God’s love is not provoked by anything inside of us. Dr. Ligon Duncan preaches a chapel sermon on Romans 5:1-8 at RTS Jackson.
In Romans 5:1 we read these words:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him, we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Chris died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person, one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May he write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
God’s grace puts things right. Things past, things present, and things future. And it’s easy to see how a belief that God has, in his grace, put things right would lead us to great confidence about the future and about the life to come.
James Philip, who I had the privilege to sit under the preaching ministry of in Edinburgh, Scotland, says in his expositional commentary of the Book of Romans, “The believer, Paul means, rejoices in the glad assurance that he shall have a part and a place in the everlasting kingdom of God’s glory.”
Not only are believers assured of having a place in the everlasting kingdom of glory, but believers have the capacity to rejoice in their sufferings.And that is a literally glorious thought. But to it, you will remember in the reading, Paul has joined another thought. Not just that we have the assurance, that we will have a part and a place in the everlasting kingdom of God’s glory, it is Paul’s assertion that we rejoice, we boast, we exalt, we hope, even in suffering and tribulation. Not only are believers assured of having a place in the everlasting kingdom of glory, but believers have the capacity to rejoice in their sufferings. Why? Paul says it is because they are recipients of the lavish, generous, overwhelming, undeserved love of God.
And so I want you to look with me at five things that Paul says in this passage, running from Romans 5:5 down to Romans 5:8.
1. The Justified Receive God’s Love That Enables Them to Endure Suffering
And the first thing is this: Paul tells us here that having been justified by faith, we are awash in the love of God, and by that, he means God’s love for us. Look at how the ESV renders it: “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” Now, this is the first time in the Book of Romans that the love of God is explicitly mentioned. And if you’re looking at your Greek text, you have to ask yourself a question: Is the love of God here our love to God or God’s love to us?
The reason, Paul says, that you can rejoice even in suffering is because the love of God for you is certain.The context is all focused on what God has done towards us, and so I think the ESV is right to render this “God’s love.” It’s not that God’s love for us doesn’t produce in us a love to God—that’s certainly true. But it’s in the first instance God’s love that has been poured out in our hearts, what God has done in the giving of his Son for us, ungodly weak sinners, that is the focus of the passage. It is the love of God towards us first and foremost that is in view here.
God’s love is being experienced now, Paul says, it has been poured out in our hearts. In other words, Paul says, if you are justified, if you have believed on Christ and you have been declared right with God, then you are the recipient of God’s amazing love. The reason, Paul says, that you can rejoice even in suffering is because the love of God for you is certain. God’s love to us has been poured out in our hearts.
2. The Holy Spirit Pours Out God’s Love in Our Hearts and Grounds Us in It
That leads me to the second thing that I want to draw to your attention, and you’ll see it again in verse 5. Notice the language: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts.” Now, what does that remind you of? It reminds me of Acts 2, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit; it’s the same kind of language. God’s love has been poured out in our hearts. The point that Paul is making here is similar to what Luke is pointing out in Acts 2. It is the Holy Spirit who has been given to us to ground us in God’s love. It is the Holy Spirit who has poured out the love of God in us. Justification is conjoined with an incalculable gift: the Holy Spirit, who ministers to root us in God’s love.
If you have your Bibles, let me ask you to turn with me to Ephesians 3 because Paul says something very similar in Ephesians 3:14–19:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ, which surpasses knowledge.
Justification is conjoined with an incalculable gift: the Holy Spirit, who ministers to root us in God’s love.Did you notice there, what Paul says? “The ministry of the Holy Spirit is in our hearts that we may know the length and breadth and height and depth, and the love of Christ, which surpasses knowledge.” That’s the Holy Spirit’s ministry in our hearts. And Paul is saying here in Romans 5:5, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” As James Phillips says, “The Holy Spirit is the executor of the Godhead, and it is he who effectually applies the work of Christ to individual hearts, making it real to them.”
So in view of the love of God and the Spirit’s work in our heart, the seat of the soul, no wonder Paul is able to rejoice in any and every situation. Paul means here that God’s love has been sealed and applied to us in the gift of the Holy Spirit. That’s the second thing I want you to see.
3. Christ Shows His Love by Dying for Us When We Were Helpless and Ungodly
The third thing is this: Paul argues that God’s love has been shed abroad, not merely in the death of Christ, but in the death of Christ for sinners. Look at verse 6: “while we were still weak at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.” Paul’s argument is that Christ died for us when we were helpless and hopeless, when we were weak and sinful, when we were unbelieving and undeserving. And sinners are here viewed from two perspectives: as those who are captive to sin and those who are out of right relationship with God.
We are helpless, that is, we are captive to sin. We are under the power of sin, Paul says in Romans 3:9. We’re unable to free ourselves from it. Essentially, this morning in church history, we were quoting Charles Finney, who said that the way he preached the gospel was to say, “Make yourselves a new heart.” And the apostle Paul would have said, “How could you say that somebody who’s captive to sin, make yourselves a new heart?” Even the Old Testament prophets understood that’s not the way it worked. A new heart will I give you and a new Spirit will I put within you. Here’s Paul saying, we were weak, we were helpless, we were captive to sin, we were under the power of sin. But not only that, we were ungodly. We were separated from God. We were in rebellion against him. Instead of manifesting his image in our life, we were trying to be our own little gods.
Paul argues that God’s love has been shed abroad, not merely in the death of Christ, but in the death of Christ for sinners.We were helpless and ungodly, and at that time, Christ died for us. He died for us, for the ungodly, to atone for our sins, to propitiate the wrath of God, to expiate the guilt of our sin. And so when we sing, “Jesus loves me, this I know,” how is it that we know? Because he died for me. He died for me, a sinner.
I want you to pause right now and think of your sin. Think of your sin at its worst point. Think of your sin at those points that you wouldn’t want anyone else to know your sin. At that point Christ died for you. Martin Luther used to say that when Satan would come to him and say, “Martin Luther, you’re a sinner.” He would answer, “Praise God because Christ died for sinners. And that means Christ died for me.”
Rabbi Duncan of New College, Edinburgh, in the 19th century had a very similar saying. He would say provocatively, “My sin is the way I take hold of Christ.” And here’s his syllogism: Christ died for sinners. John Duncan is a sinner. Therefore, Christ died for John Duncan. I take hold of Christ by my sin, and I acknowledge that I am sinner, but I also acknowledge that Christ died for sinners.
The gospel you see presented here is not in the abstract simply “God loves you,” but “God loves you, sinner, at the cost of his Son.” Christ died for us at the right time when we were helpless and ungodly. There’s nothing in us constraining his love. There’s nothing in us prompting his love, but he died for us anyway. And this is the glorious reflection of the love of God to us.
4. Jesus Doesn’t Love Us and Die for Us Because of Something Good in Us
Fourth, notice here that Paul emphasizes that God’s redemptive love cannot be presumed upon. We see this in the illustration that he gives in verse 7. Even human self-sacrifice is rare, he says, “For one will hardly die for a righteous man, though perhaps for a good man, someone would dare even to die.” Paul is giving an illustration using an ad maiora argument from the lesser to the greater. He’s pointing to the rarity of vicarious sacrifice in human experience, even on behalf of virtuous people. Paul’s point is not to make some sort of a nitpicking scholastic distinction between a righteous man and a good man. His point is to say at the very highest level of human behavior and altruism, it is rare that we hear of someone giving their life for another.
God’s redemptive love is not prompted or provoked by something noble and upstanding in us.And thus he is able to establish the point of discontinuity between Christ’s death for us and human vicarious action. When humans die for other humans, it is very often because of something in those humans for whom they are dying. When you see a mother protect her children at the expense of her own life, there is something in those children that she loves. And Paul says, “It’s not like that with us. There’s not something that prompts God’s love in us. We were weak and ungodly. We were rebellious sinners. God’s love for us is not an act of love based upon complacency, prompted by something in us. It’s an act of spontaneity.”
The point is that God’s redemptive love is not prompted or provoked by something noble and upstanding in us. You remember Thomas Boston’s famous statement, the great Scottish preacher of the 18th century who said, “If any knew my heart, I wouldn’t have four friends left in Scotland.” And Christ died for Thomas Boston. God’s love for us in Christ is not based on something deserving in us but on his love of spontaneity.
5. God’s Love for Us Is Proven by Jesus’s Atoning Death for Us
And then Paul concludes in verse 8: “God demonstrates his own love towards us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Paul is saying that God’s unique love is expressed and proven in the death of Christ for unworthy sinners. This is the John 3:16 of the Pauline corpus. And I want you see something very important because you live in a day and age where penal substitutionary atonement is under constant assault, even in evangelicalism. And the argument is that penal substitutionary atonement makes God a cosmic child abuser. That’s the argument. And I just want to point out how often in the Bible the love of God is linked to penal substitutionary atonement.
Think of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” Or here in Romans 5:8, “God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Or 1 John, “Herein is love, not that we love God, but that he loved us and gave his Son as a propitiation for sin.” Notice how often the idea of the love of God and the atoning work of Christ are linked. Not in any way to diminish Jesus’s love, but the emphasis is God’s love for us in the atoning work of Jesus Christ.
God’s unique love is expressed and proven in the death of Christ for unworthy sinners.Now we need to understand that Paul is not saying that Jesus died to show us how much God loved us. Many 19th-century liberals argued that the atonement is a manifestation of the love of God, that the purpose of Jesus’s death was to show us that God loves us. How the death of Jesus would do that, apart from the penal vicarious substitutionary nature of it, I have no idea. But that would be argued in various 19th-century theories.
Nor is Paul saying that Christ’s death made God the Father love us. No, it does not constrain the Father’s love, it is itself the manifestation of the Father’s love. Jesus’s death is the instrument of the Father’s love. It’s not that which is used to get the Father to love us.
Paul is telling us that we see the supreme demonstration, and the word that he uses here means to prove something by argument. God demonstrates–he proves by argument–his love to us in the giving of his Son.
Paul is telling us here that God’s love is unprecedented and unparalleled, and it is seen supremely in the giving of his own Son. You know what Spurgeon says about the cross? He says that if you understand this point of the apostle Paul, you have to reverently ask this question. When you look at the cross, you have to say, “Is it possible that God loves me more than he loves his own Son?” Spurgeon says you have to be careful about how you ask that question. But the point is, the love of God is so demonstrated on the cross in Christ’s atoning propitiating work that it is the supreme manifestation of the love of God for his people. This is the distinctively Christian element in the idea of Divine Love. It is that which makes it the gospel. The redeeming action of God in Christ, in the atonement of the cross, manifests the love of God to his people.
And the apostle Paul says if you’ve seen that, if you’ve seen the love of God for you, sinner, in Jesus on the cross, you not only have the assurance of the glory of the kingdom to come, but you can endure anything in this world: any sorrow, any trial, any tribulation, any harship, any heartbreak, any heartache, because you’ve seen the love of God. And that is what the Holy Spirit is poured out into so that you can see.
Brothers and sisters, if you’ve lost the comforting, assuring lesson of that sight, I want to call you back to it today. I just want you to meditate on the glories of Romans 5:8 until it starts coming home again. Ask the Holy Spirit to open your eyes up to see the glory of God’s love for you at the cross until it gets clear. Because that is what keeps us going. If we don’t have that, we can’t keep going. We just can’t. Without seeing the sight of the beauty of God’s love, we won’t be able to keep going in life or in ministry. It’s just too hard. There are just too many hard things, there are too many things that make us cynical, there are too many things that break us down, there are too many things that make us lose heart. But that, that keeps us going.