Romans 7 and 8
There is nothing so hard for our hearts as to abide in the sense of grace, to continue practically conscious that “we are not under law, but under grace.” It is by grace that the heart is “established”; but then there is nothing more difficult for us really to comprehend than the fulness of grace— that “grace of God wherein we stand,” and to walk in the power and consciousness of it.
It is only in the presence of God that we can know it, and there it is our privilege to be. The moment we get away from the presence of God, there will always be certain workings of our own thoughts within us; and our own thoughts can never reach up to the thoughts of God about us, to the “grace of God.”
It is quite impossible for us to draw any right conclusion about grace, until we are settled on the great foundation of grace—God’s gift of Jesus. No reasoning of our own hearts could ever reach up to “the grace of God,” for the very simple reason, that in order to be such it must flow directly and freely from God. What I had any, the smallest possible, right to expect, could not be pure, free grace—could not be this “grace of God.”
But then, even after we have “tasted that the Lord is gracious,” it is quite natural for our own thoughts to work as soon as we leave the presence of God; and the moment they do so, whether it be about our sins, or about our graces, or anything else that we are occupied with, we lose the sense of grace, and can no longer reckon upon it.
This getting out of God’s presence is the source of all our weakness as saints, for in God’s strength we can do anything: “if God be for us, who can be against us?” The consciousness of His realised presence with us makes us “more than conquerors.” Whether our thoughts be about ourselves, or about circumstances around us, everything then becomes easy. But it is alone, when in communion with Him, that we are able thus to measure everything according to grace.
Are our thoughts about ourselves? When in the presence of God we rest on His grace, nothing can trouble us. “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?” “Who is he that condemneth?” “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” But the moment that we get out of God’s presence, we cannot any longer rest on His grace as when in communion with Him.
Again, are they respecting the condition of things around? He may have sorrow of spirit on this account, as conscious of the evil, misery, and ruin in which everything is (as Jesus, He “groaned in spirit, and was troubled”). But it is impossible, when we are abiding in the sense of God’s presence, for anything, be it what it may, even the state of the church, to shake us; for we count on God, and then all things become but a sphere and scene for the operation of His grace.
Nature never counts upon God’s grace; it may count upon God’s mercy in passing by sin, but only because it imagines either that He is indifferent about it (attributing to Him its own low estimate of sin), or that He has no right to judge it. Grace, when understood by the soul, is seen to be the very opposite of this—to be founded on a just sense of the tremendous evil of sin, on the part of God. And when we have learnt in our measure to take God’s estimate of sin, we are filled with amazement at that grace of God which can blot it all out—which has given His own Son to die because of it. What the natural man understands by mercy is not this—God’s blotting out sin by the bloodshedding of Jesus, but His passing by sin with indifference. This is not grace.
When the conscience becomes awakened, and there are thoughts of responsibility, without the apprehension of grace, the first thing it seeks to do is to put itself under the law; it cannot do otherwise. And the natural man even often does this; he knows of no other way of pleasing God than obedience to the law; and this, being ignorant both of God and himself, he thinks he can render.
But the having very simple thoughts of grace is the true source of our strength as Christians; and the abiding in the sense of grace in the presence of God is all the secret of holiness, peace, and quietness of spirit. There are two things which may hinder our peace of spirit, and which, being frequently confounded and mixed up together, create a difficulty in the minds of the saints: Firstly, a troubled state of conscience respecting acceptance and salvation; Secondly, a groaning of spirit, similar to that mentioned by Paul in Romans 8:23, because of circumstances around which distress and try us. But these are quite distinct. The trouble and exercise of spirit which the saint may and indeed will have, whilst living in this world, because of circumstances around, is altogether an opposite thing to that trouble of conscience which is respecting pardon of sin.
Where there is that trouble of conscience, love is not in exercise, but self is the centre. But when the trouble is because of the state of things around us, the contrary is the case. How deep the trouble of soul of the Lord Jesus! but it flowed from love and from a perfect sense of what the grace of God was. When grace is fully, that is, simply known— when we are resting upon God as being for us, and know that He is love, there can be no mistake between these two causes of disquiet; but if we do not understand what grace is, we shall be apt immediately to confound them.
If there be in us any anxiety of conscience as to our acceptance, we may be quite sure that we are not thoroughly established in grace. It is true there may be the sense of sin in one who is established, but this is a very different thing from distress of conscience as to acceptance. Want of peace may be caused by either of two things; my never having been fully brought to trust in grace, or my having through carelessness lost the sense of grace, which is easily done. The grace of God is so unlimited, so full, so perfect, that, if we get for a moment out of the presence of God, we cannot have the true consciousness of it—we have no strength to apprehend it; and if we attempt to know it out of His presence, we shall only turn it to licentiousness.
If we look at the simple fact of what grace is, it has no limit, no bounds. Be we what we may (and we cannot be worse than we are), in spite of all that, what God is towards us is love\ Neither our joy nor our peace is dependent on what we are to God, but on what He is to us, and this is grace.
Grace supposes all the sin and evil that is in us, and is the blessed revelation that through Jesus all this sin and evil have been put away. A single sin is more horrible to God than a thousand sins—nay, than all the sins in the world—are to us; and yet, with the fullest consciousness of what we are, all that God is pleased to be towards us is love! It is vain to look to any extent of evil: a person may be (speaking after the manner of man) a great sinner, or a little sinner; but this is not the question at all: grace has reference to what God is, and not to what we are, except indeed that the very greatness of our sins does but magnify the extent of the grace of God. At the same time, we must remember that the object and necessary effect of grace is to bring our souls into communion with God, to sanctify us, by bringing the soul to know God and to love Him. Therefore the knowledge of grace is the true source of sanctification.
If grace then be what God is toward me, and has nothing at all to do with what I am, the moment I begin to think about myself as though God would judge me because of my sins, it is evident that I am not then consciously standing in grace. The heart naturally has these thoughts; and indeed it is also one of the effects of being awakened, for the conscience then begins directly to reason about what God thinks of it; but this is not grace. The soul that turns back upon itself to learn God’s judgment about it, and what His dealings with it are likely to be, is not leaning upon what God is—is not standing in grace.
I have said that there are two things which, though quite distinct, are nevertheless frequently confounded in the minds of the saints—a bad conscience, and the groaning of the spiritual man because of evil around. The moment we get a little away from the sense of grace, we shall be in danger of confusing these together. Suppose for instance that I, as a saint, am sensible of the terrible weight of evil which is all around me, and groan about it, soon (unless it be guarded against) this will mix itself up with trouble of conscience; I shall lose the sense of God’s love and put myself under law. But a saint may “groan” thus without at all losing the consciousness of love, nay, for the very reason that he has it.
When the Lord Jesus “groaned in himself” and wept at the grave of Lazarus, His deep sense of the sorrow which sin had brought into the world did not affect that of His Father’s love. We find Him using at the same time the language of the fullest confidence in that love— “Father, I know that thou hearest me always.” And so a Christian may be sorrowful, but should not on that account feel as though God were not love, or lose the sense of His grace. Love to others combined with a spiritual perception of evil will cause us very much sorrow. Jesus felt this infinitely more than we can ever do, because the power of love in His heart made Him so-much more deeply sensible of the dreadful weight of evil which was pressing on the hearts of others. He felt the miseries around Him in proportion as He knew the blessedness and love of the Father’s presence.
We have “suffering,” “groaning,” etc., spoken of in Romans 8. Paul groaned within himself from the consciousness of infirmity, from distress, trials, etc.; but this raised no question in his mind about the certainty of God’s grace— quite the contrary. The more conscious we are that the Spirit dwells in us, the more we shall “groan.” The more certain we are of blessing, the more we realise grace; the more we know of God’s love, and the effects of that love, the more shall we “groan” at all that is at present around us; but not as though these things brought the smallest cloud over divine favour.
Paul is spoken of as groaning in spirit, and why? He realised the result of the grace in which he stood. Through the power of faith being made conscious of the blessings which are his, he groans within himself after them; but never as if there were the slightest doubt respecting his salvation. Delivered he is from all uncertainty as to the fulness, the freeness, of divine favour towards him; and in the consciousness of this he groans within himself, “waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.”
The end of chapter 7 describes quite another sort of groaning, though, as before remarked, the two are often confounded together; because, as sin is still dwelling in us (in our flesh), those who are not really established in grace do not discern the difference between them. The whole chapter is full of what people call experience; not of that which is (properly speaking) Christian experience, but of the thoughts of the mind within and about itself. The state described is that of a person, quickened indeed, but whose whole set of reasonings centres in himself. I could not venture to say how many times he says “I,” and “me”: the whole chapter is full of it.
Observe the difference of expression in verse 14: “We know that the law is spiritual”; all Christians know that; but then does he say, We know that we are carnal, sold under sin? No, “I am carnal, sold under sin.” He turns back immediately to self and to the judgment, which, being quickened, he had formed of himself by his own experience, as under the law, and begins to reason about what he is before God, and not about what God is towards him; and the consequence is that he exclaims, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” So it is with us; directly we begin to reason about ourselves, we can only say, “O wretched man that I am!” what shall I do? I hate sin, I wish to please God, I confess that the law is good; but the more that I see it is so, the worse it is for me— the more miserable I am!
Is there a word of grace in all this? No, not a word. When he brings in Christ at the close, then he is able to thank God: “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” This chapter is full of a great deal of truth, in the experience of the individual mentioned; but it is truth stopping short of grace, of the simple fact that, whatever be his state, let him be as bad as he may, “God is love,” and only love towards him. Instead of looking at God, it is all “I,” “I,” “I.” In verse 15, six times over does he speak of himself, his own thoughts; and though some of these were spiritual, yet it is, “What I hate, that do I,” “When I would do good, evil is present with me!”
All this may be very profitable experience to bring us to the conviction of our utter hopelessness in ourselves. Still let us put it in its right place, and remember that it is not, properly speaking, Christian experience; but that it only describes the feelings of a soul that has not yet fully and experimentally known the simple fact, that “when we were without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly”; or else that of one who, through the workings of the flesh, has slipped back to looking at himself, and at what he is, instead of looking at God—at grace:
Faith produces many effects in our hearts always suitable to the object at which it looks. If for instance faith looks at the law, it sees its spirituality far more clearly than nature can; and then, seeing the flesh too in its real vileness, if it looks no farther, but judges of itself according to this spirituality of the law, the effect must be to bring us under condemnation of it (I mean of course as to our feeling)—under the consciousness of guilt and weakness. We shall hate, and seek to separate from evil; but that will be all; it will leave us crying out, “O wretched man that I am!” With increased light there will only be increased misery.
But if faith looks at God as He has revealed Himself in grace, it judges accordingly. It never then reasons upon the fruit produced, it rests in the revelation God has given of Himself—grace. The fruits of grace are to be looked for of course; for if there be life in us, the “fruit of the Spirit” will be manifested. The saint, for instance, knows that “peace” has been “made through the blood of the cross.” The effect is, that love flows forth. He feels that he is called unto blessing, and therefore has his feet “shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace”; drinking into his own soul the love of God, he becomes as a river of love flowing forth to others; John 7:38. But though these fruits are produced, faith never reasons on its own fruits; it can alone rest in the revelation God has given of Himself as “the God of all grace.” This is its own and only proper sphere.
The natural heart ever reasons about itself, and in a Christian it is always judging by fruits. This must necessarily bring disquiet, instead of peace. In itself it can see nothing but sin; and as to any fruit I have even been enabled to bear, this is so mixed with imperfection that it can only a be subject for judgment (though it be the Father’s judgment)—it cannot give me peace. That can only be found in what Jesus has wrought, in “the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”
What then is the position in chapter 7? First of all the apostle establishes the great principle that the believer is “dead to the law.” Then he describes the workings of a quickened soul, which, knowing that the “law is spiritual,” still feels “under the law,” and is therefore compelled to exclaim, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”
Whom is he thinking of in all this? Himself. Now, dear friends, let me ask you, Am I, or is my state the object of faith? No, surely not! Faith never makes what is in my heart its object, but God’s revelation of Himself in grace. If we stop half way, and see nothing but the law, it will just discover to us our condemnation, and prove us to be “without strength.” If God allows us to know enough of the law and of the experience described in this chapter to shew us what is our true state, that is just where grace meets us.
It is not that the conflict here spoken of will not continue: grace could not be known at all where conflict is not known; the unconverted only are without it. But that which will not continue when grace is fully known is that bitterness of spirit in which, while the conflict is going on, the person judges himself, seeing the law to be “spiritual,” but himself “carnal, sold under sin.” The love of God is not realised as his own, and therefore this causes him to cry out, “O wretched man that I am!”
It is quite clear that, while there is this experience felt, there is not simple faith in God’s grace; there is not a clear view of what God is towards me in Christ; for when the soul apprehends that, when the faculties of the new man are exercised on their proper object, there is perfect rest. And though there is still conflict, yet the soul is at peace: “the battle is not ours, but the Lord’s.”
But how am I to know what is God’s mind towards me? Is it by judging of it from what I find in myself? Surely not! Supposing that I even found good in myself, if I expected God to look at me on that account, would it be grace? There may be a measure of truth in this kind of reasoning; for, if there be life in my soul, fruit will be apparent; but this is not to give me peace any more than the evil that is in me is to hinder my having peace. That too is true reasoning where the apostle says, “the law is spiritual, but I am carnal”; “O wretched man that I am!” but there is nothing of grace in it.
But does the certainty of grace take us out of all trouble? No; I am not at all denying the fact that there is, and while we are in a sinful body that there ever must be, conflict going on between the flesh and the Spirit. But then to have this conflict going on in the conscious certainty that God is for me, because I am “under grace,” is a very different thing from having it in the fear that He is against me, because I am “under law.”
If in evil I see myself (and this I always shall whilst here, in the root, even if it be not manifested in its fruit), and if I think that God will be against me because of it, I shall have no strength for conflict, but be utterly cast down, groaning as to my acceptance. But if certain that God is for me, the consciousness of this will give me courage and victory, nay, even enable me to say, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts, and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” In the confidence of the love and grace of God I can ask Him to search out all my evil—what I otherwise dare not do, lest it should overwhelm me with despair. God is my friend—for me, against my own evil.
The apostle speaks (chap. 8) of the “carnal mind” being “enmity against God”; but then God in the gift of Jesus has brought out this blessed truth, that when man was at enmity against God, God was love towards man: our enmity was met by His love. The triumph of grace was seen in this, that when man’s enmity had cast out Jesus from the earth, God’s love brought in salvation by that very act—came in to atone for the sin of those who had rejected Him. In the view of the fullest development of man’s sin faith sees the fullest manifestation of God’s grace. Where does faith see the greatest depth of man’s sin and hatred of God? In the cross; and at the same glance it sees the greatest extent of God’s triumphant love and mercy to man. The spear of the centurion which pierced the side of Jesus only brought out that which spoke of love and mercy.
The apostle then goes on to shew that those once at enmity with God are now become His heirs; and that the knowledge of this is founded on the knowledge of grace: “Ye have not received the spirit of bondage again,” etc. Grace first makes us children of God, and then gives us the knowledge of it, and that we are heirs of God.
But what is the extent of this grace towards us? It has given us the same portion that the Lord Jesus has. “We are heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.” It is not only certain that grace has visited us, has found us when we were “in our sins,” but it is also certain that it has set us where Christ is; that we are identified with the Lord Jesus in all but His essential glory as God. The soul is placed thus in the consciousness of God’s perfect love, and therefore, as it is said in chapter 5, “we joy in God.”
I have got away from grace if I have the slightest doubt or hesitation about God’s love. I shall then be saying, I am unhappy, because I am not what I should like to be. But, dear friends, this is not the question: the real question is, whether God is what we should like Him to be, whether Jesus is all we could wish. If the consciousness of what we are, of what we find in ourselves, has any other effect than, while it humbles us, to increase our adoration of what God is, we are off the ground of pure grace. The immediate effect of such consciousness should be to make our hearts reach out to God and to His grace as abounding over it all.
But while grace thus gives us perfect peace in our souls, it does not save us from sorrow. Even as the Lord Jesus so perfectly entered into the sorrow and groaning around Him when here, and was therefore a “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief”; so in his measure ought to saint to take up the sense of the weight of evil that is in the world, and thus become a man of sorrows also. Just as we abide in grace, shall we have in proportion a sense of the weight of evil that is all around, and groan in sympathy with a groaning and travailing creation; and not only so, but being ourselves in the body, we shall “groan” likewise “within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of the body.”
But is there any uncertainty as to our salvation in this groaning? No, quite the contrary; it is the very certainty that “all things are ours” which makes us “groan.” Having the certainty and foretaste of glory everything here is made the more painful by contrast. That which the saint is entitled to is so very different from all that is actually around him, that the more he knows of the joy of dwelling in the presence of God, the larger understanding he has of God’s love and grace; the more he realises the blessedness of his portion in that glory to which he is predestinated, the more will he “groan”!
How different this from the groaning of an uneasy conscience! Let us not mistake, dear friends; let us not confound the two: this groaning of one perfectly free from the sense of condemnation described in chapter 8, and the groaning of conscience, the “O wretched man that I am!” of chapter 7. Carelessness of walk, and through it losing the sense of grace, may indeed expose him who has once consciously stood in the power of redemption to the fiery darts of the wicked one. But this is not, as before remarked, true Christian experience. When the heart is made full with the rich blessings of Christ, it will not turn back to gnaw upon itself.
It is our privilege as saints to know that “there is now no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus”; that “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.” But we must not stop simply here. There must be the going on to know what we are as sons of God, heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ, the Spirit bearing witness to us of it. God “hath established us in Christ,” “hath anointed us,” and “given us the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts.” Having thus the fullest knowledge that God has thought about us in love, and predestinated us to be conformed to the image of Jesus, and to share His glory, understanding what His love is now about in His dealings with us, and not being yet in the glory but still in the body, and in the midst of evil and groaning all around, we shall therefore groan. “Ourselves also, which have the first-fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.” The very reason of our groaning is because of our having the first-fruits of the Spirit, not at all because of a bad conscience; it is the Spirit of Christ groaning in us.
And then this groaning is always accompanied by confidence in God. As with Jesus, when “he groaned in the spirit and was troubled” at the grave of Lazarus, He said, “I know that thou hearest me always”; so is it given to the saint to have the like confidence (see 1 John 5:14, 15). Nor should this confidence even fail, when we “know not what to pray for as we ought,” for it is added, “but we know that all things work together for good,” etc. I may see evil in myself—in another saint—in the church, and seek to pray about it, but yet not have sufficient intelligence to know what would remedy it; the Spirit will help my infirmity, and groan within me. God does not regard my ignorance, but answers according to “the mind of the Spirit,” who always “maketh intercession for the saints according to God.” I ought to be so confident of God’s directing “all things, as to be able to say, I am certain all things work together for good. Is a soul in this state? Come what may—trouble, sorrow, disappointment, grief, whatever it be—all is peace, for it is resting upon God, and not (as in chap. 7) looking at itself.
Our very griefs then flow from the knowledge of God’s immense love, and from the consciousness of all that belongs to us in Christ. Jesus fully knew, as none other, what the presence of God, what the enjoyment of His favour, was, and “groaned,” because, coming from the presence of God, He found man out of it. The life which I now have identifies me, not with responsibility as “under the law,” but with Christ, who has borne the judgment of a broken law for me. Instead of being wretched and miserable because looking at myself as under law, I enjoy the consciousness of redemption, rest in grace, and “rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” But the moment we get a glimpse of the glory of Christ as ours, this world becomes to us a scene of misery and bondage.
This groaning on account of evil always associates itself with love. If for instance I see a saint sin, it leads me at once to the love and grace he is sinning against. It is the consciousness of divine favour which I have towards that saint which makes me anxious about him; and while I grieve at his sin, I have joy in God in the midst of my sorrow.
Well, beloved friends, if these things be so, if this be the place in which grace sets us, let me ask, Is it so with you? If God be pure love—nothing else than love to us; if there be no mixed feelings in Him, then if you have not full joy, if there is any hesitation in your souls as to your standing before Him, you cannot be simply resting in His grace.
Is there distrust and distress in your minds? See if it be not because you are still saying “I,” “I,” and losing sight of God’s grace. You may indeed have faith, but you want simplicity of heart in looking at God’s grace. It is better to be thinking of what God is than of what we are. This looking at ourselves is at the bottom really pride—a want of the thorough consciousness that we are good for nothing. Till we see this we never look quite away from self to God. Sometimes perhaps the looking at our evil may be a partial instrument in teaching us it; but still even this is not all that is needed. In looking to Christ it is our privilege to forget ourselves. True humility does not so much consist in thinking badly of ourselves as in not thinking of ourselves at all. I am too bad to be worth thinking about. What I want is, to forget myself and to look at God who is indeed worth all my thoughts. Is there need of being humbled about ourselves? We may be quite sure that will do it.
Beloved, if we can say (as in chap. 7) that “in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing,” we have thought quite long enough about ourselves. Let us then think about Him who thought about us with “thoughts of good and not of evil” long before we had thought of ourselves at all. Let us see what His thoughts of grace about us are, and take up the words of faith, “If God be for us, who can be against us?”