One of the best-loved verses in the entire Bible is Paul’s proclamation to the Romans at the end of the first half of his epistle to the believers in that great city. What we call chapters one through eight of the Book of Romans is a lengthy and powerful argument for Christ’s overcoming of the Mosaic Law – that is, the fact that by coming to earth, leading a sinless life and then accepting the punishment that WE deserved for the many sins each of us commit in our lives, Jesus of Nazareth [the Christ, the Messiah] replaced much of what the Jews of the day followed from the time of Moses forward, meaning the laws specified in the first five books of the Bible (the “Torah”, as it were). We follow Christ now, not the Law per se, even though Christ Himself followed the Law to perfection.
When we accept Christ’s sacrifice as payment for our sins, and allow Him and the Trinity (God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit) to become the Lords of our life, says Paul, we are essentially dying with Christ on the cross (he says this more explicitly in the book of Ephesians, by the way). And once we have died as men and women, we are reborn as children of God. Well, the Law only applies to those who live, goes his reasoning, so as people who are dead and reborn spiritually, we are no longer subject to the Law.
By the way, this would become a huge issue for Paul as he dealt with the Jerusalem-based Christians, led after a few years by Jesus’ half-brother James (who has his own book in the New Testament). James and Peter and many of the “original” apostles thought of Christianity as an offshoot of Judaism – and in fact, the Romans saw the Believers as a “Nazarene Jewish sect”, generally – while Paul and his followers understood Jesus’ desire to bring Him to all the world, Jews and Gentiles alike, without the restraints of the Jewish rites and restrictions handed down on stone tablets.
It’s what led to Paul’s assault upon his arrival in Jerusalem near 60 AD, whereupon he appealed to the Emperor (as a Roman citizen by birth, he had that right), and was eventually shipped to Rome (read the last few chapters of the book of Acts for all of this sometime – it’s as harrowing a tale as anything Homer ever wrote!), where he would preach the Gospel for a few years before being killed by Nero for being a Christian – which is all the crime you needed in those days.
But back to the topic of this post.
In the concluding chapter of this argument, chapter 8, Paul tells us that God is always with us, because the Holy Spirit dwells within us, speaking to God for us in groans and whispers when we’re not even sure what words to use. Eventually he’ll conclude in Romans 8:38-39 with the grand statement 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.
Before that, however, an even more hopeful statement is expressed in verse 28 – the thought that no matter how terrible something seems to be, it’s in God’s Hands and so it’s going to be all right:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.
The essence of the sentence reads, All things work together for good. That sounds wonderful! ALL things that happen, God makes into part of His Tapestry of Life, a tapestry which from verses like Jeremiah 29:11 we know are plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Even if you accept that we may not see some of those positive things until we arrive in Heaven, that’s still a wonderful promise!
But what does the rest of the verse mean? Well, we know that “for those who love God” means “Christians”, and “for those who are called according to His purpose” are God’s Elect – also, essentially, “Christians”.
So, Romans 8:28 whittles down to, We know that all things work together for good for Christians.
Great. Soooooo… um, what about everybody else? What does God say about you, non-believer?
There’s nothing in this epistle that says that anything “works together for good” for you, or “works together” at all, for that matter. In fact, it’s a safe venture to say that to whatever extent things “work together” for a non-believer, it’s because Satan or his little buddies are knitting their own little Handkerchiefs of Death, and are stitching in a starring role for you. Yay?
In fact, in the very next verses following his dramatic declaration in 8:38-39, Paul expresses how different the outcome is for Christians and for those who fail to accept Christ as their personal savior – this is Romans 9:1-3 (I’m using the NLT for a change, because I think it’s the clearest on this point):
With Christ as my witness, I speak with utter truthfulness. My conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm it. My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them.
Think for a minute about what Paul is truly saying here.
He understands how incredible what he’s saying sounds, because despite the fact that no one ever doubted Paul’s truthfulness, he feels the need to spell out the veracity of what he’s about to say: “With Christ as my witness, I speak with utter truthfulness” should be more than enough, but he continues with “My conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm it”, thereby invoking two-thirds of the Trinity in his declaration.
Does he have your attention yet?
He goes on to explain, after eight chapters of detail as to why the Jewish Law is a failed method to reach God, to express his “bitter sorrow and unending grief”. For whom? For “MY people”. Remember, Paul is – or, was – a Jew among Jews, as it were. Listen to him describe his credentials to the Philippians in Phil 3:4-8 →
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
So, it’s his tribal family he is defending and grieving over – but more than being a Hebrew, Paul is first and foremost a servant of Christ. So, look what he offers to save “his people”, knowing full well what it is he’s giving up: “I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them.”
Not just “cut off from Christ” but an eternity in Hell itself! THIS is how strongly he feels about saving the people he loves!Paul understands the catastrophic consequences of the decision he’s making – because he’s willing to trade one life (his own) for thousands of lives of his Jewish brethren.
So, let’s sum up what we’ve learned in Romans today:
What happens to the Believers? Let’s see: for US, everything in this life, good OR bad, works together to improve our existence here… and then when we die, we get to go to Heaven!
And…what happens to the non-Believers? Well, whatever happens on earth during our lifetime is happenstance (at best), and then we die and spend eternity separated from God in Hell.
It just doesn’t seem like that tough of a choice, y’know?