured out on Jesus Christ, tells you that Christ in turn has satisfied the wrath of God on your behalf. So, God considers you just for Jesus’ sake, approved in His eyes. Tell me: what is your response? Will you accept that word of God plainly and simply? Then know it: you don’t need to seek God’s approval in any way any more. For Jesus’ sake you are in God’s good books! To say it with the words of our theme: God is happy with you!
3. That leaves our last point: what is God’s response in turn to this attitude of accepting what He says? Paul captures God’s response with the concluding words of our text: "his faith is accounted for righteousness." We understand: it is God Who does the accounting, God who accounts that faith, that response, "for righteousness."
What, though, might that mean? Again, that phrase "his faith is accounted for righteousness" comes from Gen 15:6. Abram’s response to God’s promise about children was: "he believed in the Lord." God in turn responded to Abram’s faith; we read that "He accounted it to him for righteousness." Paul’s point in our text is this: as God responded to Abram’s accepting His promise of children by accounting it to him for righteousness, so God responds to our accepting His declaration of justification in Jesus Christ by accounting it to us for righteousness.
Now the question is: what is meant by this term ‘righteousness’? As it turns out, in Gen 15 (as in fact throughout the whole Old Testament) there is something vague about the term ‘righteousness’. We hear the term, and are inclined to load it with the content the word receives in our Confessions. But we do wrong to load the word as it appears in Gen 15 with the exact content we give it in our Confessions; in Gen 15 we’re still in the beginning of God’s revelation. What the term means then? Suffice it to say that the term ‘righteousness’ as we find it in Gen 15 describes the notion that God is pleased with Abram’s response to His promise of children. And since God was pleased with Abram’s response, He for His part treated Abram with evidence of His favour. In the remainder of Gen 15, the Lord officially established His covenant with Abraham. And in time to come God did give a son in the person of Isaac, and over the years and generations Abraham’s descendants did become as numerous as the stars of heaven. Yes, in the course of time the Son of God was born to a daughter of Abraham, and because of His perfect sacrifice on the cross God prepared salvation for countless Jews and Gentiles alike; Abraham became the father of all believers of every tribe and tongue and race under heaven (cf Rom 4:11). In the fullness of time the full loading of the word ‘righteous’ has become clear, and it means this: for Jesus’ sake those who accept God’s Word have favour with God, and so are treated as persons that have His favour. That is: they are ‘righteous’ before Him, are His beloved children for Jesus’ sake.
That’s the thrust of what Paul writes in our text, when he records God’s response to those who accept His words of promise: "his faith is accounted for righteousness." The person who believes has God’s favour –why?- because God is pleased with that response of faith, of accepting God’s Words. And the person with whom God is pleased also receives evidence of God’s favour: forgiveness of sins, life eternal…. God’s favour every day.
What, my beloved, do you have to do to gain God’s favour?? No, my brother, my sister, you don’t have to present any sacrifices, don’t have to go through any rituals, don’t have to pray or go to church or read your Bible in order to win God’s approval; receiving God’s favour does not depend on your efforts. What do you have to do to gain God’s favour? Nothing, congregation, nothing; Christ obtained God’s favour for you through His sacrifice on the cross, and now God gives that approval, gives it freely, without cost to you.
Tell me: how do you respond to this gospel? The answer to that question also gives the answer to whether or not God is happy with you. Amen.