The Power of a Promise.

To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. – Galatians 3:15-18 ESV

As a former Pharisee, Paul had a scholarly understanding of the Old Testament. But it was after his conversion, when he had received the indwelling Holy Spirit, that Paul truly began to understand that the Old Testament was a foreshadowing of the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. Post-conversion, his comprehension of the Scriptures was both magnified and clarified. Familiar passages took on a whole new meaning when he was able to view them through the lens of the gospel. In the case of Genesis 13:15 and 17:8, where Moses records God’s covenant to Abraham, Paul exegetes these all-too-familiar passages by revealing that through them, God had been promising the coming of Christ. He was the “seed” or “offspring” through whom all the nations would be blessed. God’s promise to Abraham would ultimately be fulfilled through Jesus. But what is Paul’s point in bringing this new understanding of God’s promise to light? He was attempting to answer the argument that the Mosaic law, which came after the giving of God had made His covenant with Abraham, somehow superseded or supplanted it.

On the contrary, Paul argues, God had made a binding covenant with Abraham and his “offspring.” That God-ordained covenant could not be nullified or broken. It was a unilateral covenant, made by God and could only be annulled by God. But Paul stresses that at no point did God revoke or replace the covenant, even when He had given Moses the law some 430 years later. In fact, Paul points out, the inheritance tied to the promise of God could be received only through the promise of God. It was not accessible any other way, especially not through the keeping of the law. And the inheritance of which Paul speaks is tied directly to the idea of justification by faith. This was the crux of the problem taking place among the Galatian believers. They were being told that their justification was tied to the keeping of the law, most specifically to God’s command regarding circumcision. In other words, they were being sold a bill of goods that promised them a right standing before God through law-keeping and self-effort, not faith in Christ alone.

Paul wrote to the Colossian believers:

May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. – Colossians 1:11-14 ESV

He prayed for the Ephesians…

that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints – Ephesians 1:17-18 ESV

For Paul, the promise of God made to Abraham and fulfilled in Christ, was all about the wonderful reality of a restored relationship with Him, available to both Jews and Gentiles. And this incredible gift was only available through faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ, His Son. It could not be attained through self-effort. Paul went on to tell the Ephesian believers that he wanted them to understand…

…what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places… – Ephesians 1:19-20 ESV

Our salvation, justification, sanctification and glorification are all tied to the work of Christ on our behalf. Our righteousness comes from Christ. Our right standing before God is as a result of His shed blood. Our future inheritance is tied His sacrificial death on the cross. All that we are and all that we hope to have is based on the finished work of Christ. And for that we have much to be grateful.

None of this negates the necessity of obedience to God in our lives. Faith and works are not an either/or proposition. For Paul, it was a matter of order or priority. Faith comes first. But true saving faith is always followed by good works. Works are the fruit of faith. Works cannot provide justification, but they can certainly prove it. As Paul told the believers in Ephesus, “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10 ESV). Paul speaks of the inheritance made possible through the promise. That is directly tied to our justification with God. We have been made right with Him and enjoy a restored relationship with Him. Not only that, we are His sons and daughters, His heirs. Paul wrote to the believers in Rome: “This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring” (Romans 9:8 ESV). Just a few verses later in his letter to the Galatian believers, Paul reminds them, “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:29 ESV).

Our privileged position as children and heirs of God is a direct result of the promise of God. And it was made available to us by the Son of God. When we place our faith in His saving work done on our behalf, rather than on our own attempts to earn God’s favor, we are made right with God and stand before Him as righteous. Not because of anything we have done, but because of what Christ has done for us.

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A Remnant.

And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved,  for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.”  And as Isaiah predicted, “If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah.” – Romans 9:27-29 ESV

All mankind is deserving of God’s righteous judgment. From His holy perspective, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10 ESV). All are guilty of rebellion against Him and of breaking His holy commands. At no point in the history of mankind has there lived a man or woman who deserved God’s mercy or grace. No one has ever been able to live up to His righteous standards or fulfill His laws perfectly and completely. Abraham was not even a worshiper of God when he was called by God. Noah, while a good man who knew and worshiped God, was far from sinless. And yet God chose to spare him. Moses was a murderer, but God, in His sovereign will, chose Moses to deliver His people from captivity. And the very people Moses was chosen to set free from their captivity had long ago abandoned the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and were guilty of worshiping the gods of Egypt. But God chose to deliver them anyway. All throughout the history of the nation of Israel, we see God choosing to bless some and reject others. He rejected Saul as king of Israel because of his disobedience. He chose David and anointed him to be Saul’s replacement. David, while a man after God’s own heart, was far from perfect. He would end up allowing his passions to lead him to commit adultery, resulting in an illegitimate pregnancy and his attempt to cover it up resulting in the murder of the woman’s husband. But God graciously forgave David and continued to bless his reign.

The nation of Israel would prove to be unfaithful to God over and over again. Their disobedience and that of their king, Solomon, the son of David, would result in the split of the kingdom. Their continued rebellion would force God to send the northern nation of Israel into captivity at the hands of the Assyrians. Years later, the southern nation of Judah would suffer the same fate at the hands of the Babylonians. God had warned both nations to return to Him. He had sent His prophets to call the people back to Him or face His righteous wrath. They refused and God, in His justice, punished them for their rebellion. And yet, in spite of their sin, God chose to spare a remnant. While the entire nation of Israel had been God’s chosen people, they ended up split in two. The northern tribes would be exiled and never return to the land. The southern tribes would only see a small portion of their descendants return to Judah and Jerusalem. The prophet Isaiah predicted what would happen.

In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. For though your people Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return. Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness. For the Lord God of hosts will make a full end, as decreed, in the midst of all the earth. – Isaiah 10:20-23 ESV

God had fulfilled His promise to Abraham and had made his descendants as numerous as the sand of the sea. But only a remnant would return. Not all of them would enjoy God’s grace and mercy. The Greek word Paul used is hypoleimma and it means “a remainder, a few.” The Hebrew word used by Isaiah is shĕ’ar and it means “residue, remainder.” Out of all the nation of Israel, only a handful were allowed to return to the land and enjoy God’s restoration of them as His people. Quoting from Isaiah, Paul writes, “If the Lord of Heaven’s Armies had not spared a few of our children, we would have been wiped out like Sodom, destroyed like Gomorrah” (Romans 9:29 NLT).

So what is Paul’s point in all of this? That unless God chooses to show mercy on some, none will ever experience it. All of Israel deserved to experience God’s full wrath and destructive powers, just as much as the people of Sodom and Gomorrah had. The people of Israel were no less guilty of sin and worthy of God’s wrath than the pagan and immoral people of those two wicked cities. This all goes back to Paul’s attempt to explain that no one, including God’s chosen people, the Jews, was worthy of receiving God’s mercy. God calls and men must respond. When God got ready to send the people of Israel back to Jerusalem from their captivity in Babylon, not everybody chose to return. Many had become comfortable in their new surroundings. They had acclimated themselves to living in Babylon. Only a relative handful returned.

Not all men will be saved. Not everyone will respond to God’s gracious offer of salvation made possible through faith in His Son. Compared to the mass of mankind who have ever lived, the number of those who place their faith in Christ will be a remnant, a few. And none of us who enjoy a right relationship with God because of our faith in Christ can ever brag about our position or boast in our righteous standing. Paul told the believers in Ephesus, “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it” (Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT). He said the same thing to Timothy. “For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time—to show us his grace through Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:9 NLT).

God saved us. We didn’t save ourselves. He chose us. We didn’t choose Him. According to Romans 8:30, He called us, He justified us, and one day He is going to glorify us. We are part of God’s remnant, the redeemed. We didn’t do anything to deserve His grace and mercy. We can’t brag about our position as His children. He adopted us. He made us His sons and daughters. He has declared us His heirs. All as a result of His grace and mercy made possible through the priceless gift of His Son.

Future-Focused Faith.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? – Romans 8:31-35 ESV

There is no longer any condemnation hanging over the heads of those who are in Christ. We now live according to the law of the Spirit, not the law of sin and death. As a result, we are free to say no to sin and walk according to the Spirit, in newness of life. We our now sons and daughters of God, who have an inheritance awaiting us in heaven. And speaking of heaven, we have our future glorification awaiting us, which makes any suffering we go through in this life pale in comparison. So, Paul asks, “What then shall we say to these things?” What should be our response to these marvelous truths? If God is the one who called us, justified us and will one day glorify us, what do we have to fear? If He refused to spare His own Son, but sent Him to die on the cross in our place, why would we ever think He would abandon us or turn His back on us. We must constantly remind ourselves that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ESV). We didn’t earn God’s love and we cannot behave our way out of it. We can’t lose it or have it taken away from us. Our circumstances, no matter how bad, are never an indication that God has fallen out of love with us. God has already justified us, declared us as righteous before Him, because of what Christ has done, not because of anything we have or have not done. So if someone brings a charge against us, God’s response will always be, “They’re righteous!” If anyone attempts to condemn us, God will simply respond, “Their debt has been paid!”

And the most amazing aspect of what Paul is trying to teach us is that nothing and no one can ever separate us from the love of God. No one can do anything to diminish or negate the love that Christ showed us by dying on the cross for us. There is nothing we will ever go through in this life that will ever diminish God’s love for us. And we should never let anything that happens in this life cause us to doubt God’s love for us. Paul asks the rhetorical question, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” The New Living Translation puts verse 35 in words we can understand: “Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?” When we view our lives from a temporal perspective, we run the risk of misinterpreting God’s actions and involvement in our lives, which can lead us down the path of doubting His love for us. “After all,” we surmise, “if God really loved me, He would not have let this happen to me.” But if we keep out faith future-focused, and recognize that God’s will for our lives culminates on our future glorification, we will realize that His love for us is unstoppable. Present problems are no match for future-focused faith. Which is exactly what Paul meant when he wrote, “That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18 NLT).

Paul said, “I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us” (Philippians 3:14 NLT). He lived his life with the attitude, “I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me” (Philippians 3:12 NLT). So should we. Jesus died so that we might be saved, but also that we might be glorified. That is the culmination of God’s glorious plan for us. We should not spend out lives seeking to experience our best life now, but with our eyes set on the future reward that God has promised for us. God’s best is yet to come. And any pain and suffering we experience in this life only enhances the glory of what is waiting for us in the future. God loved us enough to send His Son to die for us. And one day He is sending His Son back to get us. His work is not yet done. God’s plan is not yet complete. Our glorification has not yet happened. But it will.