And here is love:
Romans 8:35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
I am not here to try to define for you what each of these circumstances means. I am 43 years old who lives in the Bible Belt of the United States and have been a believer for a quarter of my life. Because of God’s goodness and sovereignty, He determined when I lived and where I lived1. So my life experiences and the full range of possible circumstances are so different compared to someone living in China or Sudan or someone who had lived 50 years ago or even 50,000 years ago that I cannot possibly sit here and define what each of these things means because they might say something different to you.
And you know what, the author Paul didn’t get bogged down in those definitions either. The Apostle Paul, who went from arresting and executing Christians because they were Christians to becoming a man being called by God to be an apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jewish) and oh yes, write a few books for the Bible. But because of his faith and his fervency for doing what the Lord Jesus Christ told him (and you and me) to do, Paul was stoned (and left for dead), arrested, imprisoned, shipwrecked (consequently bitten by a snake), under house arrest and finally beheaded at the execution of the Roman government.
So tribulation and distress and persecution and famine and nakedness and danger and sword look very different to him than it does to you or me. And yet just the same as Paul, we are all commissioned by Christ to go and proclaim the gospel to the end of the earth. And because we Christians do believe in God and trust in God, and proclaim His gospel, we might experience tribulation and distress—not exactly like him for most of us but distress just the same.
But I can tell you one thing: nothing of those things matter—not in the sheer comparison of the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Now, the Lord’s love is strong and powerful and mighty and tender and never-ending and continuously gracious and kind and slow to anger. But we might hear these words, and because of the past hurt and trauma and broken hearts, we tend to think maybe that the Lord’s love is strong, but it is not infinitely strong. Each of us can be fooled into thinking that while the Lord’s love is tender, he might not care about what I went through because I have been hurt too bad and he didn’t stop it from happening. We might hear the Lord’s love is never-ending but why is it when I go my own way and do my own thing, God seems to be so far away from me. Or even better yet, when I did everything that God asked me to do, bad stuff keeps happening to me.
I am here to advise and encourage you saints to live by faith in the Son of God who loved us, gave up his life for us, and more importantly, saved by God the Father who does not lose his children. I don’t care what happens, God the Perfect Father in heaven is not in the business of losing his kids.
John 10:25–30 Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
There are two distinctions: the unbeliever and the believer. The unbeliever does not believe because they do not follow Christ. “Well,” you might say, “if they could believe later on, would they then belong to Him?” Paul goes on to say in Romans 10:
Romans 10:8–17 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
Hence, the importance of proclaiming the gospel so that they might believe and confess.
But ah, the believer who does confess Jesus Christ is Lord and lives accordingly? That person belongs to Christ, and God marked by the seal of the Holy Spirit forever and ever.
You might say, “What about the ones who said the sinner’s prayer when they were younger and went to church all of their lives but yet, fell away from the faith.” No matter how the world so badly wants to make all the religions the same, we cannot make the same mistake of lumping Christianity in with Judaism or Islam or Buddhism. You can be a non-practicing Jew. You can be a non-practicing Muslim or Buddhist. But according to the Biblical tenants of the Christian faith, there is no such thing as a non-practicing Christian. You cannot. The two words “non-practicing” and “Christian” are contradictory of terms. You either or. Or you are not. There is no in-between. There is no neutral ground when it comes to proclaiming Christ as your own.
Let me contend one possibility: is it possible that even though they experienced God but their hearts was not changed by God. It happened to Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel had the power of God to not only know what Nebuchadnezzar’s dream but actually interpret it. Nebuchadnezzar has a falling out acknowledging logically who God is but then immediately and blasphemously erects a golden statue to be worshipped.2 “But I saw them speak in tongues and give prophecies and cast out demons.” The author of Hebrews states that one can taste the power of the Holy Spirit and yet fall away from God.3 We know this to be true because Christ himself declared those who would defend themselves by the works they did in his name as “workers of lawlessness” and they would not even enter the kingdom of God.
And I cannot begin to judge the heart for only God can see and judge the heart.
But those of you are reading these words: you see your heart, at least in part. You would know your thoughts if you took a moment to be completely honest with yourself if you are not honest with anybody else.
What if you and I just took one minute to dwell and thought through would my heart looked and what kind of thoughts went through my head if there were some technology that put it on display to the world. That’s a frightening concept, isn’t it? And some of you, upon thinking this, stop examining your heart and mind because it was too scary—there was too much wickedness and pain and torment.
God has this power of seeing our hearts4. And God is real. And God continually sees your heart and mind. He cannot stop knowing your heart, and he cannot stop paying attention to your heart. God only actively knows our hearts, not passively. To do otherwise makes Him not God because He is all-knowing. He is omniscient.
What’s your heart reaction? What’s your feeling about what I just said?
There will be some who disbelieve: you might wall up, go invulnerable, and try to shield your heart away from these hard truths. You might have contempt for these words here and give a thousand excuses trying in a feeble attempt to suppress your knowledge of the just and holy God—just as the Bible said you would do4. Yet, there is a cure for your hard heart, and it is not doing better, or start going to church or start reading the Bible or not cheat on your taxes or not scream at your spouse. It is putting your faith and trust in Jesus Christ. Trusting Him and trusting his words which are the Bible5.
There will be some who do believe but who might have doubt about God: You might say things “I believe in God, but some of the things I read are hard to believe.” My friend, you might be in good company. Let us look at what Peter says about the writings of Paul in 2 Peter 3:
Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.6
Peter even says that Scripture is hard to understand, so the leader of the Apostles of Christ gets what you are saying. But the solution is not to dismiss the word of God and not ever to engage with the Scriptures again nor should we “make it up” as we go along but rather do as the Apostle Peter instructs us, “grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” How do we do that? Start by praying to God because when you believed, God the Father has given you the Holy Spirit, who is God himself, of whom Jesus said, “will bring to remembrance of everything I have said.”7 and of whom Paul said, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.”8
And there are some of you who feel your faith is so little. You even know the words of Jesus when he keeps telling his disciples “Oh, ye of little faith.” But do you not know that even the saints with the tiniest faiths can move a mountain, see people healed and saved and made whole. For you see, it is not size nor depth nor quantity of the faith that you possess but rather the object of your faith that is Christ Jesus, who alone is mighty to save. Nineteenth-century Baptist pastor, Charles Spurgeon once said, “The gulf between the unbeliever and the ones with the smallest faith is abysmally infinite. However, there is no gap between the ones with the smallest faith and the arms and the heart of the loving Savior.” See how Christ did not correct nor rebuked the father who cried out, “I believe! Help my unbelief!”. Christ only responded in love and healed his son.9
Now, to all the children of God-to those with any amount of faith will do: God has captured your hearts! The Triune God-—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—now dwells in you. Because of this, you are now able to walk in his statutes and obey his commands. Now, because of everything Christ has done from the sovereign grace of the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit, you get to go out and proclaim the amazingly good news that there is the God who loves mightily and is the only ones to save you from your sins and torment. Christians, we get to live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself up for us.
And it is to you, the saints living right now who Jesus adamantly proclaims that you are greater than John the Baptist10 because you believe and know these things:
One, you know that you were born a sinner and your sins abound.
Two, you trust in the work of Jesus upon that cross and His resurrection from the grave.
Three, because you trust Christ, your sins are forgiven. Why? His grace abounds all the more.
Listen here: and God didn’t lose any of the saints in the Bible. He did not lose any of this kids. And you are the not the exception no matter how much suffering we experience. God promises we will suffer for his namesake, but that suffering will not compare to the glory that will be revealed to us. Tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword can do its worst. My friends, during our worst times, we might fall to the temptation of giving up or even deny Christ. Perhaps even three times:
John 18:15–18 Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in. The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.
John 18:25–27 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, “You also are not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” One of the servants of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Peter again denied it, and at once a rooster crowed.
To deny Christ is a sin. Christ said it himself: Matthew 10:32–33 So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.
How do we reconcile this?
There are some who give up once and fall away until their last breath. It can be confirmed then that they only tasted the power of the Holy Spirit as a religious or emotional conversion and nothing more.11
Alongside of all the testimonies of the martyrs of our faith, we must also read the accounts of those Christians who, under the heaviest persecution, buckled, gave in, denied Christ to save their lives or the life of someone they love. But what the world would count as a failure, their hearts grieved, kept their faith in God and turn back to the community they once loved.
We reconcile this by Christ alone. Peter denies Christ three times. How does Christ respond? By confirming Peter three times:
John 21:15–19 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”
Remember when I talked about how tribulation and distress and persecution might look different to one Christian and another? A teenage girl questions Peter and he buckled like a belt to save his own skin.
Yet, Christ is more gracious than our own lack of faith. Christ is more love then when we cannot see past our own circumstances. Christ is more powerful than our weakest moments.
There was a very recent time in my own life that I suffered abuse at the hands of someone claimed to love me. And when that person was no longer in my life, instead of praising God for peace, I instead turned to my own ways and purposefully and intentionally went headlong into sin—giving up God, community, calling and my life. How did God respond? He sent three people after me to speak the truth of God’s amazing love. And with each conversation, I began to once again wholly trust God, repent of all of my sins, and started immediately becoming obedient to His voice.
If you think for one moment that it would be far more loving of God to allow me to bury myself into the depths of sin, then repent of your wrong thinking. That is not love and that is not who God is for God is love.
Instead, know that God sees the heart and welcomes only those who come humbly and lowly back to him. We know this because God is love.