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By John Piper — 5 months ago
What is Look at the Book?
You look at a Bible text on the screen. You listen to John Piper. You watch his pen “draw out” meaning. You see for yourself whether the meaning is really there. And (we pray!) all that God is for you in Christ explodes with faith, and joy, and love.
By Dustin Benge — 5 months ago
In an age when so many pastoral failures, missteps, and sins are posted for public exhibition, it’s easy to allow our warmth toward the church to grow cold. Through a scrutinizing lens, many scowl at the church with suspicion and sheer amazement that anyone would want to be part of such a seemingly dysfunctional family. Sometimes, the church can seem to be anything but beautiful.
Does Jesus look at the church with the same scowl?
‘You Are Beautiful’
John Gill, an eighteenth-century English Baptist pastor, helps us answer this question by drawing our attention away from our introspection to the words of the bridegroom in Song of Solomon 1:15: “You are beautiful, my love; behold, you are beautiful.” Interpreting Song of Solomon as an allegorical portrayal of an exchange between Christ and his bride, the church, Gill writes, “These are the words of Christ, commending the beauty of the church, expressing his great affection for her; of her fairness and beauty” (An Exposition of the Book of Solomon’s Song, 57). Jesus sees his bride through a lens of love, not disdain; beauty, not disgust.
“Jesus sees his bride through a lens of love, not disdain; beauty, not disgust.”
How can beautiful be the adjective Jesus uses to describe the church? After all, she’s composed of sinners — forgiven sinners, yet still sinners. She’s plagued by division, is besieged with scandal, and sometimes appears to have lost her first love. Even the apostle Paul reminds us that only at the end of the age will she be found “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Ephesians 5:27). What does Jesus see in his bride that would cause him to exclaim, “You are beautiful, my love”?
1. The Beauty of His Father
God’s beauty is most radiantly displayed through the biblical concept of glory. Moses experienced this glory when God passed by him, revealing only the afterglow of his splendor (Exodus 33:12–23). When God’s glory engulfed the temple, the priests were unable to perform their service of worship (2 Chronicles 5:14). The prophet Isaiah was prostrate in the dirt when he witnessed God’s glory radiating from his eternal throne (Isaiah 6:1–5). Jonathan Edwards, eighteenth-century pastor-theologian, identified God’s beauty as the differentiating feature of God himself: “God is God, and is distinguished from all other beings, and exalted above ’em, chiefly by his divine beauty, which is infinitely diverse from all other beauty” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2:298). God’s beauty isn’t derived from external sources but emanates directly from the perfection and holiness of his being.
The supreme expression of God’s beauty is his Son, Jesus Christ, who himself is the image and radiance of his Father (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3). The incarnate Christ is how God most vividly expresses his beautiful love to sinful creatures. The culmination of that love is selecting a bride for Christ that she too might reflect the same beauty. Edwards believed that this bride, the church,
is the great end of all the great things that have been done from the beginning of the world; it was that the Son of God might obtain his chosen spouse that the world was created . . . and that he came into the world . . . and when this end shall be fully obtained, the world will come to an end. (Unpublished sermon on Revelation 22:16–17)
The church is a gift from God to his Son as a beautiful expression of divine love “so that the mutual joys between this bride and bridegroom are the end of creation” (Works, 13:374). Therefore, as the Son reflects his Father, the church, as his eternal bride, reflects the Son.
When Christ regards his bride and exclaims that she is beautiful, he beholds the reflection of his Father’s everlasting beauty and infinite love, who chose and saves this bride and gives her as a gift to his Son. Since Christ’s ascension to the right hand of God, there is now no more brilliant exemplification of God’s perfect beauty in the world than his church.
2. The Sufficiency of His Cross
Jesus doesn’t see any intrinsic beauty emitted by the church, for she has no beauty apart from him. He looks at the church through blood, his blood. As if looking through the varied luminous colors of a stained-glass window, Jesus beholds the church through the multifaceted wonder of redemption — blood, election, righteousness, forgiveness, regeneration, justification, union, and grace. Only in union with his perfect substitutionary sacrifice on the cross and glorious triumphant resurrection are filthy sinners washed white as snow (Psalm 51:7). Because of our sin, what God requires of us is paid in full by our bridegroom on the cross.
“Because of our union with Christ, God’s love of his Son now includes love of his Son’s bride.”
With all of its flowing blood, lacerated flesh, and stench of death, the cross becomes the epicenter of cleansing for sinners, where Christ looks lovingly upon his darling bride and declares, “My love, you are beautiful.” Reflecting on the sufficiency of the cross, Edwards writes, “Christ loves the elect with so great and strong a love, they are so near to him, that God looks upon them as it were as parts of him” (Works, 14:403). Because of our union with Christ, God’s love of his Son now includes love of his Son’s bride. When Christ exclaims that his bride is beautiful, he does so through the lens of the sufficiency of his cross and makes the church the sole recipient of the love that ceaselessly flows between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
3. The Fulfillment of His Mission
The New Testament is unmistakably clear that God has commissioned his church as the principal agency for heralding the gospel of Christ. This commission in Matthew 28:18–20 stands as the summit of the church’s mission for all subsequent generations. Beginning in Jerusalem, the disciples understood this assignment with vital urgency and launched the beautiful good news of Christ into all the earth (Acts 1:8). No church has the freedom to tamper with, tweak, add to, or subtract from the good news of Jesus Christ — we are called to herald it to the nations, for there is nothing more beautiful and lovely in the sight of Christ than the Holy Spirit regenerating, calling, and transferring sinners from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.
All evangelistic and missionary endeavors are fueled by the assurance that Christ is enthroned as the head of his church and has promised to ransom men and women from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:8–9).
This assurance fueled the Genevan Reformer John Calvin to write to the king when evangelistic efforts were harshly suppressed in his homeland of France:
Our doctrine must tower unvanquished above all the glory and above all the might of the world, for it is not of us, but of the living God and his Christ whom the Father has appointed to “rule from sea to sea, and from the rivers even to the ends of the earth (Psalm 72:8).” (Prefatory address to Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Calvin reminds the church that the gospel “is not of us,” but originates from God. Entrusting his church with the task of heralding the gospel, God has chosen her to be an honored vessel to house and disseminate his glorious treasure (2 Corinthians 4:7). When Christ beholds the church, he sees the voice, hands, feet, and heart of the gospel message in rescuing sinners.
The Bride Is Welcome
Jesus doesn’t lament the church he has rescued or look for another to capture his attention. Christ welcomes the church as his beautiful treasure and joy. The church isn’t just about organization, leadership, function, and vision. Jesus sees more. His gaze reveals the beauty of our Father, the sufficiency of his cross, and the fulfillment of his mission in the world. He sees sinners being rescued, redeemed, and renewed.
The bride is now waiting and watching for our bridegroom’s appearance, when he will bid us “Welcome” for all eternity to bask in the glory of his eternal presence (2 Timothy 4:8). Until then, Jesus bids us to join him in gazing upon his bride and exclaiming of her, “Behold, you are beautiful!” (Song of Solomon 1:15).
By John Piper — 8 months ago
We end the week, Pastor John, with a topic that dawned on me recently. Not long ago, I was editing a powerful sermon clip taken from your sermon series on Romans 7:14–25, applying what it means to be a Christian who lives with disordered desires. It was a sermon clip sent to us from a woman in Greece who struggled for years with an eating disorder and who chose to open up and tell others about her sin only after having heard your pastoral conclusion to sermon five.
It’s an amazing clip and a powerful listener testimony that we published about a month ago as APJ 1751. But when I researched that clip and set it up for the podcast, I noticed we’ve never entered into the debate over Romans 7 here on the podcast. Is this the struggle of Christian Paul or pre-Christian Saul? Several times here, you’ve said it’s a believer’s struggle (like in APJ 802, 1183, 1438) and then built from this stated conclusion. But you’ve never defended that position in APJ, and I’d love to hear you do so. How would you frame the disagreement? And why do you land on the side of Romans 7 describing the believer’s struggle?
The disagreement about Romans 7:14–25 is whether Paul is describing some dimension of his Christian experience — or whether he’s describing his pre-Christian experience of defeat as he tried to keep the law, and he’s describing it now from his perspective as a Christian. Now, my view is that Romans 7:14–25 is a description of the kind of experiences Paul often had as a Christian, and that we often have. And I say often had because I don’t want to give the impression that those verses describe the totality of Christian experience.
Now, this disagreement is among really good friends, right? You and I can name really good friends that just don’t see eye to eye on this, and I love those brothers. I don’t consider this disagreement as a ground for any kind of breaking of a relationship or a fellowship.
Framing the Disagreement
The disagreement exists because, on the one hand, Paul says, “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being” (Romans 7:22), and he says, “I myself serve the law of God with my mind” (Romans 7:25) — which is hard to imagine as a description of pre-Christian Paul. That’s my opinion. It’s very hard to imagine that.
On the other hand, he says, “I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (Romans 7:14), or, “I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15), and so on. My disagreeing brother would ask, Would a Christian say that? Would the Christian Paul describe himself that way — “sold under sin”?
So, there’s the problem, and I’m going to give nine reasons for thinking these are Paul’s description of his present experience from time to time, though not his total Christian experience.
1. ‘I’ in the Present Tense
The most natural way to understand Paul’s use of the first person I and the present tense is that he’s talking about himself and part of his life now as a believer. He uses I or me or my about forty times in this text, and he explains his situation in the present tense all the way through.
“I am of flesh,” “what I am doing I do not understand,” “I do the very thing I do not want,” and so on — present tense. On the face of it, then, it looks like he’s describing his present Christian experience. So, for the average person like me, it’s going to take a lot to say, “No, that’s not what is happening.”
2. Law in the Inner Being
Paul speaks about the law of God in this passage in a way that sounds like the way a Christian believer would talk about it — not the way an unregenerate Jewish man would talk about it. “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being” (Romans 7:22). Now, it’s this phrase “in the inner man” that sounds so much like the way Paul talks as a Christian about the Christian’s real inner self. I don’t think Paul would have said this about his pre-Christian self.
3. Inconsistent with His Past
The description of Romans 7 of Paul as a divided and sometimes tormented man in relation to the law doesn’t fit with the way he describes his experience before he was a Christian.
In his pre-Christian days, he is anything but a man who is torn because of any perceived failures to live up to the law of God. In Galatians 1 and Philippians 3, he describes himself as having undivided zeal for the law. So the Romans 7 Paul doesn’t fit with the way he described his pre-Christian experience.
4. More Than Fallen Flesh
I think Paul talks about himself in Romans 7 in a way that only a Christian could — a person with faith and with the Holy Spirit.
“In Paul’s view, the pre-Christian person is only flesh. Only a Christian is more than fallen flesh.”
For example, he says in Romans 7:18, “I know that nothing good dwells in me” — and then he qualifies it — “that is, in my flesh.” Now, if Paul is here giving a Christian assessment of his pre-Christian experience, then why does he add to the statement “nothing good dwells in me” the qualifier “that is, in my flesh”?
I think, in Paul’s view, the pre-Christian person is only flesh. Only a Christian is more than fallen flesh. He has the Holy Spirit, and that’s why Paul has to say that qualifier: “that is, in my flesh.” There is a good thing in me — namely, the Holy Spirit. So he’s not talking about the pre-Christian Paul, I think.
5. Parallel to Galatians 5
In Galatians 5:17, Paul uses language very close to Romans 7, but everyone agrees that in Galatians, it’s a description of Christian experience.
He says in Galatians 5:17, “The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other” — and now comes the phrase that sounds just like Romans 7, almost the same language — “to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” This is a description of the inner conflict of the Christian, and the language is so similar to Romans 7 — “I do what I don’t want to do; I don’t do what I want to do” — that I conclude Romans 7 is also Christian experience like Galatians 5.
6. Temporarily Enslaved To Sin
My sixth argument is an answer to the strongest argument against my view — at least that’s what some say it is. In Romans 7:14, Paul says, “I am of the flesh, sold under sin.” And my friends would say, “Would Paul really say, Piper, of a Christian that he is sold under sin?” The imagery is of being sold as a slave. Can a Christian ever say, “I am sold under the slave master of sin”? After all, Romans 6:18 says, “Having been set free from sin, [you] have become slaves of righteousness.”
Now, my response is that I don’t think Paul is saying the Christian lives under sin as a normal way of life — continually dominated and defeated by sin — but that in the moment of failure, sin gets the upper hand like a slave master temporarily getting control of a person who’s not really his. I think this because both in Romans 6:12 and Galatians 5:1 Paul warns Christians precisely not to submit again to the reign, or to the yoke, of slavery.
It’s a real possibility that Christians can see themselves as temporarily sold under sins. I don’t think that is a decisive counterargument.
7. Unbelievers Don’t Cry for Freedom
This is a response to the objection from Romans 7:24. Can a real Christian cry out, “Who will set me free from the body of this death?” To which my response is, Can a real Christian not cry out, “Who will set me free from this body of death”?
“The unbeliever does not cry out for release. He doesn’t. He is at home in it. This is a Christian cry.”
The body is not only diseased and dying and groaning, according to Romans 8, but it is also the staging ground for many evil desires, Paul says. It is regularly the base of operations for sin. The unbeliever does not cry out for release from this. He doesn’t. He is at home in it. This is a Christian cry.
8. Free from Captivity, Not Warfare
My eighth argument is the way others use Romans 8:2 — this is, I think, very powerful. It says, “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” Now, some say that this is a clear declaration that the warfare of Romans 7 is over because the phrase law of sin in 8:2 is used in Romans 7:23. The person in verse 23 is made “a captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” But now, in Romans 8:2, we are free from the law of sin and death.
So, people conclude the person in 7:23 cannot be a Christian because the Christian is Romans 8:2, and he’s free from that. But I think, in view of all we’ve seen and in view of the exhortations in Romans 6, that to say we are now in Christ set free from the law of sin does not at all preclude the reality that from time to time the law of sin does indeed get the upper hand and must be repented of and renounced.
There is a freedom from it, but not an absolute freedom from its influence, which we can defeat with warfare in the Spirit.
9. Anticlimax in Romans 7:25
Romans 7 seems to reach its climax in verse 25, the first half of the verse. It goes like this: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” In other words, who’s going to deliver me from this horrible situation that I’ve been describing in these verses in Romans 7? Answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
This is often taken to mean that after all the failure of verses 14–25, Paul now arrives at a point of triumph and transition. He is moving from the defeated pre-Christian experience of Romans 7 to the triumphant Christian experience of Romans 8. But if that’s the way Paul is thinking, the second half of verse 25 is a colossal embarrassment and a stumbling block.
Verse 25 closes like this, which doesn’t at all fit this understanding of a big transition from Romans 7 to 8, with the fulcrum being the first half of verse 25. Just when this view expects a triumphant statement about how the divided man is finally united in victory and beyond conflict and entirely under the sway of the Spirit, what do you get in the second half of verse 25?
You get just what you would expect to get if Romans 7 is really about the frequent Christian experience of conflict and struggle. You get a summary statement of the struggling and divided life. It goes like this: “So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Romans 7:25). What an anticlimax if the intention is to say that there’s this decisive break between chapters 7 and 8.
So, for these nine reasons, I think we should read Romans 7:14–25 as the description, not of the totality of Christian experience, but of the kind of discouragements and conflicts and defeats we often encounter as we do battle with sin.