Romans 5:3-5 “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”
We are confronted with a plain and challenging statement that we Christians also rejoice is our sufferings. You see the context. WE are justified – all of us; WE have peace with God – all of us; all of OUR sins are pardoned – the sins of us all; WE are anticipating the glory of God – all of us, and then this, that WE also rejoice in our sufferings. All of us. This is the characteristic of the Christian, every Christian. In our sufferings there sound out notes of joy and praise, not after we have come through them, but during our sufferings.
Then you know what happens? We feel convicted of our failure to rejoice in tough times, and so we go through the exercise of self-justification, that it is quite rational for you not be to rejoicing these days. We can find excuses, maybe even theological excuses for why we’re failing to rejoice during those winter times. Let’s begin by looking at the common excuses. I do this when dealing personally with discouraged Christians. It is vitally important to do so, so let’s begin by remembering some facts about Christians in trouble.
1. HOW CHRISTIANS MAY NOT RESPOND DURING TESTING TIMES.
[i] We may not blame our temperaments or our past for our failure to rejoice. We may excuse ourselves by saying that our feelings are the inescapable consequences of our circumstances, that we have a particular type of temperament – as our family had before us. To a certain extent it is true that we are all different personalities. A group of Christians is not like a sheet of postage stamps with the identical image of the Queen on each stamp. We’re all different; only the cults cut out – like identical Welsh cakes or cookies – their disciples. But feelings which are a result of upbringing and temperament or our circumstances may not dictate to us. We are not trapped. We are not the slaves of our feelings. There’s the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ; there’s the indwelling Holy Spirit, and every Christian has received as God’s gift that extra dimension of energy to overcome the weakness of our temperament. That enable us to have peace and joy irrespective of our circumstances. The Christian is blessed with having the bigger picture and having the promise that no trial can come to his but what every Christian experiences, and that God will with the trial make a way of escape. We shall be able to bear it. So our lack of rejoicing cannot be blamed on our circumstances or on our personality.
[ii] We may not blame our heavy duties. Paul was writing to the Roman congregation, and it was composed of all kinds of people. Nine out of ten people you’d meet in a Roman street would have been slaves. Therefore, it was very likely that a large percentage of people in this church would have been slaves. They had no rights of their own – in fact they received worse treatment than animals receive in our society. For most of these people life was not a bed of roses but an exceedingly hard life of bondage. It was no excuse for self-pity and depression. Slavery did not provide exemption or give permission to the Christian not to rejoice in his sufferings. Remember the great words he says to them? “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free” (Ephs. 6:5-8).
[iii] The apostle was as demanding on himself as on his readers. In other words, Paul practised what he preached. He didn’t expect just the people in the Roman church to hear these words and apply them to themselves; he also applied them to himself. For years he was in a Roman prison, isolated and awaiting a possible death sentence, but if you look at the book of Acts you’ll see that he was always rejoicing. Listen, “And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, charging the jailer to keep them safely . . . But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:24-25) “What will we sing next Silas?” “What about Psalm 100?” “Good . . . ‘All people that one earth do dwell sing to the Lord with cheerful voice’ and all the prisoners and the governor too – soon to be converted – were listening to the Christian duo. Again in Colossians 1 and verse 24 Paul says, “How I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake”; and in Philippians 4:10 he says, “I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me.”
[iv] In many parts of the Scriptures peace with God and joy in suffering are conjoined in ordinary believers. You find it particularly in the Old Testament. For example, in Genesis 32 :6-7 we see Jacob faced with fear: “And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, ‘We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you and four hundred men with him.’ Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed and he divided the people that were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two companies, thinking, ‘If Esau comes to the one company and destroys it, then the company which is left will escape.’” There was necessary tension and planning as the threat grew near, and that is right. But in the end – as we shall see later – he came to a place of rest and peace in God, where he knew that he was perfectly secure (verses 9-12). Again, David was hounded by Saul and yet he could write words in Psalm 27 that have been the comfort and strength of believers for 3,000 years: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” That is rejoicing in suffering. Again, Job in all his troubles said, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15).
Then in the New Testament Acts we read of Stephen’s sufferings, the sharp rocks thrown with all a man’s strength from two meteres away at Stephen’s head and legs and body and the way in which he triumphed over it: “But he [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). We are told that Stephen’s face was shining like the face of an angel. Again, Peter wrote to the Christians in exile who were suffering: “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy” (I Pet. 1:6-8).
[v] In the history of the church from the time of the early Christians down to the present day we meet the rejoicing of ordinary people suffering persecution. David Llewelyn Jenkins is completing a book on the Cambridge martyrs during Mary’s reign. It is incredibly moving. He sends me his chapters as he writes them, and the latest one is the life of a Richard Yeoman, the curate of Hadleigh. He was in his seventies when he was arrested. A little, unknown man he did not make a single claim to importance of any kind, not a dynamic preacher, or a scholar and or theologian. There is no epic grandeur about his life and in death he was soon forgotten. He loved his wife and his children, but his Saviour most of all. He was burned alive in the Lollards’ Pit in Norwich on 10th of July 1556. His burning was handled badly. The merciful bag of gunpowder was not hung around his neck. He suffered indescribable agonies. No memorials of his life were inscribed; his letters were not preserved. Yet h was someone who rejoiced in the honour of suffering for his Saviour who had suffered for him. He reminds us that Christian freedom is in every particular a spiritual matter. At the sight of the stake and the fire he clung to the certainty of the pure Bible text. He lived a brave, simple and truthful life. It would be difficult to exhaust the significance of his example. He is one of million who have given their lives for the Lord Jesus.
Those people have testified that in all different kinds of circumstances and amidst all sorts of persecutions, including the most horrid deaths, a peace and joy from God has taken hold of them and they could not explain it. There have been others on beds of sickness, or people who have lived in abject poverty, or who yet have had untold bereavements and sorrows, who have been able to rejoice in the living God during those times and those observing have been strengthened and marvelled.
I mention those points so that we do not dismiss this suffering as something which doesn’t apply to us as ordinary members of the Christian church today, or that we think we can excuse our unhappiness in suffering by saying that those were special people – elite people, who were different from us. The examples in Old and New Testament and in the history of the church and in the lives of some we have known personally proves that the common folk in Christ have learned to rejoice in afflictions.
Moreover, our Lord, before he died and, after all, he is our supreme example – expressly tells us that this peace and joy should be ours: “So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22). No one will take your joy from you not one. “I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (v.33). This is normal Christian reality. So whatever the world may do to us, our Lord is saying, in effect, that the peace which he gives must be greater. As Matthew Henry wrote: ‘There is enough in God to furnish us with joy in the worst circumstances on earth.’
Then there is the question how do we rejoice in tribulation? What does our text tell us? In the first two verses of that chapter is the foundation which helps us understand how this rejoicing can come about. “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” In these verses we are reminded of the greatness of what has happened to us through Christ; we have found peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ and we are meant to know that peace daily. Then in verse 3 we are told the great benefits of suffering: “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” What are the precious lessons learned in this chain reaction?
2. SUFFERING PRODUCES ENDURANCE.
We are regularly told to keep an appointment in God’s gymnasium. The Lord has taken the responsibility of becoming is our personal trainer, and he will strengthen those areas of weakness in our lives. How does he do it? Does he wrap up weary arms and legs in cotton wool or order bed rest? No! That would be disastrous. It is by exercising our whole nature so that our attitudes and feelings and affections are strengthened. We are not made perfect in this life but we are renewed daily. Wales has played Australia at rugby nine times in the last few years every time Wales has lost. So the Welsh team was in a gruelling training camp last week starting 6.30 each morning with the first of three daily cryotherapy sessions, that is, spending three minutes in a room where the temperatures plunged down and down to minus 120 degrees centigrade in order to flush out lactic acid and help the muscles quickly responding to keeping going, running and tackling for 80 minutes. Once again Australia won, and so next week the team are back to the cryotherapy. The living God exercises and strengthens the faith of his people
Pressures and trails must come to us as they came to our Lord. We find ourselves struggling, our weakness of faith is exposed; we didn’t realize that we were as fallible and impotent as this. We thought that our faith could cope with anything, but suddenly we find it didn’t. We see ourselves afresh as we must appear to God, tiny specks, helpless worms. We need the grace and strength of Christ to help us. So what do we do? We must appropriate the personal trainer who is our Lord; we must run to his gymnasium go back to hear Bible preaching on Sundays. Again remember Jacob’s response, how he fell on his knees before God and said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who didst say to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good’ . . . Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, lest he come and slay us all . . . But thou didst say, ‘I will do you good, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude’” (Gen. 32:11&12) Jacob went back to the God of the covenant, and he dares to remind God of his promises. And we must go back to the God who met us in Christ. We must genuinely seek to know this only wise God, his holiness, his love for each one of us, his sovereignty, his faithfulness – his whole character – and we learn this from the reading of his word and hearing his word applied to us and to go back to praying. We must remind God of his promises. “Didn’t you say you would never forsake me? Didn’t you promise that all things would work together for my good? Haven’t you said that all grace would always abound to me? We dare to remind the lord of what he has said. Then we must go back to the cross and see God there in Jesus’ suffering our involvement, God was making his own holy Son “to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Christ” (2 Cors. 5:21).
This is faith in action – it is appropriating again our personal trainer, Jesus Christ himself. “Teach me how to deal with these rough passages of life in the light of the cross,” and thus we find the endurance to go on. We meet our Wonderful Counsellor afresh, we get new strength, new grace from him in order to get through because he went through so much more by the same given strength of the same giving God. That is why the apostle says that God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor.12:9). Paul said, “Any growth is not mine: it is through Christ living in me.” This is what it means to know the work of the Holy Spirit within us. The pains we’ve endured have given us greater assurance. We sing, “I shall survive; I shall survive through the strength of Christ. We are stronger, clearer in our knowledge of Christ in a very practical way, and the living Lord is a reality in our lives. This is what James meant when he said, “Blessed is the man who endures trials” (James 1:12); and Peter said that “the trial of your faith much more precious than of gold” (I Pet.1:7). Here is a ton of gold, and here is the trial you are passing through, the health of your baby, of your wife, or your broken heart, but Peter tells us that this trail is far more valuable to you than the ton. Always choose the testing rather than the lolly. So when we have this trial we keep going, and keep trusting God and in the submission and trust we know that we are genuine Christians – not like those who are described in the parable of the sower, the stony ground hearers who flourished for a while and then when they met their first trials they fell by the wayside. For what Christian is there who does not endure his trials?
- ENDURANCE PRODUCES CHARACTER.
This is the next link in the chain One commentator has the interesting opinion that the term ‘character’ is used for a veteran soldier as opposed to a raw recruit. So what’s been happening to us as God has been exercising us by suffering? The experience has given us the character of a battle-scarred veteran who has gone through many campaigns, as opposed to the raw recruit who has not been in any. The veteran has finally taken off his armour while the recruit is trying on his uniform and picking up his rifle. Under fire he has proved in many skirmishes the wisdom of his Captain who has led and protected him in battle; he has gained strength through endurance. We can go back over things in our lives and we know that we’ve had this experience (about which the apostle is speaking here). We’re not just talking theoretically; we know this work of God in our lives, whereby the Holy Spirit within us is daily taking us through trials and temptations so that gradually we become more like Jesus Christ.
It is common knowledge, or we could say common grace knowledge that the experience of suffering matures. A superficial person become sober and wiser through what he has known. This character building can happen in the experience of suffering in people who don’t know God. Jon White was serving with the Royal Marines in Helmand Province in 2010 when he trod on an IED and lost both his legs and an arm. He and Becky his wife in the past four years have built a new house that enables Jon to live independently. His consultancy business is thriving and in an hour long programme on TV, Grand Design, last Wednesday we saw them both and he said that these past years since he lost his three limbs have been the happiest years of his life. If for someone who does not have illimitable access to an indwelling Saviour there is such endurance and character then is there any excuse for us who are partakers of the divine nature to be depressed because things are not working out as they should just now? “Don’t stop dealing with me.”
4. CHARACTER PRODUCES GROWING HOPE.
We are God’s people; he’s dealing with us as sons and daughters. He is teaching us daily to depend on him and to experience his life in us as his children. We can look back and we can know that as God was faithful to us in the past, he’ll be faithful to us in the future. Our experience of the peace of God confirms God’s promises, God’s care and God’s grace. “Help for today and bright hope for tomorrow; Blessings all mine and ten thousand besides” we sing in the hymn “Great is thy faithfulness,” We find we are blessing God for all that happened. We are saying that we can thank God for it all. He’s been disciplining us for our good, and we know the trials have been purposive, that we may share in his holiness. Listen to David’s words of hope – after all the testings of his life, “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” What a future! Listen to Paul’s words of hope; “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:7&8). All the trials he had endured built up the hope of what was lying before him.
“And hope does not disappoint us” Paul says, or ‘does not put us to shame.’ “Here the apostle is using a figure of speech, which is not uncommon in his epistles, and which is know as ‘litotes’. That is a way of asserting a positive by using the negation of its opposite. There is a notable example of this in the first chapter of this Epistle in verse 16 where the apostle says, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ”. What he means is, ‘I am very proud of it. I make my boast of it. It is to me the greatest thing in the whole world’. But he puts it negatively. This is said to be the favourite figure of speech of the English. They do not like positives, they prefer to speak in negatives and understatements! ‘I am not ashamed of . . .’, instead of saying, ‘I am very proud of . . .’” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Exposition of Romans Chapter 5. Assurance, Banner of Truth, 1971, pp. 76&77). There is the heart of Christianity, God the Son nailed naked to a cross, taunted by religious leaders while the execution squad gamble for his cloak. That is what we preach to the world? Surely that is something to be ashamed of or disappointed in? No, it is the love of God for us, not sparing his Son from our judgment that we sinners might be spared.
“The apostle on another occasion said that he was a citizen of ‘no mean city’. What he means is ‘a very great city.’ Sometimes this form of speech adds force to the statement; and we have an instance of this here in, ‘hope doesn’t make us ashamed’. What he really means is that hope far from making us disappointed or ashamed, rather does the exact opposite; it leads to glorying. Thus we are back to what Paul said at the beginning – ‘Not only so, but we glory in tribulations also’. And here he says that that is what hope always does. Hope does not make you feel ashamed. The man who really has got this hope, and who sees it, is a man who is not only going to overcome these trials and tribulations, he is going to boast in them, he is going to glory in them. But here he puts it in this very strong form; not only does it never let you down, it really puts you on your feet. He says it again in the eighth chapter in verse 37, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.” The hope that does not make us ashamed is just another way of saying that we are more than conquerors’. Not only do we endure the trial, not only do we go through with it, but we go further; we are enabled to rejoice and to exult and to glory in it” (op. cit)
Now we have been given a little taste of what God has in store for us eternally. In a very practical way God deals with man and changes him as he begins to teach him the hope of our full salvation by Jesus Christ. In a sense, Paul is reasoning that what God has done on the cross needs to be preached all along the line. He put his Son to death as the sin-bearer, and we put to death remaining sin in us and anything that empowers us to do that is for our lasting good and usefulness. Thus we come to realize and experience the implications of suffering. I am saying that it is not just one experience of God, this is to be a continual relationship in the daily life of every Christian. Paul sums it up when he says if God “spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?’ (Rom. 8:32). If God has given us the highest, which is his Son, if he has given us forgiveness and eternal life, everything else less than that must come from his love and is his gift. Paul says that suffering is God’s gift to his people (Phils. 1:29) – not only to believe but to suffer for him. This is the working out in faith of what has happened to us since our new birth. This is reasonable, rational and intelligent; it fits together, and God thus is bringing his word home to our hearts. Then the apostle goes on to say one final thing.
5. GOD’S LOVE HAS BEEN POURED INTO OUR HEARTS.
“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (v. 5). Paul was not talking here of our love towards God but of his love towards us, a consciousness that the love of God is constantly focused on us, pouring down out of heaven on us. Zion’s floodgates have been opened, the flow is trained on the church world-wide, and here it comes right into our hearts, washing, refreshing and irrigating our lives – the love of God! We are loved by God our heavenly Father. At the very centre of our personalities, in this dispositional complex which the Bible calls our hearts, and then all over our lives, in every nook and cranny, and every day, our wills and our feelings are flooded with the love of God. This is not just our working out of the implications of our faith, it is not the result of a process of training; this is something which is added directly and personally by our Father through the Holy Spirit. It is something supernatural which God himself sovereignly gives us, particularly when we have had to suffer greatly for the gospel. The realization of such love of God lifts us above our circumstances so that amidst them we are filled with a sense of being his, in his loving care, with his joy and peace.
God can give us an assurance so that our hearts are full to overflowing with the consciousness of his love and what he has done for us. I believe that this is what the apostle was talking about. You may say that you have not experienced this, but it may be that you have not been in the same state as Jacob was, that when it came to the test you did not go back to God and say, “Lord, please come and meet me afresh. I need you.” Don’t let God go until he blesses you. The Lord Jesus said he would manifest himself to his disciples and he did so, time and time again. This is an ongoing life and God will deal with you and me as his children. You will be assured that it is God who is dealing with you and changing you, and the consciousness of his love will transcend the troubles that have beset you so that you see them from the standpoint of God. I am not giving this to you in psychological terms, but I am telling you the way that Paul explains it to us, and we have known something of this in our own experience. I think we need to take the fact of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the heart of every Christian very seriously and it may be that we have not done this enough.
We have looked for relief elsewhere; we have tried other ways, but in Christ God blesses us. What we need to do is to face God with his promises as Jacob did and say, ‘Lord, you promised all these blessings to me; please fulfil your promises now.’ So I suggest to you that, in the words of Thomas Goodwin, “Sue him for it.” Plead with God to fulfil his promises, and fill our lives again and again with his love, to make the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as a reality, to stand in front of these promises which are here in this text and say to God, “I cannot do it. You must come and meet me afresh. You must open my eyes to see again the great things that you have done for me.” He may even give you a glimpse into that eternal realm so that the joys of heaven become so great that ‘the things of earth become strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace’. May God help us to realize the truth of the things we claim have happened to us in Jesus Christ. They are as real as God is, and here is the apostle telling us to rejoice in the Lord always even in tribulations. May God help us all to rejoice in our great God, our Saviour Jesus Christ, and in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit even during the winter when grace flourishes best, because the only explanation of the joy we feel is the assurance of his love for us. Then we know once again that the good work that he has begun in us will continue until the day of Jesus Christ.
9th November 2014 GEOFF THOMAS
I had some help in this sermon from fellow Welshman, the late John Glyn-Thomas of St Paul’s Cambridge, from his book Rejoice . . . Always! (Banner of Truth, 1989) especially the sermon on ‘Rejoicing – As a Duty, pp. 26-39).