What are the most transformative words in the world for believers? My friend, John Guest, says that the most powerful words in the world are, “God loves you.” I don’t disagree. Yet, for many believers who are passing through the storms of life, the better word may be, “God will always love you.” Assurance of faith seems to be so fundamental to Biblical Christianity that it hardly merits mentioning. Yet my own pastoral experience tells me that nothing could be more important to reinforce throughout our lives. The world, the flesh and the devil conspire to eat away at this basic Biblical doctrine. And in the windswept, dry trials of life—and death—this doctrine is too often scarce. Maybe it is why God spends so much time repeating it in His Word. Assurance of faith is what Paul is writing about in Romans 8:35-39. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 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 Jesusour Lord.” The grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of God will stand forever. Let us pray: “Lord may the words of my mouth and the contemplations of our hearts be always acceptable before Thee O Christ our Rock and our Redeemer. And let me preach as if never to preach again, as a dying man to dying men. For Christ’s glory and the saints’ good. Amen.”
The Fear of Being Lost
There is no greater fear than being lost. It is a fear that my wife and I experienced when we took a trip to London years ago. I “hired a car” as they say, to visit my cousin in Ipswich. It was a good day’s drive to get there. We really enjoyed ourselves in East Anglia and went to several nice spots, including Lavenham, to see William Gurnall‘s parish church, where he preached what became one of the greatest expositions of Ephesians six in Church History, The Christian in Complete Armour. My cousin took us for antiques, but I went for Gurnall. Well, the daylight of the Fens receded, leaving us in need of getting my cousin back to Ipswich and for us to return to London. It had seemed easy enough to make the trip from the several streets beyond our hotel to the Motorway and then to Ipswich. But the return, in the dark, driving on the “wrong side of the road” (at least for me), and driving in the “wrong seat,” was too much! We were so turned around, and the hour was getting so late, and there seemed to be no hope. We were near tears. Finally we admitted to ourselves, “We are lost.” “No,” my wife said with urgency, “We are lost in London, England! That is really being lost!” In those faraway days when the ubiquitous (and often annoying) voice of the GPS lady was unheard, there maps. And my wife had her giant, United Kingdom map, unfolded as she sought to help. But I spurned her help in preference for my internal GPS. That was a mistake also. Our lost condition was compounded by the darkness, weariness, and late hour. Were there arguments? Maybe. Our daughter in the backseat suggested that we pray. Sometimes it takes a Middle Schooler to help refocus life. So we stopped at a Petrol station and we fueled up, with prayer. I literally drove out of the driveway and turned onto our street that led to our home away from home. “God answered our prayer! There is our hotel!” She cried. Our daughter sometimes points to the time of being lost today as a time when she rediscovered the truth that in Christ we cannot be lost. Maybe that is what you need to know this day. There is, indeed, no greater fear than being lost. But there is no greater time to trust in the God who never lets you go than when everything is pulled out from beneath you but the promises of God in Christ. Maybe someone reading this needs to pull over to refuel on this one truth: “Nothing can separate you from the love of Jesus Christ.” More than that, in Christ the Bible teaches that the very things that seem to be obstacles to our security, become the things, in God’s plan, that lead us home. I have known that in my spiritual life and you have too. We have known the sense of what one writer called being a cosmic orphan. Yet in Christ we come to see that our adoption is secure and irrevocable. We come to know, as in John 10, that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who will never let us go because we are gifts from the Father to the Son before the foundation of the world. In Romans Eight, the “Great Eighth,” St. Paul brings his glorious discourse on the relationship of Christ to the believer to a great climax and, for us, a perfect ending. We began Romans 8 by hear that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” and we close this part of God’s Word by hearing that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (39). In this passage we need to see that because we are God’s children, and He promises to never leave us nor forsake us, He is faithful to keep us now and forever. And nothing can separate you from His love. “Now and Forever.” That is the title of a song that I wrote and sang for my wife at our wedding more than a quarter of a century ago. I later recorded it on an album last year and has been a joy to know that this song, which means so much to us, has been used others of the enduring covenant of marriage. Behind the song about human love, like all marriage, however, is a song about God’s love. For the covenant of love fully expressed in Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, and applied to us by the Holy Spirit is truly a Now and Forever song of faith. Let’s look at this faith I call Now and Forever,in Romans 8:35-39. I show you three affirmations of faith that can lead us home. This first affirmation of such a faith in Romans 8 is this:
1. Now and Forever Faith acknowledges the deep existential questions of believers (verses 35-36).
I am so thankful that the Bible does not cloak our longings with a pseudo-piety that we sometimes use to cloak ourselves with. No. The Bible straightforwardly and with stark candor, reflects our innermost fears and concerns. No, the Bible doesn’t reflect our fears, it pulls them out of chests and shows it to us before we die to the old life right then and there! For Paul, he would pose the question that was in the hearts of the Christians in Rome. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Not “What.” “Who.” When you are living your life as a believer in Jesus Christ in the shadow of a Roman ruler and his ostensible omnipresent security guard, always ready to turn you in for your faith, the question is now “What” but “Who.” If we learn anything from the Bible, we learn that when there is an increase in the redemptive activity of Jesus to save, to strengthen, to liberate humans from the chains of Satanic and human darkness, there is a simultaneous increase in diabolical activity. Behind Caesar was Satan. Not that Caesar sought that ambassadorship. He was an unwitting agent. And behind the powers today that oppose Christ and His Word, and who seek to stop the redemptive work of Christ in the world is that same Evil One who thought he would stop Christ at his birth, through His life, and finally on the Cross and in the tomb, and when he failed to devour Immanuel, he determined to devour Immanuel’s people. This is the message of Christ to John in Revelation 12. Satan had a purpose: Devour Christ. He had a power: but it was defeated by Christ. So he devised another plan: to destroy the Church.But Jesus tells John that the saints who are being chased by the Evil One should take comfort in this: “But the woman [the Church] was given two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time” (Rev. 12.14). We don’t think of being in the wilderness as being safe. But because Christ has overcome the devil in the wilderness, doing what even Moses and the Hebrew children could not do in their wilderness experience, the desert places of this life have become the places of refuge for the children of God. The place where the devil would defeat you is now the victory field of Jesus. You are not a victim. You are in Christ a victor. I once had an oncologist as a parishioner. He invited me to join him on his rounds on a given day to meet his patients. He told me that these people were his flock. They were in a chemo clinic, that day, lying on a table or in reclining in a chair, to receive what they hoped was healing. This was a desert if I had ever seen one. Yet one after one, who were being ministered to by this faithful physician told me in some way what one young woman told me in stark words, “Pastor, I bless God for my cancer. I have learned so much of His plan for my life in this place.” I was stunned. But I shouldn’t have been. The desert is the place where God leads us to escape the attack of the devil and even the attack of our own sinful flesh. I cannot explain the unfathomable questions of a child who has cancer, or a little boy who is killed in a drive by shooting in Chicago, or a promising young man blown up by a roadside bomb just as his wife gives birth. I can give you intellectual and even theological answers. The world is fallen. Bad things happen. The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. Yet I also know the haunting existential questions of life are not easily quieted by rationale words and even pastoral words in the moment of crises. But the believer who is shaped by the promises of Romans 8, and hears God Himself acknowledging your questions is closer to healing. Thus can we, too, perhaps, one day, say, “I thank the Lord that He did this. I have learned more of His plan for us here than anywhere else.” “Who” shall be able to separate you from the love of Christ?” And the answer is as clear as the desert night sky. Here is a second affirmation of faith about a Now and Forever faith in Romans 8:35-39:
2. Now and Forever Faith answers our questions with a new pattern of life in the Gospel (verses 37-38)
Paul leaves his question to answer it with more questions, “Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” In other words, shall the things that have always come against God’s people, the “terrestrial troubles” sever the covenantal bonds of love in Christ? These were things that the Romans knew and things that they feared. The answer to the question is given in the Bible. In fact, St. Paul cites a Psalm about human fear to oppression: Psalm 44. In that Psalm, the Psalmist, the Sons of Korah, a liturgical “praise ensemble,” if you will, or maybe the real descendants of the rebel who was struck for his rebellion against Moses, presents the “dark night of the soul” of Israel when he says, “But you have rejected us and disgraced us and have not gone out with our armies.” (9). In other words, all the circumstantial evidence is pointing to your “abandonment” as the Puritans would later call this feeling of God’s absence. He goes on to say what Paul quotes, “Yet for Your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” (22). That is the way Roman believers, undergoing persecution for their faith, might have felt. That is the way you may feel as a church or as a believer today. “Where is God? How can you love me when I am stricken with this disease that the doctors can’t understand? Or understand all too gruesomely well? What about my children who are not following the Lord? Is this the pay-off for all of my reading of C.S. Lewis to them as children? Where are you? You must not love me.” When we utter those words, or think them, we are close to the core of the Gospel and we are asking the kind of questions that Paul is putting forward here in Romans 8. We are close to the words of Jesus, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” We are close to the ruling motif of the Cross: that the very things which seek to destroy us have become the very things that save us.The Cross, which was an instrument of torture became an instrument of triumph. The Cross which was a sign of shame was transformed by God into the sign of salvation. The Empty Tomb, the cold slab of still and dark death, became, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the light filled animated place of new life. And this is the pattern of the life of the believer. So circumstances of failure or persecution or the apparent absence of God in our pain cannot tell the story. The Cross has changed everything. And thus that most depressing of hymnodist, William Cowper would pen these words in his hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way:”God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform; He plants His footsteps in the sea And rides upon the storm. Deep in unfathomable mines Of never failing skill He treasures up His bright designs And works His sov’reign will. Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; The clouds ye so much dread Are big with mercy and shall break In blessings on your head. Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace; Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face. His purposes will ripen fast, Unfolding every hour; The bud may have a bitter taste, But sweet will be the flow’r. Blind unbelief is sure to err And scan His work in vain; God is His own interpreter, And He will make it plain. This is a Now and Forever faith.
This is the Gospel—that we are “more than conquerors through the very things which would seek conquest over us.” Now, a final affirmation of faith, a final “stanza”—a heavenly overture with crescendo:
3. Now and Forever Faith is a Divine expression of a Blessed Assurance, a love that will never let us go (verse 39).
As Romans chapter eight concludes, the Apostle moves from the personal eschatological meaning of Christ’s rule in our lives, the blessed assurance that comes even though the circumstances of life, to life and death. He turns the to the ethereal, the cosmic and the invisible world of spiritual warfare. He keeps us in “terrestrial troubles” but also from “celestial spirits.” He speaks of things present and things to come, of angels, the immensity of the invisible worlds and then says, “anything else in all Creation,” to sum up his great theme in this section of Romans: the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord has adopted us into His family, and He will never, ever let us go. Neither terrestrial troubles nor celestial spirits can sever the inseparable love of God. As I was studying for this message, a fellow that I used to see in one of our favorite restaurants in Charlotte came over. “Hey Padre!” I knew his voice. I also knew that I had a narrow opening in my time window to complete this message. I looked through him. “Hey, how are you?” I replied, and I stood to shake his hand, but he is a hugger and went for the bear hug instead. He pulled back and told me, “Well, I am on a great journey. Pray for me.” “Tell me about it,” I said, preferring to get back to my studies. He went on to say that he had lost his job because the restaurant had sold to new investors. They were changing his model. He was out. Yet he seemed to know exactly what I was studying as he said, “I could have never learned how much God loved me if I had not lost everything. Now, I follow Him and trust Him in a new way. I hope I never forget it.” All of a sudden I remembered that people and problems are not interruptions. They are God’s way of giving us a gift, of His presence through His life lived in others. I had looked through him. In the end I sought to look into Him. And there I found that Christ was alive in this man who was thanking God for his lay-off for in that very thing he found his new life. That is the message of the song I sang for Mae: “Now and Forever, my love is true, though the winds of time may blow the sands of change our way, I want you to know that I will always stay.” I wrote that song to give my wife assurance that my covenant of marriage was more than circumstance, it was grounded in a love that will never let her go. I hoped that would give her joy and freedom and assurance even if sickness or sorrow came to us. In an infinitely more meaningful and powerful way, this is the song of God over you: I have loved you with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3). When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you (Isaiah 43:2). My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand (John 10:29). Nothing can separate you from the love of Christ. No one. Nothing. No deed. Nothing. Nothing. There is no greater fear than being lost. There is no greater joy than the assurance of eternal safety. In Christ alone you can have that assurance. The cross of Christ stands as a reminder that the things that come against us are actually the things that are, in the hands of a sovereign God, leading us to glory. And that is the message of the Gospel. It is a message for you to receive today as you also leave behind the bad ideas that somehow you must find your way home yourself; or, that if there is anyone to keep you it is up to you to do it. Things are too big in the universe for that and most of us know that by now. If you are lost today, there is a Way home and He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And if you are His He will never let you go. Faith in Jesus means He is holding on to you, now and forevermore. And nothing can ever change that. Nothing. This is the Word of the Lord in Romans chapter eight, verses 35-39. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.