A good few years back, a guy in our church promised to take his girlfriend for dinner on Valentine's Day. So he booked the restaurant, arranged to meet her in town at 8pm, but then on the night forgot all about it. And at 8.30pm, his phone rang. And the conversation went like this:
"I've been at Monument for half an hour."
"Waiting for you."
"We're going out for dinner, remember?"
At which point, he did. Where would you go from there? What he did was to drive desperately around, looking for a flower shop that was still open. He saw one with lights on, hammered on the door, and found them preparing funeral wreaths for the next day. So he persuaded them to sell him a huge bunch of lilies, and set off to try to rescue things.
They're now married. But it took years of going out because, as a friend of theirs put it, "She knew he was keen; what he had to prove was that he was trustworthy."
And I wonder: whose love can you trust? Who in your life is really there for you – and really for you: someone who wants your best and whose wisdom you implicitly trust?
Something I read recently said this: "Increasing family breakdown, and the culture of multiple sexual partners, has bred a generation less capable of the trust necessary for healthy relationships." And I guess we can all think of people we've trusted who've let us down. But even those who don't let us down, we may lose – as we move or they move. And, ultimately, we may lose them to death.
And in the face of all that, tonight's Bible passage calls us to trust in God, knowing that his is a love which will never let us down, and which we can never lose.
So would you turn in the Bible to Romans chapter 5, which has three key things to say on trusting in God:
1. Trusting in Jesus and His Death Puts Us Right with God Forever (verses 1-2)
So look down to Romans 5.1:
"Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."
So the apostle Paul was writing here to people who'd already come to faith – so the "we" is 'we Christians'. But don't tune out if that's not yet you, because this passage may answer some of your questions. Like, 'What exactly do you need to trust in to be a Christian?' After all, millions of Brits believe there's a God ('the man upstairs') and millions of Muslims believe in Allah – but that doesn't make them Christians.
So look at verse 1 again. Which says: Christians…
"have been justified by faith [in other words, by trusting]"
So what does that mean? Well, you've probably justified the margins on a Word document. In other words, you've made the lines line up, you've put them right with one another. And being put right is the big idea in that word "justified". And in the Bible, if I've been 'justified' it means God has put me in the right with him again, after I'd been in the wrong. And here are some pictures to explain that.
So there's you or me in the box of life. And there above it is God (the crown) – who put us here. So we owe it to him to look up and say, 'How do you want me to live?'
But the Bible says that, consciously or subconsciously, we've all said to God, 'No, I don't want you telling me how to live. I'll decide that for myself.' Which is bad enough just at the level of how we then hurt others and ourselves. But that's nothing compared to the level of how it offends God and brings us under his judgment.
So, next picture:
That downward arrow stands for everything that God should hold against us in judgement, at the end of our lives. And if, to the end, we say 'No' to God, the judgment will be that God says 'No' to us – 'I can't have you in my eternal kingdom.' Because you can't be in a kingdom if you won't accept the King.
So that's where we stand before trusting in what God has done for us in Jesus – in the wrong, and under judgment. But look at verse 1 again:
"Therefore, since we have been justified [put right with God] by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."
Which makes it clear that being put right with God only happens through Jesus. It doesn't happen through us – for example, through us trying to make up for what we've done wrong, or feeling sorry for it, or trying to punish ourselves for it, or trying to become better people. It only happens through Jesus and what he did for us when he died. So just look ahead to verse 6, which says:
"For while we were still weak [in other words, unable to do anything to put ourselves right with God], at the right time Christ died for the ungodly."
And 'the ungodly' is all of us – because we've all 'un-God-ed' God from his rightful place in our lives.
So now I've stretched the picture back to when Jesus was here on Earth – God's Son became man.
So Jesus was the only one ever to live perfectly right with God his Father, and the only one never to deserve death and judgment. And yet verse 6 says:
"… Christ died for the ungodly."
In other words, he faced death and judgement in our place, as our substitute. So that's saying: Jesus took on himself what each of us deserves for the wrongdoing (or sin) of our whole lifetimes – all the downward arrows of judgment we each deserve. And God did that so that he could forgive us without anyone being able to accuse him of injustice. Because without the cross, someone could say to God, 'You can't forgive Ian Garrett his whole lifetime's sin – because that's saying it doesn't matter, and that justice can be forgotten for the sake of being kind.' But because of the cross, God can say, 'I can forgive him – and anyone – with perfect justice. Because for every sin I forgive in the present, justice fell on my Son in the past.'
So if you're wondering, 'What exactly do you need to trust in to be a Christian?', the central thing is: Jesus' and his death to put you right with him and his Father. And what God is calling us to do is to stop saying 'No' to him and to say, 'Yes, I'll give you your rightful place in my life.' And as we do that, he's calling us to trust that he will forgive us and accept us and put us right with him forever, through Jesus' death – whoever we are, whatever we've done.
So that's what it means to be 'justified by faith'. It means 'I've been put right with God forever, through trusting in Jesus' death for me.'
But Romans 5 was written for those of us already trusting in Jesus, to help us realise where we now stand with God. So look down to verse 1 again:
"Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."
And 'access' means we can now get through to God in prayer – the 'door' to him is open. And 'grace' means God's all-forgiving, undeserved love. So verse 2 is saying that, through Jesus' death, whenever we come to God in prayer, whatever we've done, we're met with grace.
But that is much easier to say than to trust. So, for example, I remember a student whom I'll call John. And he came from a Christian home and got stuck into church straight away. But then suddenly he went off the radar – for weeks. And when I finally caught up with him and encouraged him to meet up, he told me that he'd had some awful news from home, and as a result, he'd gone out, got blind drunk, and ended up in bed with a girl whose name he couldn't even remember. And he said, "I haven't been able to face other Christians. And I haven't been able to face God – I haven't prayed since it happened."
And that's because he thought his sin had changed his standing with God. He thought he'd sinned himself out of peace with God, back into being under God's judgment, out of grace, back into rejection. But if you're trusting in Jesus, you can't sin yourself out of peace with God and out of grace. Because that's a permanent standing he's given you. And John needed to re-trust that his standing with God actually hadn't changed for a moment during those weeks – not even at the moment of doing his worst – because it doesn't depend on what we've done in the last hour or day or week or weeks. It depends entirely on what Jesus did for us on the cross.
Now I've deliberately used that example to reassure those of us whose consciences are weighed down by something like John's was. But we all need to trust this all the time – because even on the best days of our Christian lives, there's so much ongoing sinfulness in us, isn't there? And Satan says to us, 'You don't really think God's going to keep forgiving you and accepting you, do you?' And we need to say, 'Yes, I do – because Jesus died for me.' That and that alone gives us that permanent standing in God's love and acceptance.
So don't stay away from God in prayer when you're conscious of sin. Because that's when we most need to pray, and when God wants us to use the access he's bought for us at the cross.
So look at verse 1 again:
"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."
In other words, we rejoice in the confident certainty of being with God in heaven, and finally free of sin.
So in all other relationships, death parts us, doesn't it? It ends the relationship. And having taken my Mum's funeral a week ago, I'm acutely aware of that. And I know many of us are living with the really painful absence of someone who was there for us, and isn't now.
Whereas with God, far from parting us or ending the relationship, death will only complete it (as well as reunite us with everyone we know who has died trusting in Jesus). So a Christian friend called Mark wrote a booklet while he was dying of cancer in which he said this:
It is my relationship with Jesus that can take me through death, and which is the only hope we have of eternal life... So it is in terms of relating to him that I must understand my death. Jesus will be the same – indeed he will be more real… than he has ever been before. It will be his voice that will call me into his presence. He will himself take me… so that I may be with him forever…
It has been said that, for the believer, the end of the world is more of a person than… an event. And that is certainly true of the end of my life: death may be the event with which my physical life on earth ends, but it will also be the moment at which my relationship with Jesus becomes complete. That relationship is the only thing that has made sense of my life, and at death, it will be everything.
And Mark could write that because he knew this first point, that trusting in Jesus and his death puts us right with God forever. That's the main and longest point. But Paul knew that two things make it hard for us to trust in God – sometimes very hard. One is our suffering. And one is our ongoing sinfulness. And Romans 5 goes on to say a word about both of those. So, next:
2. Trusting in God in the Face of Our Suffering (verses 3-4)
Look on to verse 3:
"More than that [in other words, as well as rejoicing in being put right with God forever], we rejoice in our sufferings,"
Which doesn't mean we enjoy suffering, or rejoice in the suffering itself. It means we can rejoice in what God does through our suffering – what he produces. Because look at verse 3 again:
"More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,"
So it might be unemployment, or bereavement, or illness, or family trauma, or unwanted singleness, or a decision or circumstances going against us. But whatever our suffering, it always faces us with the choice, 'Will I keep trusting God, or not?' And the Bible says: if you're really trusting in Jesus, your faith is something which God has worked in you, by his Spirit, and which he is committed to keeping going. So real believers do keep trusting, against all the odds, through thick and thin. And so, as it says here,
"suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character,"
Which literally means 'tried-and-tested-ness' or 'proven-ness'. In other words, when we suffer and yet keep going as Christians, it's proof that God is keeping us going – which we wouldn't do and couldn't do in our own strength. And that produces the last thing in verse 4:
"and character produces hope [which, remember, is the confident certaintly of being with God in heaven, finally free of sin]"
So Paul is saying that as we look back at how God has kept us going through suffering, it gives us confidence, looking forward, that he will keep us going all the way to heaven, where there will be no more suffering at all. Which isn't an intellectual answer that somehow solves the problem of suffering and makes trusting God easy – there is no such answer in the Bible. But it is a deeply practical answer – which says: wait, and keep going, because one day in heaven, suffering will be a thing of the past forever.
So there's the challenge of trusting God in the face of our suffering. But, lastly, there's also the challenge of:
3. Trusting in God in the Face of Our Ongoing Sinfulness (verses 5-8)
So verse 4 ends with the word "hope" (which means the confident certainty of being with God in heaven, finally free of sin). But could that confidence prove false? Could I arrive at the gates only to have God say, 'I've changed my mind. You've sinned one too big or once too often. I won't have you in my kingdom after all'? That's our fear, isn't it? Could I be put to shame like that?
Well, look at verse 5 which says, 'No':
"and hope does not put us to shame [in other words, that's never going to happen], because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us."
So Paul is saying that what puts that fear to rest is understanding God's love for us. And he knew that the place where we see God's love for us is at the cross, and that the number one work of God's Spirit is to bring home to our hearts what happened there for us. And he goes over what happened there for us in verses 6 to 8:
"For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person [which is one up from 'righteous'] one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
So how do I know God will never change his mind about me because of my ongoing sinfulness? Paul says: by taking in what happened at the cross. He says that with human love, one person might die for another – but probably only if the other were good and deserving. By contrast, verse 8 says:
"but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
In other words, when Jesus died for us, because he was and is God and knows the future, he knew in advance the very worst about us – he knew what our whole lifetimes' sins would be – and yet he still went ahead and loved us to death. So Paul is saying: if God loved you like that at your very worst, how could he change his mind and give up on you, given that you can't be worse than your worst?
I remember helping a friend to take an old banger to a car auction. It was a mark I Vauxhall Astra estate, and almost everything that could be wrong with it was wrong with it. And you were given a piece of paper to fill in and stick to the windscreen which said, 'All known faults'. And for honesty, we needed two sheets. And to our astonishment, it sold even before the public auction. So we wanted to meet this guy who, as far as we could see, needed his head examined. And it turned out he was a mark I Vauxhall Astra estate collecter. 'I love these cars,' he said – he had five already. And talking to him, it dawned on me that not only did he know how much the 'known faults' would cost to put right, but that he could also anticipate the cost of everything that would go wrong next. And yet he still committed to it, and the whole price of it.
And Paul is saying: God is like that. He anticipated all our sin, past and future – our whole lifetimes' worst. And at the cross, he paid the price of committing himself to us forever – of forgiving us whenever we would need it. And in doing so, he gave us the place to look, which shows what his love for us is like at every moment.
And trusting in that – in the face of our suffering and our sin – is how you start the Christian life, and how you then live the Christian life every day.