I have begun 2015 by reading a book that I should have already read twice. J. Gresham Machen’s What is Faith? is a classic theological text that examines the doctrine of saving faith while denigrating the liberal theology of his day. I came across something in the second chapter of his book that caused deep reflection. I wanted to share some of these musings.
Romans 8:31 is one of the most beloved and encouraging verses in the entire Bible. It is an expression of God’s immeasurable love and grace. It is found in one of the most profound and important sections of Scripture in the entire Bible. Romans 8:31-39 is basically a grand exultation in the love of God. While John 3:16 is a tremendous description of God’s love, nothing grasps the depths and extent of God’s love like Romans 8 and specifically Romans 8:31-39. Beautiful, poetic words flow from Paul’s pen as he was moved by the Holy Spirit to compose a glorious doxology of God’s love.
In the stream of words that display the glory of God’s love, there is one word that recently stood out to me; and it may be a word you would least expect.
After Paul asks what can be said now that he has explained the totality of God’s salvation from election to glorification, he says,
If God is for us, who can be against us?
The word that I have been sitting on is the word, “If.” If God is for us is a phrase that if left alone is absolutely frightening. I think we too easily pass by this word and interpret the verse as a conditional statement used by Paul with an assumed answer to drive home the force of his point regarding God’s everlasting love. Think about it. If God is for us. This phrase takes me back to Eden. It takes me back to my own sin. It causes me to reflect on the depth of God’s love.
When Adam sinned against God by breaking the covenant of works that necessitated his perfect obedience, he was immediately (along with the rest of mankind) thrust into the mire of eternal guilt and despair. From this point on, nothing necessitates that God respond with grace and love. God has no outside obligation to be “for us.” It is not as if we were some hot commodity that God just had to rescue because of our worth. No, we had forsaken our dignified right as heirs to the Kingdom. In Adam, we failed to fill the earth with the glory of the Lord. Instead, we began building a kingdom of our own based on obedience to the will of our sinful passions. In this state, we deserve God’s wrath and curse. And we definitely do not deserve his favor.
If God is for us. Who knew such a small word could cause my heart to stop? Think about it. God did not have to be for us. He could have left us in our guilt and he would be no less righteous. He could have left us in our sin and he would be no less good. God’s holiness, which is the glorious manifestation of all his attributes, is not dependent on the obedience of his creation. God is not love because he sets his favor toward sinners. He is and has been love for all eternity, before his rebellious creatures ever existed. His actions flow from his character, but his character is not determined by his actions or lack thereof. So, if God had not acted to save sinners, his character would remain eternally intact and perfect.
But what if God is not for us? He is still God, but our lives would be drastically different if he were not for us. If God is not for us, then our lives will be an endless and impossible search for pleasure, satisfaction, and joy, that will end in eternal misery. If God is not for us, then He is against us! How dreadfully important is this verse. For non-believers, this is the state they are in. This was the state I was in. As I walked in the darkness of my sin, God was not for me.
The better question is not what if God is not for us, but why would God ever be for us? What is in it for him? Why would a king with all the authority in the world set his favor toward the very ones that have staged a global and cosmic rebellion against his reign?
Theologian J. Gresham Machen answers this question in beautiful and profound simplicity:
But why is He for us? Simple indeed is the Christian answer to that question: He is for us simply because He has chosen to be. He surely has a right to receive whom He will into His fellowship: and as a matter of fact He has chosen to receive us poor sinners who trust in Christ; He chose to receive us when He gave Christ to die.
According to Machen, God’s favor is upon unworthy and undeserving sinners, because he sovereignly chose to set his favor upon us. He had no obligation, but according to his infinite wisdom, kindness, mercy, love, and grace, he chose to receive those who rejected him.
It was His act, not ours…”If God be for us, who can be against us?”–it is a large “if,” but it melts away very soon in the warmth of God’s grace.
Not only is it a sovereign act of sheer grace that sets God’s favor upon us, but it depends not on our working, but on God’s alone. God being for us is totally dependent on his action, not ours. We can do nothing to attract the brightness of his face. His face shines upon us as a matter of his own doing. When we see the reality of God’s sovereign grace, it will truly melt away the bitterness of all the possibilities that lie in that cold little word, “if.”
If God is for us…Because of his sovereign grace, an action that is his alone, God is for those he has called to life in the Son. And this changes everything about the way we live. Namely, we can face all worldly enemies with confidence in the eternal and unshakable love of God in Christ. And all temptation to despair over the guilt of sin is swallowed up in God’s favor. Machen puts it this way, “If God knows that we are right, what care we for the blame of men?…Little care we whether our sin be thought unpardonable or no, little interested are we in the exact calculation of our guilt. Heap it up mountain high, yet God has removed it all.”
In the end, the Christian cannot fully explain why God would set his favor upon in light of our sin and guilt. While we can come to some answers, ultimately it is as simple as, “That’s the way God wanted it!” And that is good enough for me. The guilt that could pile up mountain high in my heart is enough to blacken even the brightest day. But the depth of God’s love is seen in the fact that he is for me even though I have sinned against him! Who am I to keep this love to myself?
So, Christian, live this day with utter confidence, that despite your sin and guilt, Christ died for you. And by your faith in him, his favor is upon you. I could not sum it up better than Machen, so I will allow him to close us out:
I know not what my guilt may be; one thing I know: Christ loved me and gave Himself for me. Come on now ye moralists of the world, come on ye hosts of demons, with your whisperings of hell! We fear you not; we take our stand beneath the shadow of the Cross, and standing there, in God’s favour, we are safe. No fear of challenge now! If God be for us, who can be against us? None, in heaven or in earth or in hell.
Mathew Gilbert is the Children’s Pastor at First Baptist Church East Bernstadt. He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.