While conversion testimonies can certainly be exciting, the Bible teaches that salvation is more than just a one-time event; as Alistair Begg notes, it’s a reality encompassing the whole Christian experience. Because our new life in Christ—past, present, and future—is a gift from God, we should not approach biblical commands as an external code of behavior. Instead, we should expect God's grace in our lives to create a lasting atmosphere of holiness and love from within.
We’re going to read from Romans chapter 12. It’s page 803. Romans chapter 12—page 803—verse 9:
“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary:
‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
A brief prayer together:
Gracious God, we bow in need before you, asking for you to work by the power of the Holy Spirit in such a way that you take my words and speak through them, you take our minds and help us to think through them, and that you take our lives and bring them into conformity with the truth of your Word and make us more like Christ, we pray. For we ask it in his name. Amen.
It was never my intention to begin a series of studies in Romans 12. We turned to Romans 12:1–2 on the ninth of January, the second Sunday of the year, under the heading of “A Call to Commitment.” The elders felt that it would be beneficial for us as a church, beginning these sixty days of prayer together, just to have some kind of framework out of which to consider our prayerfulness, our desires, hopes, dreams, for Parkside Church, that we would be enabled to think properly about what we’re doing and, at the same time, about where we’re going.
And we were challenged, I think, on that particular Sunday—it ended up being the morning and the evening—by the whole notion of spiritual worship. This commitment to God “in view of his mercy” is, says Paul, “your spiritual worship”; it’s your reasonable, logical response to all that God has done for us in Jesus. And I was greatly challenged by John Murray’s observation, which we quoted at the time, when he writes, “We are not ‘Spiritual’ in the biblical sense except as the use of our bodies is characterized by conscious, intelligent, consecrated devotion to the service of God.” So if somebody were to say, “Well, what does it mean to be spiritual—you know, ‘I am a spiritual person’?” You hear people saying all the time, “Well, I’m a more of a spiritual person. I wouldn’t say I was a religious person.” The idea, somehow or another, being that “spiritual” can be sequestered into the realm of the mind, the hidden dimension of life. Well, not in a biblical sense it can’t. And Murray, I think, puts us on the right track when he says the only way we can ever refer to ourselves as spiritual is when our bodies are characterized in this particular way: “conscious, intelligent, consecrated devotion to the service of God.”
And on that particular Sunday, we talked then about being converted, about being connected, and about being committed. And we discovered at the end of verse 2 that it was from this perspective, or in this position, that anybody would ever come to realize that God’s way is best and would come to determine to go God’s way: “Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, [perfect] and [pleasing] will.” In other words, it is only when our lives are marked by that kind of consecrated devotion that we will determine to say, “I want to do God’s will more than I want to do anything else, even though it cuts across my designs, my desires, my hopes, my dreams, my career, my finances,” whatever it might possibly be. Once my body is engaged in this—in this act of “conscious, intelligent, consecrated devotion”—then things will be changed.
And then, of course, we went on from there into verse 3. I felt at the time that to deal with verses 1 and 2 in isolation was probably going to be unhelpful, and so that is how we find ourselves here this morning. Because the inevitable impact of thinking about intelligent and conscious and consecrated devotion is to say, “Well, what would that kind of devotion look like?” or “What does it look like?” It’s not something that happens in isolation from others; rather, it is something which is expressed within the family of faith, amongst a local congregation. And so, if, then, grace is what defines the nature of our individual relationship with God, then we have a legitimate right to consider what a fellowship or congregation will begin to look like when it is shaped by that same grace of God.
What are some of the characteristics that will be representative when you go into a community that is, if you like, a Romans 12:1–2 community? And of course we saw, then, that when grace begins to rule, then our preoccupation with ourselves begins to leave. And none of us, then, will think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think. Conceit, arrogance, pride—the kind of things that we use to isolate ourselves from other people or to determine the kind of people with whom we want to spend time—are eroded in a community of grace. The community, God’s people—God’s people—is not a club, a homogeneous club of people who are all into the same thing. It’s not really like an exercise club. It’s not like people who are interested in the opera. It’s not like people who have all come from the same background, and they all get together and unite on account of their homogeneous nature. It’s not like that.
In fact, what it is is a very unlikely group of people. It is to be thrown together amongst people—as we said, I think, in one of our studies—people that we never even would have spent time with when we were at school. We would never have hung around with these people; we didn’t even like them! And now we find ourselves thrown into the mix of this. And these individuals are given gifts, as we saw in verse 4 and following. And the exercise of these gifts is not so that people could see how gifted one is, but rather so that the benefit might accrue to the entire body of Christ. And then we went on to see that this grace-shaped community would be marked in such a way that the love for God’s people would be sincere, that it would be marked at the same time by purity, and that it would be marked, once again, by humility. Sincerity, purity, humility—considering and honoring one another above ourselves.
Now, you would think that by this time I would know how to study in such a way as to prepare my sermon material and be able to deliver it as prepared for and studied for. After all, I’ve been doing this for a very long time now. But I might as well confess to you what became apparent to me in the first service, and that is that I never, ever really got to verse 11 at all. You say, “Well, this is becoming a standard pattern. We had one like that just a couple of weeks ago. Are you finally breaking down, or what is going on with you?” No, I believe, actually, that my heart and mind are being ordered because of the inherent danger that I pointed out last time in a congregation responding to a series of exhortations such as we have here in verse 12 without recognizing that the perspective, the framework, the context, is that of the transforming power of the gospel.
We’ve used phraseology before that, for example, when we come to the moral imperatives—and what we essentially have here are a series of imperatives; “do this,” “don’t do that,” “do this,” “make sure you do this,” these are imperatives—that when we come to these moral imperatives, it is vital that we recognize that they are built upon the doctrinal indicatives; that what is actually true provides the impetus, provides the framework, for the activity to which the writer calls us. And therefore, I want, at least one more time, to make sure as best as I can that we understand this—essentially, that we understand the gospel. The gospel is what Paul has said, in chapter 1, is the driving force; it has changed his life, and he’s not ashamed of it. Verse 16 of chapter 1: “[I’m] not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for … salvation [for] everyone who believes.”
Now, let me just pause for a moment on this word “salvation.” If you were to ask a representative group of people here at Parkside what salvation is, an even number of them would reply in such a way as to suggest that salvation equals conversion—that what it means to be saved is directly related to our discovery of God’s grace and goodness to us in Jesus, and so that the power of God for salvation, then, is viewed as a power which is able to bring people from darkness into light, from unbelief to belief, and get them started off. What happens from there then moves on to other things that are beyond salvation. But when, in actual fact, you consider the Bible, you realize that salvation is not the ABC of Christian beginnings, but it is the A to Z of our entire Christian experience. That’s why we’ve taught, in Sunday School, our children to try and grapple with the three tenses of salvation. When a person says, “I have been saved,” they’re saying, “I have been”—past tense—“saved from sin’s penalty, I”—present tense—“am being saved from sin’s power, and”—future tense—“I will be saved one day from sin’s presence.” And it is the gospel which is the power of God for salvation for that entire process, so that when Paul, for example, writes to the Philippians, encouraging them in the opening verses—the opening sentences of his letter—he says, “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” In other words, this gospel, which Paul has been expounding, covers our entire experience of God’s grace. And it is for that reason that he has taken all of these eleven chapters in order to make clear to these people the nature of this good news. Peter, Paul’s friend, has a wonderful summary statement of the gospel that we’ve often quoted, 1 Peter 3:18: “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”
What then is this gospel? The gospel is objective. The gospel is Christ. The gospel is the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, return of Jesus Christ. It is that which has taken place historically in the work of Jesus, both by his life in its perfection in the keeping of the law and in his death as an atoning sacrifice for sins. So the gospel is something which happened, if you like, in history, in the person of Jesus. The gospel is a past, perfect, finished event. It’s very, very important we understand this. Because if we don’t understand this, then we will begin to go wrong at virtually every point of seeking to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling.”
It is by means of the gospel that the sinner is justified. And that’s what Paul says in one of his other great “therefores,” and he loves “therefore.” As a lawyer, he’s always going from premise to subpremise and so on, and in light of what I’ve just said, “therefore this,” I could take you through a whole series of them. But you would be frustrated, I think. I’ll give you a couple; you can follow up. Romans 1:21: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking [hearts] became futile,” so on. Verse 24: “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another,” and so on. Chapter 2 and verse 1: “[Incidentally],” he says, “you, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else.” There’s a tremendous logic in this. You have to use your mind in relationship to the gospel. Some people think the gospel is some kind of little fairy story that will all of a sudden just kind of pick you up and sweep you into some strange nirvana that you’ve never known before. No! No, no, no, no. There are a lot of things that may do that to you, but it’s not the gospel. No. It’s always “therefore, therefore, therefore.” And so he says in chapter 5, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God.”
Now, this word “justified”—or “justification”—is a vitally important word. And it is on the strength of this that Paul then builds chapter 6 and 7 and 8—8, which we considered—and then on into 9 and 10 and 11. Justification is a forensic word, or a legal word. Okay? He is using a picture here from the legal system. He employs, for example, pictures from the enslavement that was part of the Roman Empire; that’s when he uses the terminology of “redemption,” and he describes the wonder of what God has done in Christ in terms of a redemption—the purchase of a person by the payment of a price. But here when he uses the terminology “justification,” he is using terminology that comes from the law court, whereby the judge acquits an individual and declares them “not guilty”—in actual fact, declares them, in terms of what Paul is saying here, “righteous in God’s sight.”
Now, the thing that is imperative to realize is that the work of justification is at the start of the Christian life. It is at the start of the Christian life. It is the work of justification which brings about an instantaneous and radical change of status. Because—Romans 1—we suppress the truth of God by a lie. We worship and serve created things rather than the Creator. We are justifiably guilty before God. None of us may be declared righteous as a result of our endeavors. Therefore, we are entirely in need—one hundred percent in need—of someone to do on our behalf what we are unable to do for ourselves. And the work of justification in the life of a sinner is a hundred percent by free grace—one hundred percent by grace. And it is given to us because “the wrath of God [which] is … revealed … against all the godlessness and wickedness of men”—Romans chapter 1—because that wrath of God against sinners was poured out upon Jesus on the cross, and that on the cross Jesus bore the punishment that we deserve. You see, that is why, until we recognize ourselves to be lost—to be lost, to be dead, to be condemned—the story of what Christ has accomplished by his death as a substitute for the sinners passes us by completely.
But once we are wakened up to the reality of our predicament, then the wonder of justification—that it is entirely of God, it is entirely of grace, it is entirely through faith, it is entirely in Christ—and in what he has accomplished on the cross, suddenly we say, “This is the most unbelievable story in the entire world.” And we sing about it, don’t we? “My Lord, what love is this that pays so dearly, that I, the guilty one, may go free!” And you have it on the very day of Christ’s death, don’t you? The thief on the cross turns to his friend and says, “You shouldn’t be abusing this fellow on the middle cross like this. After all,” he says to his buddy, “we are up here getting what we deserve. But this guy has done nothing wrong.” The innocent dies in the place of the guilty?
No, you see, justification lies at the very beginning of our Christian experience, received as a gift —Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”—received as a gift to which we make no contribution. It’s a very nice thing, and a unusual thing that I’ve grown used to now in America, but I was always intrigued when I first encountered this, where the individual picked up the bill in the restaurant to pay it, and the person on the other side of the table said, “Can I make a contribution to that?” The person said, “No, it’s entirely my privilege and prerogative to pay.” And the person comes back again and says, “Well, can I at least leave the tip? Can I not have a part in this?”
And there is something endemic in us as individuals that wants to have a part in being set right with God, so that we can actually say, you know, “Yes, I have a small part in this as well. I’ve been doing this, and I’ve been doing that.” That, my friends, is Roman Catholicism, if you’ll forgive me. Not exclusively, but it is! Whereby grace is administered through the sacraments—as a result of grace through the sacraments, enabling the individual to do better than they have done before, they continue then to seek to make progress in these things in order that they might finally be justified, declared righteous in God’s sight. That’s why most of the time, when you ask your devout Catholic friends if they have any assurance of going to heaven, they will say no, but they hope so. And they also have an escape clause which is called “purgatory,” whereby we who stay behind may be enabled, as a result of our good deeds and our endeavors and the prayers of others, to somehow or another speed that process.
Loved ones, that’s not the doctrine of justification. Whatever that is, that’s not the doctrine of justification. That brought about the revolution in the heart of a Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther, didn’t it? That’s why we had the Reformation. “Oh,” you say, “it was more about indulgences and more…” Listen! It was about this, ultimately. Because in 1511, Martin Luther went to Rome. And he went to Rome expressly, in spiritual anguish, to see if he couldn’t finally, by means of a month of dutiful observance, finally settle the issue of what it means to be accepted with God. History records that his four weeks were weeks of deep disillusionment. As a devout monk, he was working from the axiom that a good God is bound to accept a good man doing all that he can. And Martin Luther was a good man. And now he was doing all that he could—up and down the Scala Sancta on his knees, saying the prayers, observing all of these things. But he records that it only heightened to serve his sense of anguish, because he asked himself, How could a man ever know he had done enough to merit grace? See, your friends who’ll tell you, say, “Well, I just try and… I just do my best.” The answer is, What if your best isn’t good enough? And by the way, it isn’t. What then?
Well, what happened was that God lit a flame in the heart of a Roman Catholic monk called Martin Luther. And he showed him what would been in the Bible all along, but he never got it. Martin Luther suddenly read Romans 1:17 in an entirely different way, concerning the gospel. He read it again. He read it many, many times: “In the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.” And then Luther said, “Wait a minute. This isn’t my righteousness; this is his righteousness. This is a righteousness from God.” Luther then went on to refer to it as an “alien righteousness.” In other words, not a righteousness that could be engendered in us, not a righteousness that was natural to us, but a righteousness that was alien to us. Which was then imputed to us, in much the same way that, let’s say, you had a horrible negative balance in your account, and somebody came along and not only brought your balance back to zero but took all the credit of their resources and put it in your account. That’s exactly what has happened in terms of God’s goodness—that he comes into all of our negative balance with his alien righteousness and his goodness. And he doesn’t just get our bank balance back to zero and say, “Go on and try your best now, and see if you can keep it, now that I’ve got you back to square one.” No, he doesn’t do that; he provides the very righteousness of Christ himself.
And when he does so, at the same time he unites us with the Lord Jesus Christ, and he puts the Holy Spirit within us to live. Not one of those three elements—justification, union with Christ, and the indwelling Spirit—not one of those three things ever happen on their own. They all happen together. God does not justify those whom he does not unite to his Son and indwell by his Spirit. So that the ongoing work of God within us is the fruit of our justification, is the evidence of our justification, as we’ll see later on when we come back to this—that he has placed his Spirit within us, and now we cry, “Abba, Father.” Why do we cry, “Abba, Father”? Because he has not only declared us righteous in God’s sight on the basis of the work of Christ, but he has united us to Christ—we are no longer in Adam, but we are now in Christ—and he has given the Holy Spirit to live within us, and the Holy Spirit’s work is to take us and not turn us into some miserable little cottage but to turn us into a fantastic palace fit for Christ, who is the King.
But we are not justified as a result of anything done by us, nor are we justified as a result of anything done in us. We are justified as a result of that which has been done for us. And if you listen to people talk, you will find that, many times, professing Christian people talk as though our acceptance with God is on the strength of what is going on inside us. That’s a bad route. Because if you seek to take your standing before God on the strength of how well you’ve just done this week, whatever your expectations have been—“Did I pray as much as I should? Have I loved people with a fervency? Have I honored others beyond myself? Have I resisted every known form of sin? Have I been committed to purity and to humility?” and all those other things—is there not enough for you just to bury your face in the carpet?
You say, “Oh dear me, I don’t think I can be a Christian at all.” Well, no, you can’t be if that’s this basis upon which you find your standing before God. You see how important the gospel is? Do you see how vital it is? Why it is that Luther eventually said, “In every real sense, the gospel is outside of me—is outside of me”?
Now, our time has gone, as it did in the first service, but I want to point one thing out to you to set things up for our study this evening when we come back. And that is to notice that… Because he’s going to ask, he’s going to call for his folks to make sure that they are—verse 11—“never … lacking in zeal,” you know. And what I want you to notice—and with this I will stop—what I want you to notice is this: that in issuing this call to, essentially, enthusiasm, patience, and generosity, that kind of exhortation is quickly responded to by people who just are wired in such a way as to want to do their best. You know, the kind of kid who says—the teacher says, “Now, we’re putting it up on the board, and I want you to do this and this and this”—writing it down, writing it down, writing it down, you know: “I’m going to do it first, I’m going to do it first, I’m going to do it first. I will do this, I do this, I do this, I do this.” If you’re wired in that way, then say, “This is terrific. Give me the imperatives. Just give me the imperatives. Forget the indicatives; I don’t need the indicatives. Just tell me what I’m supposed to do. Far too much about theology! Not enough about practice. Why don’t you tell me what I’m supposed to do?” Because if you do it for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way, you’re up a creek, that’s why.
Now, notice, 10:2: he’s concerned for the Jewish people, his own people. Why is he concerned for them? Why is he praying that they might be saved? Well, he’s praying that they might be saved because they’re not saved. They’re either saved or not saved, either converted or unconverted. Right? “There is … no condemnation [to] those who are in Christ Jesus.” Those who are not in Christ Jesus are underneath God’s condemnation.
You just can’t go out and have your lunch and say, “Well, it doesn’t really matter.” It matters. Of course it matters! “The wrath of God is meted out against all the ungodliness and wickedness of men.” We live condemned lives. And knowledge plus zeal won’t fix it. That’s what he’s saying. “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God”—that’s good—“but their zeal is not based on knowledge”—that’s bad! “Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” Do you get it? “Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God, they set out to establish their own righteousness.” It’s inevitable.
That’s exactly what happens to the people that live around me here. My friends and neighbors essentially are doing one of two things: they’re either saying, “Forget the whole mess!” or, if they’re at all concerned about a God in heaven with whom they have to do, not knowing the righteousness that comes from God, which is the story of the gospel, they gotta get their own righteousness. And so that’s exactly what happens. And if you don’t get the nature of God’s imputed righteousness in the doctrine of justification, then these imperatives will appear to you to be keys to get yourself accepted by God. So religion says, “I obey—therefore I am accepted.” Christianity says, “I am accepted—therefore I obey.” Grace is on account of the finished, completed, perfect work of Christ, to which we look.
Now, I called our study—which is now this evening’s study—I called it “Love in Action.” We don’t have much action; we’ll be coming to that later on, some of us. And I thought it was quite a good title, but then I found a series of expositions by a now glorified Scottish minister, and he called his series of expositions on Romans 12 “The Divine Righteousness Applied”—“The Divine Righteousness Applied.” And I said, “That’s it! He’s got it absolutely perfectly.”
What is it that Paul is doing here? He is showing the church in Rome what a church looks like when they understand the “righteousness [that comes] from God … through faith in Jesus Christ [for] all who believe.” How, then, will that righteousness be displayed? And the balance of Romans 12, and then the instruction of chapter 13 concerning civil government, and on through the end of the letter, is essentially that story. That’s why, you see, it is so vitally important that we understand the indicative of the gospel so that we might respond correctly to the imperatives that flow from it. I think it’s a Kendrick song: “I am a new creation, no more in condemnation, here in the grace of God I stand.”
Well, I hope that you understand this, and more than that, I hope that you believe this. And if you are wondering about it and would like to talk with somebody concerning it, then we’d gladly do that—make time, give you literature, help you in any way at all—just in case you happen to be someone who is trying desperately to establish your own righteousness. It’s not just so horribly difficult; it is completely impossible.
Gracious God, we thank you now for the Bible. We thank you that we are able to go away and read our Bibles and see if these things are so. Thank you for the wonder of your love to us in the Lord Jesus Christ, “in that, while we were yet sinners, [you] died for us.” Thank you that “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring [us] to God.” And when we ponder these things, we realize why Newton, the hymn writer and the pastor, eventually said, “There’s only two things I know: one, that I am a great sinner, and two, that Christ is a great Savior.”
And so we pray that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, may rest upon and remain with all who believe, now and forevermore. Amen.
 Romans 12:1 (paraphrased).
 John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (1965; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 2:112.
 Philippians 1:6 (paraphrased).
 Philippians 2:12 (KJV).
 Romans 5:1 (NIV 1984).
 Graham Kendrick, “Amazing Love (My Lord, What Love Is This)” (1989).
 See Luke 23:32–43.
 Romans 6:23 (KJV).
 Romans 8:15 (paraphrased).
 Romans 8:1 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 1:18 (paraphrased).
 Romans 10:1–3 (NIV 1984).
 Tim Keller, The Prodigal God (New York: Penguin, 2008), 128.
 Romans 3:22 (NIV 1984).
 Dave Bilbrough, “I Am a New Creation” (1983).
 See Acts 17:11.
 Romans 5:8 (KJV).
 1 Peter 3:18 (NIV 1984).
 John Newton, quoted in John Pollock, Amazing Grace: John Newton’s Story (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), 182. Paraphrased.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.