This week we reach the climax of the first eleven chapters of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. For the past year we have been studying, line-by-line and verse-by-verse, the most remarkable theological document ever written. For the past year we have witnessed Paul unfold before us the “mystery” of God’s salvation history. In the opening lines of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, Paul wrote,
1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God– 2 the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3 regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, 4 and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.(Romans 1:1-4 NIV)
Paul said that he was “set apart for the gospel of God,” and then, for the next eleven chapters, he has laid out before us the “gospel”–the Good News of God. He has described for us the predicament that is faced by all Jews and Gentiles–we are sinners without hope apart from God’s grace. He has told us, in Romans 3, that now a righteousness apart from the law has appeared and is made available to us through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul has made it clear to us that a right relationship with God comes by faith and not by “works,” contrary to popular opinion. Paul, in Romans 9-11, has described for us God’s mysterious work which is ongoing in Jew and Gentile alike throughout the world. No, God is not done, He is still working!
When Paul arrives at the end of his description of how God has been working in salvation history he lays down his pen and falls to his knees in adoration and praise. The great Bible teacher, John R.W. Stott puts it much more eloquently than I ever could when he writes,
For eleven chapters Paul has been giving his comprehensive account of the gospel. Step by step he has shown how God has revealed his way of putting sinners right with himself, how Christ died for our sins and was raised for our justification, how we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection, how the Christian life is lived not under the law but in the Spirit, and how God plans to incorporate the fullness of Israel and of the Gentiles into his new community. Paul’s horizons are vast. He takes time and eternity, history and eschatology, justification, sanctification and glorification. Now he stops, out of breath. Analysis and argument must give way to adoration. Before Paul goes on to outline the practical implications of the gospel, he falls down before God and worships. (John Stott, The Message of Romans. Inter-Varsity Press: Downers Grove, IL. 1994. pg. 309)
Paul’s theology turns to praise. The more I have thought about the first eleven chapters of Romans the more I have realized that this is the natural progression for the student of God’s Word. Think about it with me for a minute. The more we study God’s Word the more we learn about God. The more we learn about God the more we marvel at His character and His ways, His salvation, His grace, His mercy, His sovereignty, His omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. The more we learn about God’s holiness and His willingness to reach out and rescue an unholy people like us, the more we marvel at His ways. The less we know about God the less we are inclined to marvel at God and His ways. John R.W. Stott puts it this way.
It is of great importance to note that from Romans 1-11 that theology (our belief about God) and doxology (our worship of God) should never be separated. On the one hand, there can be no doxology without theology. It is not possible to worship an unknown god. All true worship is a response to the self-revelation of God in Christ and Scripture, and arises from our reflection on who he is and what he has done. It was the tremendous truths of Romans 1-11 which provoked Paul’s outburst of praise. The worship of God is evoked, informed and inspired by the vision of God. (John Stott, The Message of Romans. Inter-Varsity Press: Downers Grove, IL. 1994. pg. 311)
Theology and doxology. Two sides of the same coin. One feeds the other. The more we learn, not just simple head knowledge, but a deep, intimate knowledge of the character and ways of our God, the more we will praise Him for who He is, what He has done, and what He continues to do. The more we worship Him, praise Him, and marvel at His matchless ways, the more we want to learn about Him, the more we want to get to know Him. Let’s take a look at our Scripture for today found in Romans 11:33-36.
33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! 34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 11:33-36 NIV)
There are two different ways that we can read the first sentence of verse 33. Let me explain. There are three nouns in this sentence: “riches, wisdom, and knowledge.” Because of this you can read the sentence as, “Oh, the depth of the riches, wisdom, and knowledge of God!” or you can subordinate “riches” and read it as, “Oh, the rich depth of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” Bible teachers are not in agreement about how to read the verse, some read it one way and some another, but the NIV is probably right in highlighting the wisdom and knowledge of God.
How deep is the knowledge and wisdom of our God? Our problem is that we don’t contemplate the wisdom and knowledge of God nearly enough. Because of this we begin to think that God thinks like we think; that whatever it is that we would do in any given circumstance or situation, God would act in the same manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. God has said “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways.” (Isaiah 55:8 NIV)
From the time we are born we are learning. Hopefully we will learn throughout our entire life. There is so much to learn. From learning to speak our first words to taking our first steps. From learning subjects in school like math, history, science, and the arts, and so much more, to learning about life–how to relate to others, how to be responsible and dependable, and how to care for our family and friends. There is so much to learn that we will never learn it all, but the same cannot be said of God. A. W. Tozer has written,
God cannot learn. Could God at any time or in any manner receive into his mind knowledge that he did not possess and had not possessed from eternity, he would be imperfect and less than himself. To think of a God who must sit at the feet of a teacher, even though that teacher be an archangel or a seraph, is to think of someone other than the Most High God, maker of heaven and earth.
God knows instantly and effortlessly all matter and all matters, all mind and every mind, all spirit and all spirits, all being and every being, all creaturehood and all creatures, every plurality and all pluralities, all law and every law, all relations, all causes, all thoughts, all mysteries, all enigmas, all feelings, all desires, every unuttered secret, all thrones and dominions, all personalities, all things visible and invisible in heaven and in earth, motion, space, time, life, death, good, evil, heaven, and hell.
Because God knows all things perfectly, he knows no thing better than any other thing, but all things equally well. He never discovers anything, he is never surprised, never amazed. He never wonders about anything nor (except when drawing men out for their own good) does he seek information or ask questions. (A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God, Their Meaning in the Christian Life. New York, Evanston and London: Harper and Row, 1961, pp. 61, 62.)
He is the transcendent King over all things with perfect knowledge of the vast regions of space unseen and as yet unknown to humanity. He is the imminent Father who knows every minute detail of the intricacies of the sub-atomic world. The latest discoveries in Quantum Mechanics are no news to God. It is a marvelous thing to unlock the “genetic code” as scientists in our day are doing, but it is an altogether different thing to “write” the Code. Humans have mapped the stars, split the atom, and tamed the wild beast, but God hung the stars, spoke the atom into being, and fashioned each wild beast in His tender hands.
God’s knowledge is vast, unsurpassed, unparalleled, and unequaled. God has perfect knowledge. God’s knowledge does not simply pertain to those high and lofty matters of creation and the cosmos, but He has perfect knowledge of you and me as well. The Psalmist said that He knit us together in our mother’s womb. Moses wrote, in Genesis 2, that God breathed into us the breath of life. Paul said, in Acts 17, that “in Him we live and move and have our being.” On our life’s journey, He is the One who sustains us every minute of every day. David wrote, “Surely God is my help; the Lord is the one who sustains me.” (Psalm 54:4 NIV)
As astounding as it is that God possesses perfect knowledge about every subject we’ve discussed there is still an even greater marvel. It is His knowledge of you and me. We live in our own skin, no one knows the thoughts that hover in our minds throughout the day except us, and those we let in on our thoughts, and nobody knows us like we know ourselves. Right? This is truly amazing! God knows you better than you know yourself. He knows me better than I know myself. David wrote,
1 For the director of music. Of David. A psalm. O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. 2 You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. 3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. 4 Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. 5 You hem me in–behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. 7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. (Psalm 139:1-10 NIV)
Just listening to those words and learning about God’s infinite knowledge about us should drop us to our knees in worship and praise.
Paul couples God’s knowledge with His wisdom. Knowledge is the accumulation of information, but wisdom is knowing how to use the information in a way that will be beneficial and a blessing to others. I have known many people who were very knowledgeable, but a fool. Possessing wisdom includes morality and goodness as well as knowledge. If a person possesses knowledge about medical science he or she can use their knowledge to bring comfort and healing to those who are suffering or, as in the case of a doctor that I heard about from Australia just this week, Dr. Philip Nitschke, he can use his medical expertise to help people commit suicide. That is not wisdom. It doesn’t take a doctor to help people commit suicide.
Paul says that God is infinite knowledge and infinitely good in His decisions to use His knowledge to bring about the blessing and benefit of those He loves. Now, we have to remember that Paul was caught up in praising God and marveling at the wonders of God about a very specific subject–salvation history. When you understand the predicament that was, and is, faced by all of humanity and the way that God has dealt with our predicament, you and I can easily see that God has used His infinite knowledge in a way that expresses His infinite wisdom for the blessing of us all. Who would have ever thought that a holy and righteous God would stoop to such a level as to devise a plan, from the foundation of the world, to rescue the very ones He created, gave life, and yet, with all that He had done for them, they willfully walked away from His arms of grace and mercy? Who would have ever thought it? In Romans 11:33, Paul writes,
33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! (Romans 11:33 NIV)
You and I need to understand the word, “judgments.” The Greek word that is translated as “judgments” is the word, “krimata.” It is most often used to describe “judgment” in a legal sense, but it is also used to describe God’s decisions or decrees. The second use is no doubt what Paul intends here in Romans 11:33. Paul says that God’s decisions and His “paths” are beyond tracing out. God’s knowledge and wisdom are put into action as He plans and executes His plans throughout history. The phrase “beyond tracing out” is an interesting phrase for Paul to use and boy does it pack a lot of meaning for you and for me. James Montgomery Boice writes,
This phrase, “tracing out,” is based on the Greek noun which means, “footprint.” It suggests that although we do not know where God is coming from or where he is going, we nevertheless do see his footprints, and it is these that puzzle us. (James Montgomery Boice, Romans, Vol. 3. Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI. 1993. Pg. 1443.)
What has overwhelmed Paul is the fact that God’s decrees, His plans, are so far beyond our capacity to comprehend that we can’t follow them to the end, not with the logical-laboratory-tested-mindset that is so prevalent and predictable today. Some of you may say, “That’s not right. We can know the will of God, we can know what God is doing and what He is going to do just by sticking with His Word.” I continue to be amused and amazed at those in our society who can see world events unfolding before our eyes and immediately jump on the internet to blog or email about what God is doing and what will happen next. For those of you who think that I lack faith I want you to know that I have absolute trust that God knows what He is doing. I also have complete conviction that I don’t know much of anything, and can’t even figure myself out much less God. I will let God be God and trust that His perfect plan is unfolding to this very day and will continue to unfold until the final day.
I’ve taken this position after years of studying God’s Word and seeing in the lives of His people the most extraordinary and unbelievable events unfold. God has worked in people’s lives in ways that boggle the imagination. God promised Abraham a son when he was 75 years old and He delivered on His promise 25 years later. God takes a washed-up has-been who had been wiling away his life for the past 40 years on the backside of a mountain taking care of Jethro’s flocks and He transforms him into the deliverer of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. The sentence I just shared with you took 80 years to live out in the life of Moses! Or how about Joseph? Sold by his own brothers as a slave. He found employment in a foreign land only to be accused of a crime he didn’t commit. One of the men he helped in prison promised to remember him once he was free. Didn’t happen. Two years later he finally gets out of prison and ends up saving the nation, and his own family, who would have starved back in the Promised Land. Or, how about the man who wrote the letter that we’ve been studying for the past year, the Apostle Paul. The archenemy of God’s people after the crucifixion and resurrection, Paul becomes the chief ambassador and missionary for the cause of Christ. I don’t even have to mention to you how puzzled Job was at what God was doing in his life do I? I do have to mention one final illustration of how God’s ways are puzzling to us mere mortals and it is the life of Jesus, God’s own Son. J.I. Packer wrote,
No human life has ever been so completely guided by God, and no human life has ever qualified so comprehensively for the description ‘a man of sorrows.’ Divine guidance set Jesus at a distance from his family and fellow-townsmen, brought him into conflict with all the nation’s leaders, religious and civil, and led finally to betrayal, arrest, and the cross. By every human standard of reckoning, the cross was a waste–the waste of a young life, a prophet’s influence, a leader’s potential. We know the secret of its meaning and achievement only by God’s own statements. (J.I. Packer, Knowing God. Downer’s Grove, Ill. Intervarsity Press, 1973. p. 218)
I could share so many more stories with you, but you have your own story of how God has worked in ways that you could have never traced His hand in the moment. It is only in looking back that we can see His fingerprints so clearly.
When it comes to salvation history what God is doing is no more clear than His work in our everyday lives. We know God’s “means” of salvation–He has given His Son as an atoning sacrifice for sinners so that if we will trust in Him, surrender to Him, then we will be saved. But the “how” of what God is doing in each life, who at the present time does not know Him, we no more know that than anything. I’ve heard some amazing stories of how God finally broke through to hardened, calloused hearts, and replaced them with a heart of passion and love for Him that they never dreamed they would possess. “How unsearchable are His judgments, and His paths beyond tracing out!”
Let’s turn our attention to verse 34. In this verse Paul asks a couple of questions. Questions that are rooted in the Hebrew Bible. Read along with me.
34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” (Romans 11:34 NIV)
Paul has heard that phrase used before. The prophet Isaiah first penned the words long ago when he wrote,
13 Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor? 14 Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge or showed him the path of understanding? (Isaiah 40:13-14 NIV)
Paul uses Isaiah’s words because he is overwhelmed by the contrast of what God knows and what we don’t know. There are limits to what we can know and those limits are broad and deep my friends. If we were to compile all that we have learned, collectively as a people, throughout history, and we were to put all of that information on one side of the scale. All that we know would fly off the scale with such force and velocity the moment God began to place on other side of the scale that which we do not know and will never begin to know. “Who has known the mind of the Lord?”
Throughout our study of Romans we have been reminded again and again that salvation is from God, a gift of God for those who will believe. There is nothing, absolutely nothing that we have contributed to the solution of our sin. We have contributed much to the problem, but we have not contributed anything to the solution. Paul, once again, reminds us by writing.
35 “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 11:33-36 NIV)
“Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” We should like to think that we have lived such noble lives that God took notice of us, was so impressed by us, that He rewarded us for our good behavior. That is not the case. We’ve never done God any favors. In our desperate situation, hopelessly beyond hope, God purposed to come to us, rescue us, and claim us as His very own! Oh the joy for those who will recognize the glory and goodness of our God!
And why has God done all of this? For His glory! When we truly consider who He is, what He has done, and what He continues to do in this wayward world that mocks Him and ridicules Him in every way imaginable–we will fall to our knees with tears of humility and gratitude flowing down our cheeks and praise Him as the King of Glory!
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
July 1, 2014