Sermon, May 17, 2020 | Grace Reformed Church
And with that confidence and rest in the Lord that I just spoke of, it’s a fairly appropriate time to have a message from the Lord this morning on Sola Christus. In Christ alone, the only place to put our trust. So let’s begin, shall we?
We are continuing our brief 8-week series on Reformed Theology. This is a topic, of course, that could go on for many more weeks than that. I’m sad that the first half of it had to be delivered virtually, because that is not the easiest way to absorb a sermon, honestly, but if you need to look back at them, or read the texts, they’re all there. Like I said at the outset, I’m not generally a fan of a topical sermon series, but like I said in that first message, there is real value in distilling all of the great themes of scripture, and condensing it into a methodical, structured sort of document like our Westminster Confession. Many of the themes of “reformed theology” that we’re covering in this series we’ve encountered before, just going through scripture, like we did in Philippians for several months, but sometimes it is valuable to hear them preached in a logical order, seeing how each of them build on each other.
And when I say logical, I mean it. I said several times in the first half, the first four messages, that if we get one doctrine right, the controlling doctrines correct, then all of the others fall into place. Case in point, to review – in the first message we examined the authority of scripture, or the sola scriptura of the five solas of reformed theology. And if we can agree on that, that we will only be using scripture to determine our theology, to summarize our knowledge of God, then we are in a great place. If we’re relying only on scripture, we don’t need to use our imaginations—everything is what God says it is. And scripture says a lot of things about God that we can be sure of, that are unequivocal, like his omniscience, and the reality of the trinity, and the way of salvation. There are also some things that God leaves a mystery, very often his motives, and we need to handle those things with great care and not venture beyond the bounds of scripture. But in all, we rely on scripture.
Secondly, we looked at God’s sovereignty, and how that is clearly absolute. It was another foundation piece – if we agree that scripture is clear that God is absolutely sovereign, that he not only has the sovereignty but exercises it as well, then all of the other doctrines will follow without question. God is sovereign over all of history, he doesn’t change his mind, he doesn’t react to anything, the course of history is not conditional. That particular truth will loom large in the next three weeks.
And then in the last two weeks, we looked at the complementary doctrines of Total Depravity and Sola gratia by Grace Alone. On the one hand, we see the absolute helplessness of our original fallen condition, how we are not mostly bad or very sick, but are actually dead in sin and incapable of choosing good. And because we are not just disinclined but actually unable to choose God, that leads directly to our understanding that it is by grace alone, and only, that we are saved. There is not one bit of our merit that is added to God’s grace participating in our salvation. It is all a work of him.
And so today, we continue the story by looking at how God chose to accomplish this work of redemption, how that salvation becomes ours. And to do so, we will look at Romans 8. If you would turn there with me, we will read the first 17 verses. It opens with a very familiar verse that should be of great comfort to anyone, without me saying another word. Romans 8:1-17, listen, this is God’s Holy Word:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
Amen. The Word of the Lord
Romans 8. Of all the chapters in the bible, this is one of the high points, the biggest jewel in the crown. We probably shouldn’t declare any chapter of scripture to be the greatest, but there is no denying that there are some specific passages where it all comes together, that are so packed with summaries of what the whole of scripture says that we have to step back and marvel. Because this is an overview of theology and not specifically an exegesis of the book of Romans, we will stick to broad themes, because honestly, we could be in this chapter for six months if we wanted to be.
But the crux of it is all in verse 1, it is the theme of the entire chapter, and it is what we will look at primarily today. Paul has been building to this moment for seven chapters. He began the letter by diving into the Jew/Gentile divide, showing that though there were differences, and God had blessed the Jews with certain things through history, ultimately everyone was still a slave to sin, in a helpless condition. That’s what we saw in chapter three over these last two weeks. Then after announcing that grace was the vital key to salvation, grace from God, and there is no other way, he spoke about grace triumphs over sin and releases us from the tyranny of the law. And then, after all that, he summarizes all of that in a simple statement:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
All the condemnation that the law brings, all of the penalty for sin, all of that is gone for those who are in Christ Jesus. This is the theme not of this chapter in Romans, but of the whole of scripture. Those who are in Christ Jesus, those who are his, are free from the law and all of the penalty in brings. And you wouldn’t know it from the English translation, but that word “no” is extra strong in the Greek. We don’t have a stronger word than “no,” but we would use it if we did. There is no condemnation. And this freedom, this freedom from the bondage of sin comes through only one person, Jesus Christ. Last week we established that we need grace, there’s no other way. And here we reach the mountaintop. How does God save us? Sola Christus, through Christ alone. Amen!
This sentence, this doctrine seems so clear to us, so cut and dry, but it is constantly under attack. When we read a passage like this, do you see there is no room for a theology that waters down this truth. This is not plucking a verse out of context, this is what Paul has been building toward for the whole letter. Christ is the only way. The visible church is full of people who push back against this truth that is right here, plain as day. It is very common to hear Christians affirm the idea that there are “many paths to God.” And they aren’t talking about Christian denominations, they’re talking about other religions. I’m sure you’ve heard this. The Allah of Islam is the same God as the Christian God. How is that possible? We live in a world that is more concerned with comfort than truth, so instead of offending someone by telling them that you believe their religion to be false, you just compromise truth and move on.
A professor of theology from Emory University recently spoke to the National Association of Catholic Chaplains, and he said this, “God wishes there to be many different religious traditions and for people to belong to many religious journeys.” This isn’t an atheist or someone, it’s a theology professor. This is all over progressive Christianity. Ten or so years ago I remember singing in a choir at a progressive church, trying not to walk out as I heard the pastor celebrating the fact that now a majority of self-identified Christians believed that Jesus was only one of many paths. Blasphemy!
And this is not just on the fringes, it reaches the highest levels of the visible church, as we saw the pope tweet “I would like to remind you that on 14 May, believers of every religion are invited to unite themselves spiritually in a day of prayer, fasting and works of charity, to implore God to help humanity overcome the coronavirus.” The pope, imploring people from “every religion” to unite spiritually. Difficult as it is to accept sometimes, there is no spiritual unity between followers of Christ and followers of Allah, or followers of Buddha, or pantheists, or even the warped view of God worshiped in the Mormon Church. There is no more spiritual unity between Christianity and non-Christian religions than there was four thousand years ago between Yahweh and Baal.
We don’t like black and white. We like squishy gray areas. But the gospel is black and white. The cross divides. There are only two conditions that any human being has ever been in with respect to God. Each person is either in bondage to sin, which is to be under the law, and thus under God’s wrath; or bound to Christ, and under grace. That’s it. Two paths. Wrath or Grace.
Grace is our only hope, and wrath is the only alternative. We need to be reminded what we are saved from, and it is the wrath of God. Squishy, gray-area-loving people hate that word, wrath. They imagine a world where God is either for you, or he’s neutral to you. But there is no neutral! There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, but the converse is also true, that there remains condemnation for those who are not in Christ Jesus.
Only two conditions, that’s it. And this is why Paul continues to unfold this first statement with a lengthy passage talking about flesh and spirit. In verse 5, he continues:
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
There it is again – Flesh=death. Spirit=life. There is no middle ground. Because here is the important point—if you are not in Christ, if Christ is not in you, if you are not grafted into that vine, you are still under the law, and you will be judged according to that standard. And we know that there is no one who can meet that standard. So you will be judged according to your works. Going on:
7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
Black and white, there it is. Christ, and Christ alone is the only way.
So that is big point number 1: Christianity is exclusive. No matter how much that harms the sensibilities of the age, that is how it is because that’s what the bible says. Remember, we don’t get to decide how we think salvation happens, we must submit to how God says it happens.
But the second major point we need to make while considering the doctrine of Sola Christus, is the concept of federal headship. We’ve seen this in other passages too, I believe it came up when we were looking at the Psalms last summer, and in Philippians as well, and it is a vital tenet of how we understand our relationship to Christ. We either have Adam as our federal head, or we have Christ. When we become Christians we are taken out of the one family, the one in bondage to sin, and we are grafted into the new family. Paul doesn’t explain it quite as clearly in chapter 8 as he does elsewhere, like back in Romans 5:17-19, where it says
17 For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. 18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.
We established previously that what we need is righteousness. The only way that we will be saved is if we have a perfect record of obedience. And so if our federal head is sinful—Adam—then we are slaves to sin. But if our head is Christ, and his perfect record of obedience, then we receive a righteousness that is not our own but comes from Christ. This is why the doctrine of Original Sin is so indispensable to the other doctrines. Death reigned through one man, Adam, now life reigns through Christ.
2 Corinthians 5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Christ did two things for us in our justification, the things that make our justification possible. First, he died for our sins, all of them. We tend to focus on that one a lot, because we know that our sin needs to be paid for. But even that was not enough to make us right in God’s eyes, because we not only need to be without sin, we also have to be obedient to the law, fulfill the law. And Christ did that as well. He lived a sinless life. He was completely obedient to the law. And when we are grafted into him, his record becomes our record. All of the righteousness that results in our being justified comes from Christ. Paul says it beautifully in Galatians 2:20-21:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
There is no righteousness to be gained through the law because we can’t keep it. It is only Christ’s perfect obedience, given to us, that will satisfy the obedience. The righteousness that satisfies God can only be through Christ, not from me. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.
When reflecting on this truth—the righteousness of Christ becoming my own—some imagery that is often used is that of clothing, being dressed in righteousness. Clothed in righteousness. It’s beautiful. In the Ligonier Christology Statement, all of the language is fairly concise, clear, and feels like a doctrinal statement or creed. Except for one line, where it lapses into poetry, and I love that. It says:
He kept the Law,
atoned for sin,
and satisfied God’s wrath.
He took our filthy rags
and gave us
His righteous robe.
Clothed in Christ’s righteous robe.
Jesus himself said, in one of the clearest statements of the exclusivity of Christianity in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Christ is the gatekeeper to life, to the Father. I was thinking of other gatekeepers, people you have to go through to get to someone important. The President has a chief of staff. The CEO has an administrative assistant. There’s a gatekeeper there to make sure that the person beyond the gate doesn’t get bothered unnecessarily, or is only presented with things that only they can handle or make decisions about. And you’re not going to get to the person at the top unless you have a compelling case, unless you can convince the secretary or chief of staff that you are worthy.
You want to know the good news? Jesus doesn’t work like that. The other world religions do! Do this, do this, perform this act of service, abstain from that activity, don’t eat that, celebrate this—all these things will make you worthy of walking through the door to see the boss. Jesus doesn’t work that way.
If Christ said that he was the way, that no one comes to the Father but through him, and then gave us a litany of tasks to complete to in fact go through him to the Father, the gospel would not be good news. Thank God it doesn’t work like that. That is one of the reasons that people bristle at the idea that Christ is exclusive. We want lots of different mountains we can climb, that we can gut our way up many different trails to reach the divine.
No. Christ is exclusive and we should thank God for that, because he doesn’t give you a mountain to climb. As you approach, he doesn’t ask you for your list of accomplishments, he stands at the door of the throne room holding a robe of righteousness and says here, let me put this on you, and then I will bring you to the Father. And it’s a robe that he purchased with his humility, his obedience, and his blood. All you must do is repent and believe in him, that he is the way.
It’s a beautiful picture. But even at that, it is incomplete. Because your justification is now, not in the future. You have been bought for a price and you will be presented at the throne of God on the last day, clothed in righteousness. But like we just read of Paul in Galatians, it is no longer I that live, but Christ who lives in me. We are here to serve our Lord and Savior for the rest of our lives here on earth. What a blessing.
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.
Dear Heavenly Father,
Thank you for your Word today. Let this truth sink deep in our hearts, not blown about by the winds of culture, of the world, but let the truth of Christ our only Savior be the bulwark that guards us from pressures on all sides. It is not our record that you will see, but his. It is our sins that have been paid for by the New Adam with his blood. Let us go out in the knowledge that the battle is already won, our lives already purchased, and that we serve a risen Lord. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.