Rescued By A Hand From HeavenErwin W. Lutzer | September 4, 2011
Selected highlights from this sermon
The Gospel is not just information—it’s intervention. Only God can change the human heart. Only God can change our motivations and desires. Only God can save us from our sinful selves.
In this first message on the book of Romans, Pastor Lutzer explains why this book is one of the most important books in the New Testament and how Romans has had a huge impact on Christianity.
You can be wrong about politics. You can be wrong about philosophy. You can be wrong about a lot of things. But don’t be wrong about the message given in the book of Romans.
I begin today with a question for you. What is so special about Christianity? Why be a Christian rather than a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Muslim? What’s so unique about Christianity anyway? The answer very briefly is that Christianity has some good news directly from God. I realize, of course, that there are other religions that believe that they also have heard from God, but when you read their revelations what you’ll discover is that God is always telling them what He expects of them, and what they are supposed to do for Him.
Christianity has some good news that exemplifies and explains what God has done for us. In a word, He has come to us with a rescue mission, and the book I suppose that best explains all of this is the book of Romans in the New Testament, and you may take your Bibles at this point and turn to the book of Romans, and what we discover is that Paul is writing a letter to the church in Rome. The question, of course, is how did the church in Rome begin? Well, we have some indication in the New Testament because in Acts 2:10 where you have the Holy Spirit of God coming upon people who are speaking languages that they didn’t learn, it says, “And there were also visitors from Rome.”
So evidently the church in Rome was begun by Jewish Christians who heard the Good News about Christ there, went to Rome, and began to spread it abroad. And the Apostle Paul, you’ll notice in Romans 1, is talking about the Church and he says in Romans 1:8, “First I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world.” How could that happen? Well, there was a Roman Emperor who years after the churches began had all of the Jews in Rome leave, and evidently these Christians who had come to saving faith in Christ and became Messianic believers began to go to different parts of the country and they spread their faith. And so the faith of the Roman church began to grow and it was known worldwide if you look at the world in terms of its limitations of that day.
And the Apostle Paul goes on and says that he would like to be with this church. He says in verse 9, “For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you.” And if you know anything about history you discover that the Apostle Paul eventually did get to Rome, and tradition says that he was beheaded there for the cause of the gospel.
Let me ask you this question: What would the church be like in Rome? What were the conditions of the Roman Empire and its subjects? It’s easy for us to romanticize ancient Rome because we go there today and we see there in the Roman Forum all of the great buildings that were built, and the tall columns that still stand. Would you remember that slaves built all of those beautiful buildings? I read a report regarding what life was like in Rome in those days and it was very depressing. I mean, I want you to visualize rows of homes with a great deal of poverty. What you’d find is that the sewer was basically the street and Christians were living in squalor all over the place. So that was true economically. Politically the Caesars–the Roman emperors were ruling and they were very, very hard on the Christians. As you know, eventually in decades ahead they would be putting hundreds, if not thousands, of them to death. So that was the situation.
What’s interesting is that, as you read the book of Romans the Apostle Paul doesn’t deal with politics–the political problem or the poverty problem. Are they important problems? Absolutely! As a matter of fact, the reason that Christianity spread is because of the concern of Christians for the poor and helping the downtrodden and through hospitality. But that isn’t the most urgent message that we could possibly have because the Apostle Paul is saying that God came on a rescue mission and this is even more important than the issue of poverty or the political loss of religious freedom. This is absolutely critical.
So I say to you today, be wrong about social security, be wrong about politics, be wrong about political philosophy, but don’t be wrong on the message that is given in the book of Romans because that is an eternal message. The Bible says that God came to rescue us from our sins. He came to rescue us from the selfishness that is inborn within us, that causes strife and anger and wars and all kinds of conflict, and guilt that we don’t know what to do with. And God decided to rescue us, and His rescue attempt was just in time, so to speak.
Possibly you saw that item on the news recently where a father was with his two daughters and they were on a jet ski that overturned in the midst of a storm and there was nothing between them and the falls in the Merrimac River except a cable that they were able to hang on to–a cable with buoys that warned people of the speed of the river and whatever you do don’t go beyond this point because the falls are close by. And there they hung, and we saw the rescue attempt, how a boat was able to come and take them and put them into the boat, and the great relief when they realized that they had been rescued. And they said that they had only seconds to go before they’d have to let go and go over the falls. If you are in a situation like that, this is not a time to discuss philosophical questions. It’s not a time to have a discussion regarding nutrition and poverty. It is a time to be rescued, and the book of Romans says that God came to this planet to rescue us from our sins and from eternal damnation.
As we shall see next time, God actually came to rescue us from his own wrath, because the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness we are going to learn. And so the Apostle Paul writes this book to help people to understand God’s rescue program, the Good News called the Gospel, which will become plain not only in this message but in the ones that follow.
Now when you open your Bible to the book or Romans, you are in one of the most important books of the New Testament. All of them are important but the book of Romans, perhaps like no other, has had a huge impact upon Christianity. We think, for example, of Martin Luther, whom we will talk about, how in his study of Romans he began to understand the Gospel, and he said, “It was as if I was reborn and entered into the gates of Paradise.” What incredibly good news for sinners is in this book!
And then, also nearly two centuries or so later you have John Wesley who was a missionary to America here, and he said that he came to convert the Indians but then he said, “Who will convert me?” He came here as an unconverted missionary. Remember that they exist. And he went back to London, and at Aldersgate he attended a meeting in which Luther’s preface to the book of Romans was read and he was gloriously converted, and he said that his heart was strangely warmed, and he understood the gospel and believed while the reading was taking place.
Maybe later on in another message I’ll actually give you a little excerpt of Luther’s preface to the book of Romans, and why it is that anyone could be converted reading it. But the impact of this book in other ways throughout history has been great. It is an ocean of Christian doctrine. It answers all kinds of questions like who was Jesus Christ, why did He come, how sinful are we, what is the greatest sin that anyone can commit, how can we have assurance of salvation, is God finished with the nation Israel, what’s predestination? All of it is in the book of Romans, and so we begin today and I introduce you to the Good News of the Gospel.
Three features are found here in the opening verses of the book of Romans of the gospel. The first is this: Please notice that the source of the Gospel is God. Now your Bibles are open.
“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart of the gospel of God.” Underline that phrase. It doesn’t simply mean that the Gospel is about God, though thankfully that’s true. It is, but it’s the Gospel that belongs to God. The Greek text is what we call possessive. It belongs to God. It’s God’s gospel. It is not ours. As we begin to understand the Gospel we’ll see very clearly that nobody could make it up, and it is indeed the best news that anyone could ever possibly hear. And it is God’s Gospel, because He owns it. It’s God’s Gospel because he planned it. Remember the words of Titus 1:2: “In hope of eternal life which God who cannot lie promised before the world began.” Wow! You talk about it being God’s gospel before the world begins. And then we have these words in the book of 2 Timothy: “He saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace which he gave us in Jesus Christ before the ages began.” Another translation says, “From all eternity.” Wow! What that really means is that it’s not too strong to say that God created in order that He might redeem. Redemption is His finest work. To create the heavens, He needed only His sovereignty and His power to redeem us. Justice, mercy, and love–all those attributes had to be involved and fully satisfied. What a message of the Gospel we have. It is God’s Gospel. He planned it. He promised it, Paul goes on to say.
You’ll notice it says in verse 2 that he promised it beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning his son, and in the Old Testament you find maybe a couple hundred references to the coming of Jesus Christ. God promises the Gospel that He originated, that He ordained, and that was part of His plan from all of eternity. So that is, of course, the source of the gospel, and what’s the substance of the Gospel? What is it all about? Well, you see it there in the text concerning His Son Jesus Christ, and you’ll notice it says, “who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by His resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of His name among all nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.”
I throw this in. Are you called to belong to Jesus Christ?
Are you called? I am speaking to all of you now, including those who are watching us today, perhaps listening on the radio or watching on the Internet. Are you called? Well, you say, “How do you know that you are called?” We’ll answer that at the end of the message, but the point is that what he’s saying is that the substance of the Gospel is Jesus who was born of the flesh, that is to say He had a human family. He was virgin-born to be sure to preserve His sinlessness, but nonetheless, born of the seed of David. He came into the world fully man, and then declared to be also the Son of God with power. He always was the Son of God, using that terminology and that analogy, from all of eternity, but He is declared to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The bottom line is He was fully man and fully God welded together. We can use that terminology brought together. United is a better word–united in one person forever. That’s why when we get to heaven we’re actually going to see Jesus Christ, and we are going to see Him as a man because this man (it says in the book of Hebrews) continues forever.
And here’s the point. Because Jesus was both God and man, He’s the only one who can bring man and God together. You’ve heard me say it many times, and I hope you hear me say it many times in the future. There is nobody else out there like Jesus. All right? Let’s just get that straight. (applause) Bring me your prophet. Bring me your guru. Let’s look at him and then let’s compare him to the Lord Jesus Christ, both man and God, King of kings, Lord of lords, forever and ever and you’ll see that there is no comparison.
So the substance of the Gospel is Jesus Christ and what He did for us. What is the scope of the gospel? Let’s look at verse 14. He says, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians.” What he means is the educated and the uneducated. I have to smile here at this point and you’ll have to forgive me, but about twenty years ago I was invited to the island of Barbados where I spoke at a Bible conference. I think some of you know what’s coming, don’t you? You are laughing already. And I said how wonderful it was to be among the Barbarians. (laughter) I think the correct word was Barbadians, and I said Barbarians. Now everybody laughed. They were very kind, but maybe I should point out in passing that I’ve never been invited back. (laughter) All right? Oh no.
The Apostle Paul said, “I am called not only to preach to the Greeks, to the educated. I am called to preach also to those who are uneducated.” And guess what. The message for the educated, the Greeks, and the message for the (I hope I get it right this time) barbarians is the very same message because there is only one message. And no matter what religion you belong to, no matter what your background is, no matter the color of your skin, or where you were born, there is only one Gospel, and it applies to you. There aren’t a lot of gospels hanging out there–some other message because you fit into a different category.
Paul is not saying he’s going to pay back what God has done–nothing like that–but what he’s saying is, “I feel an obligation to preach the Gospel to everybody (just like you and I should feel an obligation to share the Gospel with everybody, co-workers or whatever),” and then Paul says in verse 16, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Why Jew first? Well, the Jews were chosen of God. The whole Old Testament is based on a Jewish understanding and revelations that God gave to the Jewish people (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) so in a sense they were first, but following close behind to the Greek (and Paul means basically to everyone). This is a Gospel for–notice what the text says–everyone who believes. And then he says, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”
Now the reason that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation is because you and I can’t change human nature, can we? We can try to motivate people. We can help them to see how they can alter their behavior, how they can begin to try to manage their temper, and manage their sins, and we can help them do that, but we cannot get down to the level of desire. We cannot change the affections of the human heart. You cannot go to the human heart and turn it on and off like a faucet and suddenly have people love God, and then say, “I’m going to wake up this morning and I’m going to start to love God and Jesus.” You can’t do that. The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation because it actually changes our motivations and our desires.
It’s an old illustration that preachers used to use but I will throw it in here. It’s the old story of taking a pig and dressing it and putting a bow tie on it and making sure that it’s nice and clean. And you do everything that you possibly can, but the minute it sees a mud puddle and dirt, you know where it will be. You and I need a hand from heaven. We need God’s intervention to actually change human nature. Jesus referred to it as the new birth and said that unless you are born again you’ll never enter the kingdom of God.
So I ask you today, have you been born again? I am not asking you if you were baptized (because you don’t get born again by being baptized) or if you belong to a church or if you did this and this. It is a miracle of God whereby something new is created within us that wasn’t there before we believed. And so you have the miracle that takes place within.
But then there’s another miracle that takes place representing the power of God, and that takes place outside of us. It is God’s declaration of His righteousness. Look at what the text says here: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith.” You see, there is a righteousness that belongs to God as His attribute, but there is also a righteousness which God gives to those who believe, so that something intervenes between us and the anger of God against sin, and that something is the work of Christ and the righteousness that He credits to us who believe. And therein, as we shall see in future messages, is the power and the wisdom and the glory and the wonder of God, and God says, “This is the gospel, the power of God for salvation.”
Paul says, “I’m not ashamed of this gospel.” Why would anybody be ashamed of a message like this? Well, just think about it for a moment. Have you as a Christian ever been ashamed of Jesus? Have you kept your mouth shut because you don’t want to be branded as strange or weird that you believe that salvation comes through Jesus Christ? You see, there’s something offensive about a crucified Messiah. In fact, there are religions that tell us that the fact that Jesus was crucified proves that He was weak. How can he be a Redeemer? So there’s that problem.
The other problem is that the Gospel doesn’t speak very highly of our own ability because it’s saying that we can’t attain the righteousness of God on our own. It’s not something that we are able to do. Just like you can add a billion oranges and never get a banana, in the very same way, all the human righteousness that has ever been done on Planet Earth cannot change God’s mind regarding a single sinner. And that message doesn’t go down easily to human beings who are versed in the idea of what they’ve done and their works and how good they are. Though if you talk to their friends they may have a very different opinion.
So that’s the reason why it is easy to be ashamed, but Paul says, “Look, simple though it is, I’m not ashamed of the Gospel. It is the power of God.” When I was working on this message I thought to myself, you know, I’m preaching a very simple message here. You know, I’ve always prayed that God would keep me simple and my staff thinks that He’s overdone it. They are saying, “Stop praying that prayer.” (laughter) It’s a very simple message, but I was reminded of the fact that it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, and I’m really preaching today, however helplessly or insufficiently, the power of God unto salvation because that’s what the Gospel is.
How do we wind all of this down in such a way to help us summarize the effects and the power of the Gospel? First of all, would you keep in mind that the Gospel is God’s plan and not ours? You know, getting back to the question with which I began, namely, “What’s the uniqueness about Christianity?” the average person thinks that all the religions of the world are essentially the same, and only superficially different. I’d like to turn that around and say that the opposite is true. All of the religions of the world, if you compare them with Christianity, are essentially different, and only superficially the same. They may all believe in God. They may have some similarities morally and ethically but what they do not have is a God who chose to intervene, who did work on our behalf, and who grants us a gift that He Himself worked out. And the gift is not given to the rich or those who are well-educated. It is given to anyone who believes it’s a free gift. Of necessity, it is free. There is no other religion that has that. So remember that it’s God’s plan. It is God’s good news, and I do have good news for you today, thanks to God’s Holy Word.
So first of all, keep in mind that the Gospel is God’s plan and not ours. Secondly, the Gospel is not just information. I see some of you writing this down and I need to tell you that when I see that, I am looking at people who are going to be well-rewarded in heaven. Thank you for writing this down because this is important.
The Bible is not just information. It is intervention. Oh there is information as to what you need to believe, but it’s not just something like, “Hey, here’s something to believe and then try to work on it.” No, no, no, it is the intervention of God breaking in to our sinful selves and saving us. That’s what it is.
Seneca was a philosopher and a statesman who lived at the same time as the Apostle Paul. Seneca, for all of his other abnormalities perhaps, did understand something and that is that human beings are desperate sinners. I want to quote his words. “Men are overwhelmingly conscious of their weaknesses,” and he said, “We need a hand let down from heaven to lift us up.”
Another person quoting him–perhaps a paraphrase–said, “Oh, that a hand would come down from heaven and rescue me from my besetting sin.” When you are desperate you don’t need more information only. What you really need is intervention. You need God to intervene in your life, and that’s what the Gospel is.
Some of you are struggling with addictions, and those addictions are really symptomatic of a more basic problem that we have as human beings, and that is our selfishness and our penchant for always going with our own desires. You need the intervention of God today.
Some of you are going through a time of meaninglessness and hopelessness, and you also need the intervention of God today. And the message to you is the Gospel as well.
Some of you are overcome by guilt, frustration, and anger because of your past, because of what has taken place, because of what you’ve done and perhaps even what others have done to you. You also need God’s intervention today, and that’s what the Gospel is. It’s not just more information. It is that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, bringing us into fellowship with Almighty God,” and only the Gospel can do that, and in subsequent messages that will become clearer. There is no other option out there but the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And so please keep that in mind.
Finally, let us say also that the Gospel is costly to God, but it is free to us. It is given to those who believe–from faith to faith as we shall learn; as it says here in the text, “The righteous shall live by faith,” quoting the Old Testament book of Habakkuk. And so it is really a free gift given to those who believe, those who recognize they’ve given up the weapons of a rebel and can’t save themselves and come with cap in hand as a beggar, saying, “I bring nothing to the table except my sin. That’s my contribution. My contribution is my sin. But even though my contribution is my sin, God’s contribution is His gift of righteousness to me, His gift of the miracle of the new birth.”
I said earlier, how do you know whether or not you are called? Well, the only way you can really find out whether or not you are called is to believe on Jesus. And if you come and trust Him and are born again, that will prove that you are the called of Jesus Christ. There is no other way to find out, and so I encourage you to do that.
So today, let’s just understand that it cost God plenty, because we were redeemed not with corruptible things such as silver and gold but with the precious blood of Christ. God gave His Son and He died for us and went through the agony of Gethsemane and the cross. That was costly to God but it’s not costly to us. That’s why it’s such good news, because you and I can’t contribute to what God needs anyway. We can only receive. We cannot think that our giving somehow impresses Him. And so I encourage you today to stop trusting what you can do, and begin to trust what God has already done in Jesus. That is the Good News, and that is the Gospel. (applause)
Chicago in many regards is a very religious town. You can go to many, many churches today in Chicago that will tell you that Jesus Christ is absolutely necessary for salvation. They’ll tell you that. What they will not tell you is that Jesus Christ is enough for salvation, and I am here to tell you today that He’s not only necessary; He’s enough. (applause) And so we can sing, “I have no other argument. I need no other plea. It is enough that Jesus died, and that He died for me.” It’s enough that He died and as He took that bread and took the cup and said, “This drink in remembrance of me and eat in remembrance of me,” He was saying to all of us today, “In that blood and the broken body there is enough done for the vilest of sinners who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receive. That is very good news.
Let’s bow together in prayer.
Father, at this point we have nothing more to say except to trust Your Holy Spirit because in this congregation today, undoubtedly there are many who have never received the gift of salvation. I’m talking about good people who sometimes are the last to see their need. I pray that you might cause them to see the Gospel today with new clarity, to come and to say, “I’m a sinner. I can’t save myself. I bring nothing to this except my need, and I receive Your grace.” Thank You for the hand from heaven that saves us, and that Jesus isn’t just necessary. He really is enough. We love Him. In His name we pray, Amen.