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Encouragement for Suffering Christians

Sermon by Charles M. Wingard on May 31, 2015

Romans 8:26-39

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Our Scripture lesson tonight comes from Romans, the eighth chapter, beginning at verse 26. In the New Testament, we meet Paul the theologian, Paul the missionary, Paul the prisoner, and tonight Paul the pastor who, writing by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, encourages suffering Christians like you and me. Let’s go to our God in prayer.

Man does not live by bread alone, O God, but by every word that proceeds from Your mouth, and so tonight we ask that You’ll feed us from Your Word, nourish our souls that we might grow in our love and understanding of You and Your good purposes toward us in Jesus Christ our Lord. For it is in His name that we pray, amen.

Hear God’s Word:

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 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.

 

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died - more than that, who was raised - who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 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 Jesus our Lord.”

And this is the Word of the Lord.

In 1991, Time magazine named CNN founder and Atlanta Braves owner, Ted Turner, its “Man of the Year.” Now I don’t find myself often in sympathy with Ted Turner but as I read one interview he gave, my heart when out to him. He spoke about his loss of Christian faith. “I lost my religious belief,” he said, “when my sister got lupus. She was twelve and she died at seventeen. I was fifteen when she got it. She was ill. It ruined her mind. She became insane. How could God let my sister suffer so much? She never did anything wrong. I prayed an hour a day for my sister.” This makes me so sad because I’ve seen his kind of faith so many times. This is the temporary faith that Jesus warned against in the parable of the sower, the kind of faith that receives the Word of God with joy for a time but then it disappears when inevitably hardship and suffering and testing come. The person with such a faith reasons like this - “There are kinds of trials that if God, if He loves me, will not let me enter. And if I do suffer, I demand that He remove my pain.”

Now there’s a chance that tonight I’ve just described you. Certainly the pressures of friends and families have kept you in the church, but you’re angry, you expect God to take away your pain or change your circumstances or ease your hardship and He hasn’t. And so you attend church and you put on your best game face, but you’ve given up on prayer and reading the Bible and praising God. You’re bitter and you feel alone. Well I want to speak to you tonight. And here’s my plea - tonight I’m going to speak to suffering Christians. Everywhere I go, any place in the world where I speak, there’s one thing that I know with absolute certainty and that is that I will be speaking to suffering men and women. And I want you to listen to the encouragement that Paul the pastor, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, gives to suffering believers. I want you to let him pastor you and I want you to rediscover two things - God’s character and your character. You see, God’s comfort is founded in His character and is designed to conform His character in us. And the true believer would never ever have it any other way. God’s character and your character. Keep them in mind as we work our way through Romans 8. So tonight, suffering believers in Jesus Christ, Romans 8 is full of encouragement for you.

First, there’s your prayer. Look at verses 26 and 27. “We do not know what to pray for as we ought.” Now that’s a confession of weakness. We’ve all felt that, haven’t we? When we go to God’s throne of grace and we pray, we don’t know how to pray. Do we want to pray, “God, take away what’s causing me to suffer or what’s causing the pain and anguish of that dear brother or sister”? Or should I be praying rather, “God, strengthen their shoulders that they might bear that burden and thereby glorify You and edify Your people”? We don’t know how to pray in our weakness. But two persons pray for you perfectly. Your Savior does - look at verse 34. “Christ Jesus is the one who died - more than that, who was raised - who was at the right hand of God who indeed is interceding for us.” He is interceding that everything that He purchased for you on the cross of Calvary - your forgiveness of sin, your peace of conscience, your growth in holiness, your perseverance to the end - that all those would come to be your possessions and His prayer is perfect and will prevail.

Your Savior prays for you perfectly and so does the Holy Spirit. Look again at verse 26. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words.” No words but comprehensive intercessions full of holy content and all prevailing. Why? Verse 27 - “because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Think of that. At the right hand of the Father, the Son is praying for you and that Spirit that is dwelling within you is praying for you, perfect prayers, and they shall prevail. And as you pray in your weakness and that struggle of prayer, you learn to take hold of God who we prize far more than any of the blessings that He gives us. There’s encouragement for you, brothers and sisters in Christ, in your prayers.

And there’s also encouragement for you in your transformation. Look at verses 28 and 29. Verse 28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” You read that text and it begs you to ask two questions. First of all, what are the “all things” in which God works for my good? You don’t have to speculate, do you? Paul tells you exactly what they are in verse 35 - tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword. Seven items, a representative list inclusive of any hardship that you might face as a believer. You have your own. What do you come to tonight in this place of worship? Add your cancer, that fractured relationship, that depression that you’ve struggled with your entire life. Whatever that burden is that you’re bringing to this place of worship tonight, God is at work in them for your good.

So we’ve asked, “What are the all things in which God works for my good?” and next we want to ask, “What’s the good that God works for?” Well we find that in verse 29. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” There’s the good - conformity to the image of Christ. Holiness; Christlikeness. Remember I said tonight that you need to pay attention to your character and God’s character because God is stamping His holy character on you. That’s the good that He’s working for and we dare not let that slip from our minds. “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.” By our suffering God conforms us to the image of His Son. That Son, by the way, who the writer of Hebrews tells us learned obedience by what He suffered, that should be instructive to you and me as we think about our suffering. He, the perfect Son of God, learned obedience through what He suffered in order that He might be firstborn among many brothers. That word “firstborn” means “preeminent, supreme.” The Lord who was crucified is now raised to glory and seated at the right hand of the Father and He is reigning for us in the supreme position of power and authority.

Now when you think about the good that God is striving for in you, think about this - God pursues your moral conformity to His Son right now. That is what God is seeking in you above all else. And in the age to come He’ll raise you up in a resurrection body that conforms to the glorious resurrection body of His Son, Jesus Christ, radiant in holiness. Let’s clarify a bit more about the good. As others have said, the good is not first of all about my happiness but my holiness. The good is not about my comfort but about my character. The good puts the spotlight not upon my desires but upon my duty. Oftentimes in the Scriptures God’s work in our life is compared to a refiner’s fire. You know what the refiner’s fire was - ore, precious metals, was heated to enormously hot temperatures so that impurities would separate from it. And God is putting us in a refiner’s fire and He is separating impurities from our lives, those rough edges that we have - our severity with other people, our self-righteousness, our independence. All those things God is consuming in the refiner’s fire and He does that for our good. Remember God’s comfort is grounded in His character and it is designed to conform your character to His.

Francis Lubega, knew that fire. You may be familiar with her name. She was a former member of Uganda’s parliament, the first black female ever elected to Uganda’s parliament. And during the reign of Idi Amin, if you’re my age or older you remember him well, in the 1970s, a quarter of a million people killed in that small nation during his monstrous reign, most of them Christians. Well during that reign of terror, her husband was murdered. And Florence Lubega fled the country, first of all to Nigeria and then to London. And when she arrived in London here’s what she wrote her pastor. “Ever since my conversion I have been praying that God would dispose of Amin. I have wished him dead and when I see his picture in the news I feel sick. Now I don’t know how to pray.” You remember the words? In our weakness we don’t know how to pray. She’s confessing that right here. “After fleeing from Uganda I had nothing. Everything I owned was taken by Amin’s soldiers. I lived in Nairobi for almost a year and I slept in a garage with only newspapers between my body and the cold, cement floor. I had nothing to eat. It was then I learned what I had not learned sleeping on a mattress with a full stomach. I learned to love Jesus Christ, the Suffering Savior. Since then I have come to London and still have been praying for the death of Amin, but should I instead be praising God for raising a man so evil that he took everything I owned and caused me to see the Lord? It is when everything is uncertain that God’s face became clear.”

That’s profound. God’s comforting her not by giving to her but by taking away. God’s comfort is grounded in His character and it’s designed to conform your character to His. I believe that there is encouragement here in Romans 8 for you, suffering believer. There’s your prayer, there’s your transformation, and next there’s your security. Look with me at verses 29 through 30. “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.” We’re talking about the security of the believer. We’re going to have to move through this quickly but I want you to focus on five words that are found here. Others have called it the chain of our security that binds us to the God who loves us and is pursuing our holiness.

First he foreknew you. Not do we mean facts about people when we say to foreknow someone. That’s not what the Bible means here. To foreknow someone means to fore-love them. Amos 3:2, “You only,” God says to Israel, “have I known of all the families of the earth.” You only have I known of all the families in the earth. That doesn’t mean that God didn’t know about the existence of the Egyptians or that He didn’t know facts about the Assyrians. That’s not what it means at all. It means that God took Israel and set His affection upon them and drew them to Himself in covenant friendship. God foreknew you; He set His affection upon you. It’s a term of endearment. He loves you. There’s security in that word, “foreknow.” And then predestined. He predestined you. Predestination refers to God’s decision before creation to save you from your sins and to bring you to eternal glory. It should break our hearts that predestination has become such a controversial doctrine when it is given for our encouragement. It says this to us. “The God who loves you now that is working and refining you in the midst of fire, that that God has loved you from eternity past and that same God will love you to eternity future. And He loves you now and He’ll never leave you or forsake you.” You see, there’s security in that doctrine of predestination. He predestined you.

And he called you. The calling here is an effective call. It’s the call that creates what it commands. His call overcomes the hardness of our heart. Every obstacle to disbelief that we can come up with, this call overcomes it all and creates within us faith and repentance and there is security in God’s call of you. He justified you - a word right out of the legal realm. Out of the courtroom we stand before God as condemned sinners, but our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has entered into our world and before the bar of Almighty God He takes our guilt upon Himself and He is condemned in our place. We need perfect righteousness to stand in the presence of God and we don’t have it. But our Savior comes as our representative and He keeps the law perfectly, earning for us a righteous record. Justification - what is it? You sing it every time when you sing that hymn, “My hope is built on nothing less that Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” His blood shed on the cross to atone for your sins and to satisfy God’s justice, and His righteous life, lived out so that you might have a record of righteousness before the Father. There is security in the doctrine of justification. And then it says, that fifth link in this chain, He glorified you. Well He will glorify you but Paul is so certain of that glorification that will take place in the age to come, he’s so certain of that, he talks about it as if it is a present possession. He glorified you. Five links in that chain to securely bind you to your God.

How often during my ministry I have gone to encourage people and ended up being encouraged by them. And the ones that have ended up encouraging me through the years are those who have been nourished on these doctrines. I remember some years ago one of our elders was out doing what good elders do. There was a young man in our congregation, a teenager, and he was straying away from the Lord. This elder didn’t have to be prompted, didn’t have to be asked by the parents, but he simply called up the young man and said, “I’d like to take you out to dinner.” And he talked with him about his soul, about where his life was headed, how he desperately needed to turn to the Savior, Jesus Christ. The next night I was visiting him in the emergency room - a bulging aorta - and the doctor said to him, “We can’t do anything for you here. We’re going to try to move you to a city hospital but I have to be honest with you, I’m not sure that you’ll survive the evening.” And without blinking an eye the elder looked at him and said, “The knife is in the surgeon’s hand. My life is in God’s hand.” And that night he died a triumphant death in his Savior. There is security for you in your sufferings in these great doctrines of Scripture. Let them nourish your soul. Paul the pastor, he’s encouraging you here; he’s encouraging you here. There’s your prayer, there’s your transformation, there’s your security, and there’s your victory.

Let’s look at verses 31 through 39. I want you to think about, for the next few minutes, your greatest fears. Think about your greatest fears. Name an enemy, that enemy who would harm you, that disease that would kill you that once close friend who betrayed you. There is no enemy stronger than God. Look at verse 31. “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” Do you feel tonight that the whole world is against you? Well God is for you in Jesus Christ, and if God is for you who can be against you? No one can triumph over you! Just how great is the Father’s love for you, the Father who defeats your enemies? Look at verse 32. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” Octavious Winslow asked, “Who delivered Jesus up to die? Not Judas for money, not Pilate for fear, not the Jews for envy, but the Father for love - His love for you, there on the cross.” God demonstrates his love for you in that while you were yet sinners Christ died for you. Think about your greatest fears. Name that sin. Name that sin that so troubles you. You’ve repented of it long ago but the consequences of it still plague you, they plague you so much that you wonder, “Could a Christian have ever committed that sin?” and you’re crushed by it. Look at verse 33. No accuser can condemn you. “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.” If God, the supreme Judge of the universe, has rendered the verdict of justified on your life and has declared you righteous in Jesus Christ, there is no judge in the entire world who can overturn that verdict. Just look at what Christ has done for us. Verse 34 - “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus, the one who died - more than that who was raised - who is at the right hand of God who indeed is interceding for us.” Not the progression - crucifixion, resurrection, seated at God’s right hand. That’s the pathway of Christ’s victory and that is your victory as you belong to the Savior by faith.

 

I’ve asked you tonight to name that enemy, name that sin, and next I want you to name that dreadful circumstance. Look at verses 35 and 36. These are absolutely dreadful circumstances that believers find themselves in throughout the world and throughout history - tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword. “As it is written,” Psalm44, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long. We are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” But as you look at those dreadful circumstances you must know that not a one of them can separate you from the love of God. “No, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Look at verses 37 through 39. What can separate you from the love of God? Nothing in life or death can separate you from Him. No power can shake you from His grip. Nothing in your past or that lies in your future can come between you and your Savior. Climb to the top of the highest mountain or descend to the deepest depth of the sea, and you will find nothing that can separate you from the love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. There is victory in our Savior.

So tonight, here is your comfort; here is your encouragement. Every godly joy that you experience is a foretaste of heaven. This fellowship of believers tonight; it’s a foretaste of heaven. When you gathered with your believing family tonight or this afternoon and had dinner with them after church, the fellowship you shared is a foretaste of heaven. Every time we gather around the Lord’s Table it is a foretaste of that great banqueting feast that awaits God’s people in heaven. And God is step by step giving us these encouragements to keep us moving toward the heavenly city. But even adversity has its own comfort - conformity to Christ. Every time you’re sick, every time you experience hardship, every time you’re dealing with a broken relationship, it is a reminder to you that you’re a pilgrim, that this is not your final destination, that we’re marching onward to the heavenly city and even our adversity comforts us in the Lord.

Now tonight I began by speaking to you who might be gathered here and are angry at God. You’ve expected God to comfort you on the terms that you have set. The comfort you are asking for is not the comfort that God will always or even ordinarily give - miraculous healing, relief from a nearly intolerable relationship, change circumstances. Sometimes, praise God, He does those things, but many times He chooses not to. And when we define comfort solely by the physical and the material, we set ourselves up for enormous disappointment because that is not how God’s comfort comes. No, the comfort God gives is grounded in His holy character and is designed to conform your character to His character and no true believer would have it any other way. So tonight, I’m speaking to someone here that’s struggling. You’re angry with God because of the places He has sent you. I want you to know first and foremost His comfort is bound up in a person and that person is Jesus Christ, the Suffering Savior. He suffered and endured hell torments so that the sins of believers might be atoned for and God’s justice satisfied. He suffered, enduring enormous hostility with perfect righteousness and love so that He might win for you a perfect record of righteousness. And He is our High Priest who has suffered for us so that with great sympathy from the throne of heaven He might intercede for us that we will persevere to the end and His prayer will prevail.

So here’s my plea tonight to you - know Him; know Him. Not facts about Jesus but know Him. Take hold of Him as your personal Lord and Savior. Remember we talked about the word, “foreknow,” earlier. Think of that word “know” - adoration, love, cherishing. That’s what I want you to do tonight - know, love, cherish, adore your Savior. I want you to know the power of His resurrection and I want you to know the fellowship of His suffering being made conformable unto death. And this is what that’s going to require of you, you who have come here tonight and you’re angry and bitter toward God’s providence. It’s going to require that you abandon your demand that God comfort you in the way that you see fit and it’s going to require that you entrust yourself, body and soul, to your precious Savior, Jesus Christ, whose purposes toward you are altogether good and lovely and will result in your God-like character.

And here’s my guarantee, and I can only say it’s my guarantee because it’s promised to us in the Word. As you entrust yourself to the Savior, Jesus Christ, you will come to experience what other suffering Christians have experienced throughout the ages and that is this - that the sufferings of this present age are not worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed to us. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.

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