HOW GOD SAVES SINNERS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
8-1-71 8:15 a.m.
Once in a while I will take a large section of Scripture and preach on it. I rarely do it because there is so much in even a small segment of the message of God that it just consumes what little time we have just speaking in a little piece of it. Usually I will speak from a text; but this morning I am going to expound the first five chapters of the Book of Romans. And the title of the message is, for you who are sharing with us the service on radio, the title of the message is How God Saves Sinners, or, How God Saves Us.
There is a text that the apostle uses in the first chapter of Romans, Romans 1:16, that’s the text of the whole book, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek"; to all mankind, to the Jew and to the Gentile, to all of us. "The gospel of Christ is the power of God unto salvation"; that’s his text.
Just as the Apocalypse has a text, Revelation 1:7, "Behold, He cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see Him"; that’s the text of the whole book. So this is the text of the Book of Romans. He’s going to speak. He’s going to write how people can be saved, how God justifies the sinners, how God can be just, can be righteous, and at the same time make righteous, sinners. So he starts off with the first chapter.
And the first chapter of Romans is a passage that I have never heard read in public. So far as I know it is never read in public. But you read it, and when you read this first chapter in Romans, you will think that Paul is describing modern America. The depravity, the fallen nature of humankind; that’s the first chapter; he describes the abysmal depths of sin and degradation to which the human soul has fallen.
Now, having described fallen human nature in the first chapter, then he begins the second chapter: "Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things" [Romans 2:1]. As we read the first chapter of the Book of Romans, our response is natural, "Why, I never did do that, and I never did do that. And I never did do that, and I’m not a sinner like that." So Paul, having described those things, says that, "But you who say that those people have fallen into that abysmal sin, but I haven’t, you don’t know it," he says, "but you are condemning yourself when you do it because you are guilty of the same thing" [Romans 2:1].
Well, you say, "But I never did murder anybody. I’m not guilty of murder." But Matthew 5:21-22 says that "anger is murder." Have you ever been angry? You say, "But I never have committed adultery." But Matthew 5:28 says "to look with desire is adultery." But you say, "I never have been guilty of pagan heathen idolatry." But Colossians 3:5 says that "covetousness is idolatry." Sin is not so much an act as it is a state; and overt acts are but affirmations and confirmations of our sinful fallen natures. So Paul begins the second chapter, "When you say, They do things like that but I don’t, you condemn yourself because all of us are guilty of these spiritual and carnal iniquities" [Romans 2:1].
You know you learn lots of things when you begin your pastorate, and especially in a little church. Upon a day, there came to me one of the deacons in my little rural church; and he said, "So and so was seen drinking beer, and you must bring him up before the church conference and place charges against him, and have him apologize to the church and ask forgiveness of the church." Well, I was a neophyte. I was just beginning my ministry; and I thought that was a part of what I had to do, was to haul that fellow in and charge him with having been seen in a public place drinking beer.
And that deacon said to me, "If you don’t do that it’s going to be awesome for you." Well, that’s enough incentive to make a young preacher do most anything. We had our church conference on Saturday afternoon. So I got that fellow, and got him up there before the church conference, and I said, "You have been seen drinking beer in public. Now you must apologize to the church and ask forgiveness of the church or be kicked out; we’ll withdraw fellowship from you." So he apologized and asked forgiveness of the church, much to the pleasure of the deacon who had me to do it.
Then as I continued in the pastorate I got acquainted with that deacon. One, he sold his corn to the distillery because they would pay him a little more money for the corn than he could get selling it to a mill. So he sold his corn to the distillery because he got a little more money. Then as time went on he campaigned actively for the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, the Prohibition amendment. Then as time went on, he kept a running feud in the church. He kept it divided all the time. And I found him to be a vile, vicious old man!
Yet he was the one that as a young preacher had me bring that fellow up before the church and say, "You’re going to apologize for drinking beer in public, or we’re going to kick you out, we’re going to withdraw fellowship from you." I had a thousand times rather be pastor of that dear drinking man, than to be pastor of that vicious, and vile, and despicable deacon! I learned something in that pastorate: I never prefer charges against anybody, because they’re all pretty much alike.
I saw that again when I was a little boy, in the church in which I was fetched up, when we had communion, when we had the Lord’s Supper. All the people that were to take the Lord’s Supper were put on this side of the church auditorium, and the middle aisle down the middle separated them. All of those to take communion sit over here on this side, and then all of you who are not worthy to take communion you sit over here on this side. And as a little boy I would look around. And I’d see all the folks on this side who were going to take communion, and then I’d look at all of those that are on this side who were not worthy to take communion, and as a little boy it seemed to me that the best crowd was over there on the side that wasn’t fit to take communion! Isn’t that a strange thing?
The prodigal son was guilty of every carnal sin in the book. He wasted his substance with harlots. He spent and threw away his inheritance [Luke 15:13]. And when he came back home [Luke 15:18-20], we are introduced to the other brother who said, "Never at any time did I break your commandment, my father, I have been a dutiful son all of my life" [Luke 15:29]. Yet he was judgmental, and censorious, and critical, and envious, and jealous! [Luke 15:29-30]. And of the two boys, the prodigal who came back home and the elder brother who didn’t go away and never spent his substance on riotous living, I’d rather be the prodigal than the censorious, judgmental elder brother.
I am just illustrating what Paul says. And he sums it up in two verses in the third chapter that is everlasting true. "There is none righteous, no not one" [Romans 3:10]. And then the other one: "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" [Romans 3:23]. It never behooves me to be censorious, and critical, and condemnatory in my spirit. For when I am, Paul says, I condemn myself, for in condemning others I also am a sinner; all of us alike [Romans 2:1].
Now, Paul next takes in the fourth chapter what we sinners try to do in order to save ourselves; and all of us are alike in this. All of us have a tendency, we have a feeling on the inside of us that what I must do is to make up for these sins in my life. So we try to do good works. And the whole world, and practically the entire theological complexion of the whole world, is just like that. What am I going to do? I’m a sinner and I know it. My own conscience and life accuses me, what am I going to do? I must save myself some way. So we have all kinds of schematic programs to save ourselves; good works, good works.
Well, Paul picks up two illustrations of men who are sinners and who by good works sought to cover their sins. First, he takes Abraham. "What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? Now if Abraham were justified by works" – by doing good he could save himself by works – "he hath whereof to glory" – to boast, "With what I’ve done, I’ve saved myself and I’m in heaven because I’ve done good" – "he hath whereof to glory," if he saved himself by his works, if he were justified by what he did, "but not before God!" [Romans 4:1-2].
Now isn’t that a comment for Paul to make? "Abraham could boast of his good works before men, but not before God" [Romans 4:2]. Why? Because God knew him, and God knew all about him. And the father of the faithful might parade himself before men as being a fine marvelous man; but he couldn’t parade himself before God, because God knew everything in his heart and everything in his life. And even in the Book of Genesis, when we have just a little bit about that man Abraham, look what he did. Down there in the land of Egypt he lied to Pharaoh about Sarah his wife; she was a beautiful woman and he was afraid Pharaoh would kill him in order to get his wife. And he said to his wife, "You tell Pharaoh you are my sister" [Genesis 12:12-13]. And then some years later he did that same thing with Abimelech, the king of Gerar; said to Sarah his wife, "You tell him that I am your brother, and you are my sister"; lied to the King Abimelech [Genesis 20:1-2, 13]. That’s Abraham, Abraham.
But the most impossible of all the things that Abraham ever did, or anybody ever did, was, at the invitation of Sarah his wife, he went in unto Hagar the Egyptian slave in the family [Genesis 16:4]. And the repercussion from that awesome incest has been seen, and will be to the end of time; for out of that conjugal relationship came Ishmael and the Arab world [Genesis 16:15]; and then later by promise, from Sarah, Isaac and the Jewish world [Genesis 21:1-3]. And those two worlds have been in conflict ever since. All of that arose out of Abraham, Abraham. "What shall we say then about Abraham, as pertaining to the flesh? If he did good works, he might parade them before men, but not before God," because God knew him [Romans 4:1-2]. That’s the first illustration.
Then his second illustration is David; the man after God’s own heart, David [1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22]. And David cried before God and said, "If Thou desirest sacrifice then will I give it; but Thou delightest not in burnt offerings" [Psalm 51:16]; there’s not anything that I can do to cover over my sin. That’s the same cry as we hear from the prophet Micah:
Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the High God. Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
How does a man get rid of his sin? Take his child, and offer his child as a sacrifice? "The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul" [Micah 6:7]; good works? Shall I be baptized? Shall I give money? Can I buy it? What shall I do that I might cover the sin in my life?
Now we come to the fifth chapter of the Book of Romans. And here Paul presents God’s way of saving sinners, saving us. First, he presents God’s reaction to our sin. And in the twelfth verse, in the seventeenth verse, and in the nineteenth verse, he speaks of that judgment. "For as by one man sin entered the world, sin entered the world, and death by sin" [Romans 5:12]. Now he says the same thing in verse seventeen: "As by one man’s offense death reigned by one" [Romans 5:17]. And in the nineteenth verse: "For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners" [Romans 5:19]. What is God’s response to human sin? He uses the illustration of Adam, "In the day that thou eatest thereof thou that surely, surely, surely die" [Genesis 2:17; Romans 5:12]. In the day that you sin, thou shalt surely, surely, surely, die.
That day, Adam died in his soul, in his spirit; he is a fallen man. And in the day of the Lord, a thousand years is as a day [2 Peter 3:8], in the day of the Lord, his body died. Isn’t it a strange thing that not one of those ancients ever lived beyond that day of the Lord? Adam died when he was nine hundred thirty years of age [Genesis 5:5]. Methuselah, the oldest man, died when he was nine hundred sixty-nine years of age [Genesis 5:27]. "In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" [Genesis 2:17]. That’s God’s response to human sin.
"He saw the ground cursed for his sake, and there grew up the thorn and the thistle [Genesis 3:17-18]. He saw the animals turn carnivorous for his sake." God never made animals to eat one another. God never intended for animals to be vicious. In the eleventh chapter of the Book of Isaiah, in the millennium when it comes, the lion will eat straw like an ox [Isaiah 11:7]. But Adam saw the animals turn carnivorous. He saw beginning to form and to breed, centipedes, and rattlesnakes, and that bestiality that eats and attacks and destroys. He saw that.
"In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" [Genesis 2:17]. And he saw his own son Abel lying in his own blood, encrimsoning the ground. And for the first time, a mound was raised in the earth; and his own boy lay beneath it [Genesis 4:8-10]. And he saw his eldest son cursed, and a mark, the mark of Cain, placed on his forehead [Genesis 4:11-15]. And he saw the world filled with violence. "In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely, surely die" [Genesis 2:17]. This is God’s response to human sin. All of us are under the judgment of the Almighty, all of us. All of us face death, all of us. There’s none righteous to escape it, not one. All of us are alike [Romans 3:10].
Then the gospel of mercy, and of hope, and of salvation; when God drove the man out of the garden of Eden, on the east side He placed cherubim, that is, symbols of mercy and forgiveness and love [Genesis 3:24]. And they guarded the way of the tree of life; they kept it safe for us. And when Abel came before God, there at the east of Eden, he has been taught to bring a blood sacrifice, the firstling of the flock, a lamb; and he offered it before God in expiation and atonement [Genesis 4:4]. And the whole sacrificial system of the Old Testament was to teach us the nomenclature of heaven; what it is God meant when He said, "an altar."
What is an altar? What it meant when God said, "a sacrifice"; what is a sacrifice? What God meant when He speaks of atonement, and of reconciliation, and of expiation, and of propitiation, the covering over of sin. The whole sacrificial system was to teach us the nomenclature of heaven. "For when we were yet without strength, in due time" [Romans 5:6] – after we had been taught by the types of the tabernacle, and of the temple, and of the altar, and of the sacrifice, and of the mercy seat, and of the blood of atonement, after we had been taught the language of heaven – "In due time, Christ came and died for the ungodly, for us. For scarcely for a righteous man would one die; but peradventure for a good man some would offer to die. But God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by His blood" – our sins covered over, forgiven in the blood of the Lamb – "we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved now by His intercessory life in heaven [Romans 5:6-10]. How God saves sinners; not by our good works, but by the love and mercy of God in Christ Jesus [Ephesians 2:4-9].
Even as Abraham, he believed God [Genesis 15:6]. He trusted in God. He cast himself upon the mercies of God. I shall be whiter than snow [Psalm 51:7]. Cast himself upon the mercies of God and just trusted God to forgive his sin and to save his soul. And that is the gospel, the good news.
Can’t buy it, don’t have money enough to buy it. Can’t be saved by being good, for we could never be good enough to merit it. But it’s by grace, unmerited favor, it’s a gift of God. "For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is a gift of God; Not of works, lest any man should boast," saying, I did it [Ephesians 2:8-9]. He did it. "Unto Him who loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood . . . to Him be glory and honor and dominion forever and ever" [Revelation 1:5-6]. He did it. He did it.
Could my tears forever flow,
Could my zeal no languor know?
These for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone:
In my hand no price I bring.
Simply to Thy cross I cling.
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin a double cure,
One, saved from wrath; two, and make me pure.
[adapted from "Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me," Augustus M. Toplady, 1776]
That’s what it is to be a Christian. I seek forgiveness and salvation and deliverance in the atoning grace of Christ. He died for me, in my stead [1 Corinthians 15:3; 2 Corinthians 5:2]. And I am saved by trusting, believing in Him [Acts 16:31].
And the rest of our lives we sing about Him, and tell others about Him, and adore Him, and love Him, and worship Him, and serve Him, and ask Him to come into our hearts and our homes and our lives, and to bless the work under His hands and ours. The rest of our lives then is to be one of praise, and thanksgiving, and adoration. He did it for us. It is a gift from His nail pierced hands. We are saved by the blood of the Crucified One [Ephesians 1:7, Romans 5:9]. That’s what it is to be a Christian, and that’s what it is to be saved. I receive from God, I take it as a gift, and I’m coming. Would you this morning?
In a moment we shall sing our hymn of appeal, and while we sing the song, you giving your heart to the Lord Jesus, "Here I come, I make that decision now, and here I come." Today, this moment, right now, in the balcony round, you, a visitor here, you, on this lower floor, somebody you, "I’m taking the Lord as my Savior today, and here I come." Will you? Will you? Maybe a family you, if God calls, answer today. A couple, or just you, prayerfully, earnestly, as unto God, make the decision now in your heart, and in a moment when we stand up to sing, into that aisle or down one of these stairways and to the front, "Here, pastor, I give you my hand. I give my heart to God." Do it today. Do it now. Come now, while we stand and while we sing.