Life in the Spirit: A Golden Chain

Sermon by David Strain on August 2

Romans 8:28-30

Well do please keep your Bibles in hand and turn with me to the New Testament scriptures and to Romans chapter 8 as we continue our examination of Paul’s teaching in this magnificent chapter. Two weeks ago when we were looking at verse 28, we saw the apostle’s famous statement of the comprehensive sovereignty of God. “And we know,” he said, “that for those who love God, all things work together for good to those who are called according to His purpose.” He’s not saying there that all things are good or that even God will make all things become good, but rather he is saying that God ordains all things and will so superintend and govern all things that they will ultimately produce good, result in good, everlasting, final, glorious, new creation good.

Then last time we looked at verse 29 where Paul picks up on the idea of the divine purpose mentioned at the end of verse 28 and he draws back the veil a little further still and invites us into the mysterious realm of God’s eternal, electing decree. God, we’re told, has foreknown a people, His people. That is to say, he has foreloved them and fixed His affection upon them from before the foundation of the world. And having so foreloved them, He has predestined them to be conformed to the image of His Son. So in this one verse, we could say the apostle has spanned eternity, hasn’t he? Before the dawn of time, God’s people were foreloved and predestined, but the destiny for which they were chosen, Paul says, is final, complete likeness to Christ, which must wait ultimately for the age yet to come when history is concluded and the new creation arrives at last. It’s a panorama, a stunning panorama, moving from the counsels of God in eternity past, so to speak, on through history into eternity yet to come. The reason we can know, from verse 28, and be comforted in the certainty that all things work together for the good of God’s people, is because, as Paul tells us in 29, God is sovereign over all and His plan comprehends the entire scope of history with nothing omitted and His eye is fixed immovably throughout in all His works and in all His ways on our final, perfect, body and soul conformity to the image of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

And now today we’re going to see Paul go back over the same ground that he’s just covered in verse 29 and sort of backfilling some of the details. How does God execute His eternal plan, hatched as it were, in eternity past but aimed at eternity yet to come? How is He yet to accomplish His great design? By what steps will God’s agenda advance in our lives? The great Puritan, William Perkins, famously called it “The Golden Chain.” And if you look at verses 29 and 30 of Romans chapter 8, and if you look at them together, you’ll see each link in that chain clearly enough. It begins with divine election – foreknowledge, forelove, predestination. And then he says the predestined are called and the called are justified and the justified, glorified. Now clearly that’s a summary, right? It does not include everything that Paul could have said, and he does say in other places about God’s ways in our salvation. He omits numerous categories; things like regeneration, conversion, adoption, sanctification, perseverance. And all of these, and others besides, have their place in the logical order of God’s redemptive work in the life of a Christian. So this is just a summary. But it’s a summary designed, as we’re going to see, to leave us in no doubt about one vital truth, one central fact. Paul’s big idea here is simply that salvation belongs to the Lord. It is His work, from first to last.

You remember Paul’s great agenda in these verses and in many ways throughout chapter 8. His agenda is the consolation and assurance of his readers. He’s not trying to scare us or unsettle us. He’s trying to help us understand that the roots that hold the tree of our salvation in place, when the hurricane winds of suffering begin to blow, they sink far deeper merely than the topsoil of our own choices and decisions. If our security in the storm was as shallow as all that, if we looked for our assurance to the quality and strength of our own faith alone, we would quickly be uprooted. Wouldn’t we? No, Paul says in these verses that the roots of your eternal security descend down past your choice to believe in Jesus all the way down into the immoveable bedrock of God’s choice to make you His child from before the foundation of the world. And there, by such deep roots, you are held fast and secure forever. That’s the message.

And to help us get at some of that, I want you to think about three things with me from our text – verses 29 and 30. First of all, we need to see that the saving love of God, which is Paul’s theme, the saving love of God is particular, not general. The saving love of God is particular, not general. Secondly, the saving love of God is absolute, not conditional. It is absolute, not conditional. And thirdly, the saving love of God is invincible, not fallible. It is particular, not general; absolute, not conditional; invincible, not fallible. Before we unpack some of that together, let’s pray and ask for the Lord to help us and then we’ll read God’s Word. Let’s pray.

O God, we stand now as we read these verses on the brink of the abyss. There are depths here well beyond our ability ever to fathom. We pray that as we consider them, we would nevertheless be able to see some things clearly. Show us the marvel of omnipotent love that beats in your heart for every one of Your children. And as we see it from this part of Your Word, grant to us deep, abiding assurance and fill us with a heart of love for You in return. For we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Romans chapter 8 at verse 29. This is the Word of God:

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

Amen, and we give thanks to God that He has spoken to us in His holy, inerrant Word.

The Saving Love of God is Particular, not General

Well last week we pointed out that the great object of God’s foreknowledge in verse 28 is not foreseen faith or foreseen decisions that we might make. God didn’t look into the future and anticipate what we would do. Rather, Paul is talking about God’s foreloving people – “Those whom he foreknew.” People themselves, you and me – we are the objects of God’s foreknowledge, His forelove. And if you look at verses 29 and 30, you’ll see the same language repeating and holding together these two verses – “those whom” – so those whom He foreknew, those whom He predestined, those whom He called, those whom He justified. And so the question arises, “Who are those for whom God acts like this? Who are these people?”

Which really brings us to our first point – the saving love of God is particular, not general. The point of Paul’s repetitive phrasing, I don’t think, is hard to grasp. Is it? He’s telling us it’s the same ones at every stage of his discussion that he has in mind. The same ones whom God foreknew, that He predestined, and it’s the same ones in turn that He called and justified and glorified. The objects of the verbs don’t change, do they? The group of people in view does not vary in composition or number. It doesn’t grow or diminish, depending on circumstance. Rather, the people upon whom God has fixed His redeeming love in eternity is precisely and exactly the same as the group He finally glorifies in the new heavens and the new earth when Jesus comes again in glory at the last day. None of those whom God has chosen to be His own out of a mass of fallen humanity are absent from the great congregation around the throne of God and of the Lamb, lifting their voices together in praise and adoration, gathered, as they are, from every tribe and language and nation. None are absent from the number of the elect when at last “all the ransomed Church of God are saved to sin no more.” When we draw our chairs up to the table of endless fellowship with Christ at the marriage supper of the Lamb, every seat will be filled with those whom God had chosen and called and justified. No one else will be present and none of the chosen will be absent.

When I was in high school, I joined an athletics club. What possessed me to do that is a question best left for another time. I was, by any measure, a mediocre athlete at best, but I joined the club nonetheless, and off we would go to track meets and competitions. One especially humiliating competition stands out. I had been assigned to run the 200 meters race, competing against kids from all over the region. The stands were filled with excited parents, mine among them, all of them cheering for their children. We lined up and took our places. A hush fell over the stadium, the starter pistol fired, and I’ve got to tell you, every other kid but me came off the line like a rocket and they left me in the dust! I was dead last in seconds. But my parents were both still screaming encouragements to me from the stands all the way through the race. I could hear them as I ran, even though it took me, like a long time, to finish the race! It was honestly pretty embarrassing. It makes me blush to think about it. I would rather forget the feeling of utter defeat, such a public defeat. But I will never forget hearing my parents cheer, despite all my very apparent inadequacy. They did not cheer for any other kid on the track that day, just me. And they were not cheering because I was better than anybody else. The evidence was that I was way worse than everybody else. They were cheering simply because I was theirs and they loved me, and they didn’t stop cheering until I crossed the line.

Look, there is a general love of God that’s for all people everywhere. We see it in His common grace – making the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the righteous and on the wicked alike. We see it in His call to the church to spread the good news about Jesus to every tribe under heaven. There’s a general love. It’s a precious and glorious thing. A general love for all people everywhere. But it’s not the intimate, saving love of God. That is reserved for His chosen alone. Like my parents in the stand that day, whose cheers were only for me, God has set His redeeming Fatherly love only upon His people. He does all He does for us and in us simply because we are His and He loves us. And He never stops till we cross the finish line.

We know, don’t we, that not all are called. Many never hear the Gospel. That fact ought to break our hearts and propel our mission, our evangelism, across the street and around the world. There are many who never hear the Gospel. And then, perhaps, at least as tragic if not more so, there are many who hear the outward call of the Gospel who never respond. They are dead, spiritually deaf, unable to hear the voice of the Son of Man and come forth from their graves and live. The outward call, pleading with them to come to Jesus, falls on deaf ears. Not all are called.

And not all are justified. We know that too. Churches are full of upright, religious people, seeking to find acceptance with God on the basis of their own merits and their own righteousness. How many deep down, after a few moments conversation with them, you begin to realize deep down they still look to secure their place before God in the final tribunal on the basis of their baptism or their church attendance or their benevolence and philanthropy, on their good name. How few have really come to see their own utter helplessness and sin and have fled instead to Jesus alone and said, “I can’t save me. You have to save me! Forgive me. Deliver me. Cleanse me. I’m dead. Give me life. I’m guilty; make me clean.” God counts us righteous, justifies us in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by faith alone. Only those who rest the whole weight of their faith, of their lives on Jesus, are justified.

So not all are called, not all are justified, and that means of course that not all are glorified. If you’ve not been called, you will not be justified; if you are neither called nor justified you cannot be glorified. Effectual calling produces in us new life, a new nature. It’s the beginning of God’s work in us. It makes us ready for the glory that is to come. Justification declares us righteous before God’s judgment seat. It is, if you like, our title deed to a heavenly inheritance. It is our right to a place there. The great tragedy is that many of our neighbors and colleagues and friends, perhaps some even in this room this morning, some watching online at home or on the television screens are neither born again nor justified by faith in Christ. And therefore, as things stand for them right now, they have no prospect of glory to come.

But Paul is teaching us, he’s teaching the Roman Christians, that those whom God has foreloved and predestined and chosen for His own in eternity are the same ones who, when the time comes, hear the Gospel, hear the invitation to come trust in Jesus, and they come. They don’t ask themselves, “Am I elect? Am I chosen?” They simply realize, “I am a sinner. I need a Savior. Jesus is the Savior of sinners.” And so they run to Him and are saved. Those whom God has chosen so respond to the Gospel. So they are called and they are justified, robed in the righteousness of Christ.

And then, those who, when the gates of paradise to come at last are flung wide, march through with the whole glorified Church. What a scene that will be. The whole glorified Church from around the world and across the ages, they will be the same ones whom God thought of as His own beloved children and affixed His love to them before the beginning of time. You see the saving love of God? It is particular, not general. It rests upon a specific, distinct number, chosen out of the mass of fallen humanity. And brothers and sisters in Christ, hard as that truth is really to understand, though we may yet have many questions relating to it, do you see what it means, what its implications are? It means, believer in Jesus, you are His and He loves you with that special, particular, familial, paternal, fatherly love and He always has. And He will never stop. You remember, I’ve said them before – they’re so helpful to me – the words of Geerhardus Vos about the love of God. How do you know God will never stop loving you? The great assurance that God will never stop loving you is that He never began. He has always loved you, believer in Jesus, and He will love you forevermore. The saving love of God is particular, not general.

The Saving Love of God is Absolute, not Conditional

Secondly, notice in our passage the saving love of God is absolute, not conditional. Absolute, not conditional. Look at the sequence again in verses 29 and 30. It’s Paul’s summary, as we said earlier, of the whole Christian life. He reduces it to four steps. Doesn’t he? You see them in sequence. Step one, those whom He foreloved, He predestined. Step two, those whom He predestined, He called. Step three, those whom He called, He justified. Step four, those whom He justified, He glorified. Now we know – we said earlier – as a summary of the various gifts and graces of God’s saving work in our hearts, that’s a dramatically simplified and basic overview. He’s being selective, isn’t He, in order to make a theological point.

So what’s the point? What is it about these particular saving graces that causes Paul to select them for mention as he summarizes the Christian life? Why this list as opposed to other things he may have mentioned? Well, Paul’s great concern in this part of Romans 8 is to highlight the one-sidedness of God’s grace. There’s no mention in these verbs of our role, is there? There’s no room for human response in verses 29 and 30. Now we do have a role. The Scriptures are clear. We must respond if we are to be saved. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” The Scriptures are not ambiguous. The call of the Gospel must be answered by our faith and our repentance. When God justifies us, it is through faith in Christ alone. And having given us new life, counted righteous in Christ, God begins to change us, sanctifying us. Doesn’t He? And we’re not passive there either. We are active, cooperating with grace by the enabling of the Holy Spirit, putting sin to death, living in growing, conscious, determined obedience to the law of God.

That’s all vital and true and Paul mentions none of it because he wants to remind us that back of any response we may make, behind any faith we express, before there’s any repentance in our hearts, any active combat with sin in our lives, back behind and before all of it, animating and enabling all of it, there stands the prior, sovereign, mighty grace of God who has loved His people from eternity. You must believe; God won’t do it for you. You must repent; He doesn’t repent for you. You must put off the old way of life and put on the new; He won’t do it for you. That’s all true. Don’t you worry sometimes whether having believed, your faith is perhaps not deep enough, strong enough, good enough, real enough; whether your repentance is genuine, whether your strength to resist sin and obey God is adequate, given the ferocity and relentless nature of the temptations that assail us? Don’t you find yourself questioning sometimes whether you’re going to make it and cross the finish line after all? I do. That’s why these two verses are so very precious. They say to us again, “Salvation belongs to the Lord,” and you are in His hand. God is the initiator of your Christian life, not you, and He will be the preserver of it, the sustainer, and in the end, the finisher too.

Verses 29 and 30 teach us that God’s saving love is absolute. It’s not conditional. It was not called into being by some quality in me or in you. It doesn’t rest upon us still because we continue to deserve it or because we will eventually prove ourselves worthy of it. No, God loves from eternity to eternity and every grace and every gift that we exercise in between, every single one of them are the products and the fruits of His prior love to us. What wondrous love we have received.

The Saving Love of God is Invincible, not Fallible

That of course means, in the third place, that God’s saving love is invincible and not fallible. His saving love is invincible and not fallible. I hope you didn’t miss in verses 29 and 30 the past tenses. Actually, they are aorists, if you really want to know. An aorist – a little language lesson for a moment if you’ll indulge me – an aorist indicates a simple, discrete action complete entirely in the past. It is punctiliar; like a period at the end of a sentence. It happens one time. It’s a snapshot of a thing that happened once and then is completed, it’s over, done, accomplished. And all the verbs in 29 and 30 – foreknown, predestined, called, justified, glorified – they’re all aorists.

But think about the last one especially – glorified. Well you guys look great but you’re not glorified yet. Right? The first readers of Paul’s letter had not yet been glorified, but Paul speaks to us here as if we had already been glorified – past tense – to make the point that from the moment, I’m straining language because the decrees of God are really a way of talking about the mind of God, which, God doesn’t have new ideas; His mind is complete and perfect and He knows all and purposes all always. God didn’t start loving you. He didn’t begin to choose you. He has always loved you and you have always been His in His sovereign purpose. So I’m speaking imperfectly, but Paul’s point is, as it were, from the moment God first elected us every link in the golden chain of salvation that Paul is talking about here – from eternity, through history, into heavenly glory – was as certain as if it had already been accomplished entirely in that instant. In a sense, the real force of verses 29 and 30 is not to so much teach us a series of steps or stages in the Christian life as to tell us rather, “You were foreloved, and when you were, in that same instant in the mind of God, the whole work He purposed to accomplish was as sure as if it had happened, altogether and complete right then.”

You know I trained as an artist before I went to seminary and now, because of my work and other responsibilities, I rarely have time to paint anymore and that means that my skills are pretty rusty and that makes it enormously frustrating for me whenever I do sit down to try and paint. I know what I’m trying to do, you see. I have the image in my mind; I have a plan. And when I was in college making art every day, I was largely able to realize my vision, but not anymore. My skills are no longer what they were. There’s a huge gap now between my idea and the execution of the idea. That’s not the way it is with God. There’s no gap between plan and execution, between vision and realization of that vision. All whom He foreknew, He glorified – every single one. There’s no slip of the pen, no poorly judged brushstroke, no heavy hand in applying color. His artistry is commensurate with His plan so that having purposed to save us from before the dawn of the ages, the fullness of our salvation was as certain then as it will be when we sit in glory face to face with the exalted Christ.

Jesus, you may remember, said to His Father, “Of all those whom You have given Me, I have lost none.” And He can say that of every one of His disciples, every one of His followers. He keeps us to the end. The promise of Scripture from the pen of the apostle Paul, “He that began a good work in you will, He will carry it on until completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” This is the foundation of that promise. This is the groundwork upon which it is built. The love of God is invincible, do you see? Nothing can defeat it. However weak you feel, however short you fall, however often you’ve stumbled along the way, no matter how much you do not yet understand, if you trust in Jesus with the simple faith of a child, if you trust in Jesus, you are bound for glory. God will bring you there. The Father has planned it, Christ purchased it with His blood, the Spirit applies it to your heart, it is not in any doubt invincible; love will make it so.

God’s saving love is particular, not general. It’s fixed on a definite people, chosen before the ages out of a mass of fallen humanity to be God’s own forever. God’s saving love is absolute. It’s not conditional. Saving love hems you in. It stands behind your faith, your repentance, your obedience, making it real, giving it life, perfecting and crowning it with coming glory in the end. And God’s saving love is invincible, not fallible. There is no possibility, none, that what God has begun He will not also complete. The saving love of God is an immovable solid rock on which we can stand when all other ground is sinking sand. May God help us to revel in the wonder of it, to feel it, and as we begin to love Him because He first loved us, gladly give our whole selves in its service.

Let’s pray together.

O Lord, we praise You that You love us. Those four letters scarcely convey the enormity, the gravity of the reality of such love. And as we bow before You, we confess ourselves bereft of language. Whatever love we feel in response we know is a bare and slight answer to such love as You have poured out upon us. Help us to live our days in its light and never to forget its wonder. And make us, O Lord, ambassadors of such a love to the world that all of Your people, scattered in every tribe, hearing the good news about Jesus, the wonder of Your love might answer and come to Him. For we ask this all now in His name, amen.

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