The Only Chain That Can Set You Free: A Meditation on Romans 8:30

  • March 10, 2014

OberGatlinburg.npcrI’m not actually claustrophobic; I just act like it sometimes. Being confined in small spaces, and even worse, getting stuck there is probably the cheapest way to experience mind-numbing panic. I haven’t had to deal with that panic very often, but the times I have were memorable:

When I was about ten my parents went to Atlanta on vacation and we got stuck in a hotel elevator. To make matters worse, the only person in the elevator with us was the hotel’s head of maintenance, so he wasn’t where he could help get us out. He had to direct his crew from the elevator phone, and just sit tight and wait for his guys to fix the problem.

As a seventh grader on my first church youth trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, my parents and I were packed into a cable car riding us up the side of a mountain to the “Ober Gatlinburg” theme park. We were with about ninety other riders when one of the workmen servicing the cables got a high-powered wrench stuck in some of the cables’ gears. For about forty-five minutes we were stuck, standing up in that cable car that was dangling about five hundred feet over the side of the mountain. When we finally got to the top my Dad, bless his heart, had to ride back down by himself and drive our car up a service road to pick me up. There was no way I was going back down in that cable car. I would have stayed on top of that mountain til’ judgment day before I got back in one of those!

Then when I was in college my parents and I visited St. Louis for the first time and made the required visit to the Gateway Arch. We rode to the very top in their little elevator carts, and were dropped off with a packed tour group full of people we didn’t know into the small scenic viewing deck looking out over St. Louis and the Mississippi River. Then the tracks of the elevator carts decided to shut-down so we were stuck looking out those little windows at the ground far below until the mechanical problems could be fixed.

Those experiences were all…unpleasant. After each incident I could truly say, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, “I’ve had a good time; this wasn’t it.” I mean seriously, you’d be excused for not wanting to go on vacation with me. When I get in tight spots, bad things happen! And No one likes to feel trapped. No one likes to feel hemmed in. Our throats catch, and our breathing gets heavy. We want freedom. We want hope. We want to know that everything really will turn out okay, and when we can’t be sure, we get nervous.

This is never more true than when we consider who we are in relation to God. We know our past. We know our thoughts. We know our motives. We know our sin! We know how hard it is to live for Jesus and to dump our idols. We know how often we fail. We know how often we fall down. We know what huge screw-ups we are, and if you’re like me you know how often it seems like we’ll never be free…really, really free.

I’ve visited prisons before, ministering to and visiting inmates, and nothing really prepares you for the sound of those iron bars closing and locking behind you. And yet if I’m honest, it seems like I hear the echoes of my own prison bars closing in my ears all the time – in my thoughts, dreams, and actions. My own personal prison doors seem to me to be immovable. Left to myself, there’s no way on earth I’d be able to unlock the cage of my sin, or free myself from the handcuffs of my own depravity. I’m no Harry Houdini, and I’m not getting free on my own.

And yet Romans 8:1 has the audacity to tell me that in Christ there is no condemnation for me! Some mornings Satan, our accuser, wants to make me believe that I’m still sitting on Heaven’s death row. And sometimes I’m tempted to believe him. I’ve heard the prison bars slamming! I know what a scoundrel I am! I know what I’m really like, deep-down really like. And Satan does too. And he likes to remind me! So, on earth can I have any hope of freedom…real soul liberating, freedom?

The good news for sinners like you and me, who sometimes think we’ll never get out of our orange prison jumpsuits is the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s what Paul is hammering home to his readers. That’s what Romans 8 is all about, and that’s what he’s building to as he sings out the unchained melody of Romans 8:30!

This wondrous verse that assures us that salvation is God’s doing, his plan, and his work, is sometimes called the “golden chain of salvation.” Every aspect of God’s eternal plan of redemption is unbreakably linked together in the invincible work of God. This “golden chain” is unlike any other chain you’ve ever seen before. Chains are usually thought of as things that bind us, things that confine us, that imprison us. But this chain is the key to our freedom! It’s the stronger than titanium chain that God has hooked to his children to pull us from the pit of despair. Marvel at the goodness and wisdom of God and marvel at the mighty work of the Savior that secures the salvation of his people:

And those whom he predestined…

These little phrases are crammed full of eternal and omnipotent power! We could spend a zillion years diving into the depths of what this verse says (and we will!) and never get to the bottom of it! O there is so much here!

And those whom…

We’re reminded that Paul is speaking of real people who have real lives and real sin. We’re reminded that Paul is talking about people like you and me, and we’re reminded that Paul is chaining the “chain,” back onto Romans 8:29. This verse is describing the work of God in the lives of the people to whom all things work together for good, who were foreknown before the foundation of the world, and who are predestined to look like Jesus in the presence of Jesus forever.

And please don’t miss the unseen but implied (and demanded)“ all” that sits just before that little word, “those” throughout this verse. He isn’t referring to just the gifted class of Christians. He isn’t just referring to the first-string team. He isn’t just talking about the first chair players. He isn’t just talking about the theologians who always made straight A’s. He’s talking about all believers and not just some! Everything he is saying in this verse is being applied to every believer, whether they’re a bad eight year old boy, or a sweet eighty-year old saint who has been saved for seventy years!

…he predestined…

Notice the personal pronoun that is repeated over and over again in this verse: He. This is God’s work. This is God’s chain that he sets over us – his saving work in Christ for his people. My eternal future isn’t ultimately based on my good works, my good intentions, or my good abilities. My salvation is God’s work from beginning to end!

Then marvel once more at that beautiful word, “predestined.” We’ve seen it before. We marveled at it in Ephesians 1. We were confronted by it in Romans 8:29, and now here it is again. Who are these that are predestined? It is those who have been foreknown, who have been the objects of God’s unfailing, covenantal, marital love from before time began.

Believers, those who place their faith in Christ are none other than those who in the mysterious and imponderable depths of God’s wisdom and grace have been “destined beforehand” to be his children by faith in Jesus Christ. We believe, we trust, we express faith – not because we are more educated than other people, or less sinful than other people, or the recipients of a better family than other people, or somehow wiser than other people, but because before and behind all things God has chosen those who are his.

How on earth could this be good news? How on earth can it be comforting to lay down our arms and confess that our salvation from first to last is wholly the work of God? How can it be a cause for joy to admit that we take no credit for our salvation? The better question is, how could we not?

How could we not celebrate Jesus’ words when he said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain” (John 15:16). Predestination is not a demonic doctrine that snuffs out free will and consigns us to live as robotic puppets who are not responsible for our actions. It’s not a call to forget evangelism and stop calling sinners to repent and believe. Instead, this word is the soul-stirring truth that left to ourselves we are hopelessly imprisoned to and in love with our sin. If God had not foreknown us and predestined us to believe, we would have never foreknown or predestined ourselves. If Christ had not chosen us, we would never have chosen him. The hymn writer Josiah Conder was right when he penned these words:

My Lord I did not choose You
For that could never be
My heart would still refuse You
Had You not chosen me

You took the sin that stained me
Cleansed me, made me new
Of old, You have ordained me
That I should live in You

Unless Your grace had called me
And taught my opening mind
The world would have enthralled me
To heavenly glories blind

My heart knows none above You
For Your rich grace I thirst
I know that if I love You
You must have loved me first

My Lord I did not choose You
For that could never be
My heart would still refuse You
Had You not chosen me

There is nothing good in us that would have ever led us to walk down the aisle to the beautiful king and groom. There is nothing in and of ourselves that would ever make us beautiful or worthy enough to merit our Savior’s love. No, we are all ugly brides, with no talent, a scandalous past, a sin-stained dress, bad breath, and no dowry. And yet Jesus Christ our groom has looked at us, his ugly bride and beaming with joy he has proclaimed: “Here at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh! I have left my Father’s glory to seek her and make her mine! I will be joined to her, and we will be one flesh!”

On a personal note, as a little boy with a disability (Spina Bifida) P.E. classes were a nightmare. We’d go once or twice a week and the coach would divide us into teams for dodge ball or kickball or chase. And I’d stand there, waiting to be picked. But elementary kids can be cruel, and they never really want a cripple on their team. So I was always picked last. Always. It was a wonderful thing to reach a grade level when I didn’t have to endure that every week. But the good news of the gospel, found in this one little word “predestine” is that in Christ those who believe the gospel are always picked – picked infinitely first, before the universe was ever breathed into existence. To be predestined is to rest in the assurance that Jesus wants cripples (and criminals, and castaways) on his team forever!

O how great the Father’s love for us! This is what predestined means! It is to be loved when we are unlovable. It means to be desired when we are undesirable. It means to be pursued when we are running. It means to be picked when there’s no reason why we should be. It means to be his gloriously, intimately, personally, and eternally his forever!

…he also called…

Those whom God predestined are called. There is a sense in which there is a general call that goes out over all the earth. We cry out to all men and women with passion, “be reconciled to God!” This general call is the absolute decree of God that all people shall be called and invited to the banquet feast of the Lamb without exemption and without excuse.

But this verse is referring not to the call that we as believers cry out in the midst of a lost and dying world. This verse refers to the all powerful, Spirit worked, effectual, and gripping call that God speaks in his all powerful voice as the gospel is proclaimed to a lost and dying world. It is the call that knocked Saul of Tarsus blind on the Damascus interstate. It’s the call that Jesus referred to when he said, “No one can come to me unless my Father who is in heaven draws him” (John 6:44).

It’s the call of Jesus to Lazarus. Lazarus had been dead for four days. But Jesus called. Jesus commanded, “Lazarus! Come out!” Now Lazarus was dead as a door-nail. He was wrapped up tight in a burial shroud. But the particular call of Christ to Lazarus was more powerful than the cold corpse darkness of the graveyard. No sooner had the words left Jesus’ lips than Lazarus’ eyes irresistibly popped open and his linen-tied legs swung over the burial bench and began hopping toward the tomb door. Lazarus could not not answer the call! How preposterous it would be for Lazarus to have laid there in the darkness thinking, “I’m really comfortable! How dare he tell me to get up and join the party!” No way! When Jesus said “Come out,” Lazarus was wide-awake, alive, and on his way!

…and those whom he called, he also justified…

Here we have one of Paul’s favorite words: justified. To be justified means to be “declared not guilty, and innocent” on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ.

Here we have the epicenter at which the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of men collide. Those who are called will be justified, but those who will be justified will not be justified apart from their exercising of faith, trust in, dependence on, love for Jesus Christ. Faith is the instrument that connects our lives to the invincible promises of God!

But I encourage you, do not run past this word. Do not think we have it down, and understand it. Don’t allow this word to be lost in the shadows of the huge and mysterious words that have come before. This is a marvel. Guilty sinners who by all rights should be eternally executed are given complete pardon on the basis of faith alone in Jesus Christ alone!

…and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Here we have the final link that eternally begins the believer’s life with God unto the ages of forever.

If you have believed the gospel. If you have trusted Christ. If you have turned to him in faith, then your future is certain. Read those words again. Do you see anything that seems to be missing? Is there anything that is conspicuously absent? Did Paul miss something?

Why didn’t Paul say, “and those whom he justified he also sanctified, and those whom he sanctified he also glorified?”

Is it because sanctification isn’t a part of salvation? No! Those who are saved are conformed to the image of Christ! Those who are saved are indeed changed! He takes us as we are but he does not leave us there.

Is it because sanctification isn’t the work of God, but is instead the work of our own effort? Well, surely we are told to “work out our own salvation,” but we are told this only because we are assured that it is God who is at work in us! Everywhere in scripture we are told that we are sanctified by the Spirit! Sanctification is the work of God!

So why does Paul leave it out of the golden chain? Why would he do that?

O it’s for a glorious reason! He does so because at the end of the day our sanctification is not the basis of our acceptance before God in Christ! Those who are in Christ, who are not-guilty on the basis of his work and righteousness, will be glorified! And we will be glorified not because of the progress we’ve made throughout our Christian life. We’ll be glorified on the basis of Christ’s work and the Father’s declaration!

Do you see what that means?! If I am trusting Christ, have believed his gospel, and am in him, having been declared not guilty on the basis of his work alone, then if I drop dead in the next ten minutes, my eternity is secure. There will never come a day when I might die as a believer and hear God say, “O if only you’d stayed alive for a few more years to be a bit more sanctified, then I could have let you in. Sorry!” No! That will not happen!

Those that God justifies will be glorified, whether the believer is a dear saint who has been growing and maturing in Christ for eighty years, or a scalawag thief who is being crucified outside Jerusalem, who only has one desperate plea left and only eight minutes left to live. In Christ they will both have glory; not because of who they are, but because of whose they are!

This chain, like the believer’s life, ends around the throne of the risen lamb who was slain to purchase for God people from every tribe, tongue, nation, and language. This chain is the freeing chain that is anchored to the truth that God is indeed working all things together for our good through his eternal plan of salvation! Herein is hope! Herein is joy! Herein is confidence! Herein is perseverance!

Can this truly be?! Can this chain give us the freedom our hearts truly crave! Yes, a thousand times yes! Through this chain and its invincible power, we who believe this good-news gospel will sing into eternity the words of Charles Wesley:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee!

That is a freedom that never ends! That is a freedom worth singing! That is a freedom that is only found in the person and work of Jesus Christ!

That is a freedom that I want to be bound to and bound by now and forevermore,

Pastor Cade

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