If God Is For Us

If God Is For Us

Romans 8:31-34

James C. Denison

For years now, Starbucks has been featuring “The Way I See It” quotes on some of their cups. Since I don’t drink coffee, I see them when people give their used cups to me. Recently a friend gave me this cup with a quote from Joel Stein, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times: “Heaven is totally overrated. It seems boring. Clouds, listening to people play the harp. It should be somewhere you can’t wait to go, like a luxury hotel. Maybe blue skies and soft music were enough to keep people in line in the 17th century, but Heaven has to step it up a bit. They’re basically getting by because they only have to be better than Hell.”

We all go through days when Mr. Stein’s theology seems appropriate, when God and heaven bear little relevance to life on earth. When God doesn’t seem to answer our prayers or meet our needs or direct our days, when Sunday seems detached from Monday. But it’s not true. As we’ll see today, “God is for us.” Each of us, all of us. I can prove it to you this morning.

Hear the promise

Our text has just declared that God has called us, justified us, and glorified us. Now, “what shall we say in response to this?”

“If God is for us, who can be against us?”

“If” in the Greek should be translated “since” or “because.” You never need to wonder if God is for you. Psalm 46 begins: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (v. 1). The Psalmist rejoiced: “The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Psalm 118:6). God promises, “I am concerned for you and will look on you with favor” (Ezekiel 36:9).

Psalm 139 says: “How precious concerning me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand” (vs. 17-18). God thinks of you more often than the number of grains of sand in the world. In case you’re wondering, geologists estimate that the number is a one followed by 24 zeroes.

How do we know that he cares about us like this? “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (v. 32).

The cross was the idea of God. Jesus was the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). The Bible says that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

This is true for us all, whatever our past sins might be: he “gave him up for us all.” As a result, we can know that our Father will “graciously give us all things.” If he would watch his Son die for us, what further proof do we need of his love and provision for us? We’ll come back to this fact in a moment.

Here’s the result: Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies” (v. 33). The world can accuse us of anything it wishes, but the highest court in the universe has already ruled in our favor. We have already been “justified,” our record expunged, our slate cleaned.

What’s more, “Christ Jesus, who died–more than that, who was raised to life–is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (v. 34). Jesus’ best friend later promised, “We have one who speaks to the Father in our defense–Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 2:1).

So we have the Father who sent his Son to die for us now sitting as the Judge of the court; we have his Son, who chose to die in our place, acting as our defense attorney. The verdict is certain, and victory is ours.

See the proof

It all centers on the cross, the event we will remember this Good Friday, the death Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to die.

Because your Father sent his Son to die in your place, you can know that he is on your side, no matter what. You can know that he is for you, no matter what. It’s all because of the cross.

Unfortunately, the event we remember again this year is so commonplace to us that it loses its power. We all know that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). We know all about the cross. Or at least we think we do.

The New Testament doesn’t tell us much about the way Jesus died. The Gospel writers say it very simply: “When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots” (Matthew 27:35). That’s because their readers were intimately, tragically familiar with what it meant for Jesus to die on a Roman cross. But we’re not. We’ve made the cross into jewelry on our necks and architecture on our steeples. We don’t know much about the singular event of human history. So let me tell you how it happened so long ago.

It was Maundy Thursday, and the soldiers dispatched a “detachment of soldiers” to arrest Jesus (John 18:3). “Detachment” translates speira, a military cohort of 400 to 600 soldiers.

They were accompanied by the same religious officials who would later act as Jesus’ judges, their presence proving their illegal partiality. The high priest was so close that his personal servant’s ear was cut off in the melee, but Jesus healed him. They bound Jesus, violating Jewish law which did not allow authorities to bind the prisoner unless he was attempting to flee the scene.

What followed was one of the most illegal trials in the history of jurisprudence. Jesus was tried at night, while Jewish law required that a trial must be begun in the daytime. He was deposed in private by Annas while the Supreme Court was assembling, though all proceedings were supposed to be conducted in public.


More Than Conquerors

More Than Conquerors

Romans 8:35-39

James C. Denison

This week a dear friend told me a story which immediately became my Easter sermon introduction. It seems that a Middle Eastern sheik grew old and temperamental. One day, on an angry whim, he condemned his longtime personal servant to death. The man was led to the execution platform, bound to the post, the hatchet raised. The sheik asked his onetime friend if he had anything to say.

The man quickly replied: “If you will spare my life for one year, I will teach your white stallion to talk. If at the end of that year I fail, you may boil me in oil.” The sheik considered the offer. He loved his white stallion above all his other possessions, wives, family, friends. So he said, “I have always wanted to talk to that horse. You seem sincere. I cannot see what I have to lose.” So he granted the man his request.

As the man walked away, a friend came up to him and said, “Are you crazy? Being boiled in oil is much worse than beheading. Do you realize what you’ve done?” The condemned man replied, “Let’s think about this for a moment. A year is a long time. The sheik once loved me–he may love me again. War may come and the sheik will forget about me. In a year the sheik may die. I may die. The horse may die. And who knows? The horse may learn to talk.”

Easter was like that for me growing up–a wonderful story I hoped was true. What do we have to lose by coming to the celebration today? Glorious music; beautiful services; no persecution for attending worship; no real down side. An annual tradition with your family and friends. And who knows? It may be true after all.

I have been sent by God today to tell you that it is true, and to show you why an empty tomb still matters. Why it matters more than any event in human history, in fact. Why it is the only hope you have for life and life eternal. Why an empty tomb makes you more than a conqueror right now. This is the best news in human history. It is a great privilege for me to share it with you today.

How we know that God loves us

We have been traveling through Romans 8 this spring, culminating on Easter Sunday with my favorite paragraph in the word of God. I first learned it in the King James Version when I was in high school. I didn’t try to memorize it–one day I realized that I could quote it. I have been quoting it ever since.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” The Greek can be translated, “What can put a space between us and the love of Christ? Now Paul gives us seven options. Remember that seven is the biblical number for completeness. The apostle’s list spans the entire spectrum of enemies which can attack us:

“Trouble” translates thlipsis, the crushing weight used to grind grain into flour; it could be rendered “pressure.” What pressure do you find yourself under today?

“Hardship” translates the Greek for “a narrow place.” What is squeezing you this morning? What problem has you trapped, stuck?

“Persecution” was the common lot for followers of Jesus in the Roman Empire.

“Famine” often resulted from persecution. Christians lost their jobs, were driven from their homes, had no relationship with their families. They could easily starve to death.

“Nakedness” points to the person who is so poor he cannot afford anything more than the most basic underwear and clothing; truly and terribly impoverished.

“Danger” means to be exposed to peril of any kind.

“Sword” refers to the dagger used by assassins, and points to sudden ambush and murder.

Granted, in this world “we face death all day long” and are considered by the world to be no better than “sheep to be slaughtered” (v. 36). We might say, “cows to be butchered.” Paul includes himself in the “we”–every believer is subject to these trials and tests.

But here’s the remarkable good news: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (v. 37).

“No” is the strongest kind of denial.

“In all these things”–not despite them but in their midst.

“More than conquerors” translates “hyper-conquerors.” The Caesars gained their power by conquering their enemies; now we conquer them.

“Through him who loved us”–past event with ongoing relevance. He loved us and loves us today. Because of his love for us, we are more than conquerors.

Now the climax: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vs. 38-39).

Ten is the other biblical number for completion. Here Paul cites every possible force which could defeat us:

“I am convinced,” absolutely persuaded.

Neither “death” in all its tortured forms; nor “life” with all its problems.

Neither “angels” who, according to Jewish legend, resented humans and their salvation; nor “demons,” fallen angels.

Neither “the present nor the future, nor any powers”–anything that can happen to us today or tomorrow.

“Neither height nor depth”–a reference to the stars at their zenith and lowest points in the sky, thus all the created universe.

“Nor anything else in all creation”–including all that exists in all the universe.

None of this can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing can make God love you any more than he already does, or any less. It would not be long before Roman Christians would face the full hatred of the Empire. Their blood would stain the Colosseum’s sandy floor; they would be eaten by beasts, torn apart by wild animals, slaughtered by gladiators, used as human torches to light Nero’s garden parties at night.


Redeemed For a Reason

Redeemed For a Reason

Romans 8:28-30

James C. Denison

According to this week’s news reports, you had better not die in southwest France. The village in question has run out of space in the local cemetery. So the mayor has told his residents, “All persons not having a plot in the cemetery and wishing to be buried are forbidden from dying in the parish.” He adds, “Offenders will be severely punished.” You’ve been warned.

There are some things you can’t do much about. Whether you’re happy, sad, or indifferent about this week’s election results in Texas and elsewhere, there’s not a lot about the presidential primaries you can change today. Economists are debating whether we’re in a recession, heading into one, or avoiding one, but most of us don’t get a vote on the question.

It is frustrating to live with circumstances beyond your control. A boss you can’t fire; a health condition you can’t heal; a struggle in your family you can’t solve, a temptation you can’t defeat. As time goes on you begin to wonder if things will ever get better, if there’s a reason for any of this and a purpose on the other side.

Today’s text tells us that we are more than conquerors in the hardest places of life. We will learn again this week that God redeems all he allows. We will learn why, for what purpose, to what end. And we will choose whether or not to cooperate. I hope you’ll choose wisely. What struggle do you need God to redeem this morning?

What is God’s purpose for you?

Let’s walk through our passage, one of the most popular and misunderstood statements in all the New Testament.

Paul begins: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (v. 28a). “We know” is a traditional Jewish formula for introducing conventional wisdom. What follows is a certainty for all believers, no matter our circumstances or difficulties. This passage applies to every one of us today.

Once before, Paul used this phrase: “we know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (v. 22). There are two certainties in Romans 8: suffering and redemption. We all suffer, and God will redeem that suffering for his purposes.

“In all things God works for the good of those who love him,” we’re promised. “In all things,” the apostle promises. No exceptions are listed. Paul does not claim that all things are good, but that God works for good in all things.

Jesus wept at Lazarus’ grave because his death was not good, but God used it for good when he raised him back to life. Our Savior cried out in pain and abandonment from the cross because his separation from his Father was not good, but God used it for the good of our salvation.

In “all things God works.” It is not our responsibility to redeem our situation, but God’s. The Greek for “works” is sunergei, meaning “to work together” or “make something in combination.” The events themselves are not good, but when God works them together they produce a good we could never have imagined.

Pike Wisner and I discussed this week an analogy for Paul’s claim. Imagine baking a cake. You wouldn’t want to eat flour, or shortening, or raw eggs. In fact, you couldn’t imagine that they would ever be edible. Only someone who knows about baking would see the way they could “work together” for something good. When a pastry chef takes these disparate and unappetizing ingredients and mixes them in the right way, in the right proportions, for the right time, then bakes them in the right temperature, a cake emerges from the oven. That’s what God is doing with the flour and raw eggs of your life.

In all things God is working “for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

He works “for the good” because he must. Our God is “holy, holy, holy” (Revelation 4:8; Isaiah 6:3). This is how we know that he redeems all he allows–his character requires it. He never makes a mistake. He must always do the right thing. He must always work for our glory and his good.

He does this for “those who love him.” It is not that he likes Christians better than non-Christians, but that he can give only what we will receive. If we will not accept his forgiving grace by trusting Christ as our Lord, he cannot forgive us and save us. If we will not accept his Spirit into our lives by becoming Christians, his Spirit cannot redeem and transform us.

I can do things for my children that I cannot do for yours. I can discipline my sons in ways I cannot discipline yours. I can teach and mentor and help mold their character in ways I cannot with yours, or you with mine. So it is with the Father and his children.

When we “love him” as his children, we are “called according to his purpose.” “Purpose” translates the Greek word for “design” or “plan.” What is this plan, toward which God is redeeming all that he allows?

Verse 29: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”

“Those God foreknew” points to the fact that God is not bound by time. He knows what we will do before we do. This doesn’t mean that he chooses for us. I watched you sit in your pews this morning, but I didn’t assign them to you. God is the Great I Am (Exodus 3:14), and is able to see tomorrow as we are to see today. He “foreknows” all that we will do, for he sees us do it.

Those he foreknew “he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.” “Predestined” means to choose, to plan, to purpose beforehand. He has always wanted all of us to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4), for he is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).


Redeemed For a Reason

Redeemed For a Reason

Romans 8:28-30

James C. Denison

According to this week’s news reports, you had better not die in southwest France. The village in question has run out of space in the local cemetery. So the mayor has told his residents, “All persons not having a plot in the cemetery and wishing to be buried are forbidden from dying in the parish.” He adds, “Offenders will be severely punished.” You’ve been warned.

There are some things you can’t do much about. Whether you’re happy, sad, or indifferent about this week’s election results in Texas and elsewhere, there’s not a lot about the presidential primaries you can change today. Economists are debating whether we’re in a recession, heading into one, or avoiding one, but most of us don’t get a vote on the question.

It is frustrating to live with circumstances beyond your control. A boss you can’t fire; a health condition you can’t heal; a struggle in your family you can’t solve, a temptation you can’t defeat. As time goes on you begin to wonder if things will ever get better, if there’s a reason for any of this and a purpose on the other side.

Today’s text tells us that we are more than conquerors in the hardest places of life. We will learn again this week that God redeems all he allows. We will learn why, for what purpose, to what end. And we will choose whether or not to cooperate. I hope you’ll choose wisely. What struggle do you need God to redeem this morning?

What is God’s purpose for you?

Let’s walk through our passage, one of the most popular and misunderstood statements in all the New Testament.

Paul begins: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (v. 28a). “We know” is a traditional Jewish formula for introducing conventional wisdom. What follows is a certainty for all believers, no matter our circumstances or difficulties. This passage applies to every one of us today.

Once before, Paul used this phrase: “we know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (v. 22). There are two certainties in Romans 8: suffering and redemption. We all suffer, and God will redeem that suffering for his purposes.

“In all things God works for the good of those who love him,” we’re promised. “In all things,” the apostle promises. No exceptions are listed. Paul does not claim that all things are good, but that God works for good in all things.

Jesus wept at Lazarus’ grave because his death was not good, but God used it for good when he raised him back to life. Our Savior cried out in pain and abandonment from the cross because his separation from his Father was not good, but God used it for the good of our salvation.

In “all things God works.” It is not our responsibility to redeem our situation, but God’s. The Greek for “works” is sunergei, meaning “to work together” or “make something in combination.” The events themselves are not good, but when God works them together they produce a good we could never have imagined.

Pike Wisner and I discussed this week an analogy for Paul’s claim. Imagine baking a cake. You wouldn’t want to eat flour, or shortening, or raw eggs. In fact, you couldn’t imagine that they would ever be edible. Only someone who knows about baking would see the way they could “work together” for something good. When a pastry chef takes these disparate and unappetizing ingredients and mixes them in the right way, in the right proportions, for the right time, then bakes them in the right temperature, a cake emerges from the oven. That’s what God is doing with the flour and raw eggs of your life.

In all things God is working “for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

He works “for the good” because he must. Our God is “holy, holy, holy” (Revelation 4:8; Isaiah 6:3). This is how we know that he redeems all he allows–his character requires it. He never makes a mistake. He must always do the right thing. He must always work for our glory and his good.

He does this for “those who love him.” It is not that he likes Christians better than non-Christians, but that he can give only what we will receive. If we will not accept his forgiving grace by trusting Christ as our Lord, he cannot forgive us and save us. If we will not accept his Spirit into our lives by becoming Christians, his Spirit cannot redeem and transform us.

I can do things for my children that I cannot do for yours. I can discipline my sons in ways I cannot discipline yours. I can teach and mentor and help mold their character in ways I cannot with yours, or you with mine. So it is with the Father and his children.

When we “love him” as his children, we are “called according to his purpose.” “Purpose” translates the Greek word for “design” or “plan.” What is this plan, toward which God is redeeming all that he allows?

Verse 29: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”

“Those God foreknew” points to the fact that God is not bound by time. He knows what we will do before we do. This doesn’t mean that he chooses for us. I watched you sit in your pews this morning, but I didn’t assign them to you. God is the Great I Am (Exodus 3:14), and is able to see tomorrow as we are to see today. He “foreknows” all that we will do, for he sees us do it.

Those he foreknew “he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.” “Predestined” means to choose, to plan, to purpose beforehand. He has always wanted all of us to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4), for he is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).


Unlocking the Throne Room

Unlocking the Throne Room

Romans 8:26-27

James C. Denison

I hate flying. I am “altitudinally challenged.” I don’t just dislike the experience mildly. As a child, I was made to fly with my family on a friend’s private plane. I threw up, and a pattern was established. I could be the John Madden of theology–if someone would give me a Greyhound bus to travel the country, I would never set foot in another plane. How I would travel overseas, I haven’t figured out yet.

The reason is simple: I want to know why something is true before I trust it with my life. And I have no idea how a mega-ton metal monstrosity can get up to 30,000 feet and stay there.

As a small boy, I wanted to fly more than anything else in the world. I used to lay in the grass and stare into the blue sky, jealous of the birds and clouds and Superman. I once carved a set of wings out of cardboard, taped them on my arms, climbed to the roof of our house and jumped. Fortunately, it was a one-story house. I still remember how that episode ended, and fear the same result every time I step onto an airplane.

It would help greatly if I understood the principles of flight. If I knew why and how an airplane lifts off the ground and stays in the air, I would probably be able to look out the window of my aisle and stop digging my fingernails into the armrest. The more vital the subject, the more knowing why comes before knowing how for many of us.

Today Romans 8 brings us to the topic of prayer. We’re going to learn the good news that the Holy Spirit prays for us when we pray, and that his prayers are always answered. This fact provides us the opportunity to ask hard questions about one of the most significant aspects of Christian spirituality, and learn to be more than conquerors in prayer today.

Why do you need to learn to pray more effectively this morning?

Answers to prayer

Before we get to our questions about prayer, let’s begin with the clear fact before us.

Our text begins, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” The apostle has just described our hope in heaven–now he shows us our hope on earth. “Weakness” can be connected to the problems of life, but in this context it relates more to our weakness, our problems with prayer. We’ll return to these in a moment.

Whatever your questions or issues with prayer, the Spirit is living in your life and is ready to “help” you. The Greek word means “to lend a hand” or “come to the aid.” It conveys the idea of helping someone carry a burden.

Why do we need his help? Because “we do not know what we ought to pray for.”

“We” includes us all, even the greatest Apostle in Christian history.

Paul knows that we will all pray, but that we do not know how to pray effectively. We are like children who do not know what is best for us or what to ask from our Father. We don’t know the future, or much about the present. We don’t know whether this new job is best for us, or whether we should marry this person, or whether it is best that we be healed of this disease or helped out of this financial struggle. None of us knows.

So when we pray, “the Spirit himself intercedes for us.” The same Spirit who created the universe (Genesis 1:2), who raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 8:11) and empowered the apostles to change the world, prays for us.

He “intercedes”–the word means to plead on behalf of another. It describes someone who rescues a person in need by advocating his cause before the authorities. He does this for “us,” for all of us, without exception.

His prayers are greater than our comprehension, “groans that words cannot express.” He is not limited to our finite minds and understanding when he prays for us.

And his prayers are always effective, because he “intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” God can only answer prayer in accordance with his will. The holy, righteous God of love cannot and will not give us better than the best. He will not give us what we ask for if it violates his will for his glory and our good.

The Bible promises that “if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1 John 5:14). But we must pray according to his will. We don’t often know how to do this, but the Spirit doesn’t have that problem. As we pray, he prays for us. And his prayers always reflect the will of God, so they are always answered by God.

This is incredible good news.

Jesus “always lives to intercede” for us (Hebrews 7:25). He “is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Romans 8:34). He is praying for you at this very moment.

Now we learn that the Spirit helps us when we pray by praying for us as well. If you could have the holiest, most godly person you’ve ever known pray for you at all times and intercede whenever you pray, what person would you choose? The Father has provided even more for us, tasking his Son and Spirit with praying for you and me.

And when we pray and the Spirit prays for us, his prayers are always heard and answered.

Questions about prayer

This is wonderful good news, but it is also perplexing news. If the Spirit always prays for us when we pray, and his prayers are always heard, why is it that our prayers seem sometimes not to be heard or answered?

And why should I pray at all? Matthew 6:8 says that “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” I’m not informing the omniscient Lord of the universe when I pray to him. Why pray, then?