Regardless of our backgrounds, God’s desire is the same for all believers: to make us more like His Son, Jesus Christ. In discussing an oft-quoted passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Alistair Begg considers the purpose, process, and promises of God in fulfilling His work in a believer’s life. While our life’s journey may be winding and uncertain, we can trust that God will finish what He has started.
Now, we’re going to look at three separate passages of the Bible this morning, beginning, as I say, in Romans chapter 8, and before we even read from there, let’s just pause again and ask for God’s help.
Our gracious God, we pause simply to acknowledge that we are entirely dependent upon you for everything we do. Indeed, we cannot do anything as we ought without your help. We pray now that you will conduct that divine dialogue whereby the Spirit of God takes the Word of God home to our hearts and minds in a way that transcends any human endeavor, so that beyond the voice of a mere man we find ourselves being encountered by you, the living God, through these ancient words about which we’ve just been singing. Accomplish, then, your purposes we pray, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, let’s read just a couple of verses from Romans chapter 8, beginning in verse 28. And Paul writes, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified.”
We began yesterday morning by paying attention to what the Bible has to say concerning what it means to be placed “in Christ,” to become a Christian. And when we read the Bible and we put all of its elements together, we discover that in that great transaction of grace a number of things are happening simultaneously. We are, as we read the Bible we discover, being adopted into God’s family We are, in other language, being reconciled to God through the work of his Son, Jesus. Or, in the words of the metaphor of the judicial system, we are being justified by faith and through grace and declared at peace with God. We are also, in the words in the metaphor of the slave market, being redeemed and set free from our sins. All of this and more is wrapped up in the wonder of what it means to be a Christian. And when we think along these lines we realize that it is something truly magnificent—that God has begun a good work in us, as Paul says, that he promises to bring to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
And some of us may well recall the anecdote involving the earnest and godly bishop—Bishop Westcott, I think it was, who was a professor of Greek as well as a bishop—and he enters a compartment on a train to be encountered by a young Salvation Army girl. And the young Salvation Army girl, seeing the bishop all in his gear ready to go and conduct services somewhere, decides that nobody who’s dressed up in all this clobber could ever possibly understand the gospel, and so she endeavors to encounter the man, and in a moment of silence she said to him, “Excuse me, sir: is you saved?” And the bishop looked at her and he said, “Young lady, do you mean have I been saved, am I being saved, or will I be saved?” Now, we don’t have the response of the Salvation Army girl to those questions, but they were the right questions. Because when you read the Bible you discover that there are tenses, if you like, to salvation; that in Christ I have been saved from sin’s penalty, that “the terrors of the law and of God,” in the words of Toplady, “with me can have nothing to do.” Why? Because I have been saved from sin’s penalty. It is also equally true to say that I am being saved from sin’s power, and it is also true to say that one day I will be saved from sin’s presence.
Now, it is in light of that that I want to think with you this morning about the thesis, if you like, for the week: that it is the purpose of God to conform us to the image of his Son. And that’s why we began in these verses in Romans chapter 8. If there is a good work that God has begun which he promises to bring to completion at the day of Jesus Christ, and if that work is the work of salvation in all of its multifaceted dimensions, would it be possible for us to reduce it, if you like, at least in our thinking, so that if somebody said to us, “What is it that God is doing with you, since he has apparently by your testimony made you one of his children?” is there something that we could actually say that would summarize the work of God?
I suggest to you that there is: we could answer in strength of the Scriptures themselves and say, “What God is doing is making me more like Jesus”—making me more like Jesus. For that, as you will see here from the twenty-ninth verse, is God’s eternal purpose—his purpose from all of eternity: “those [he] foreknew he … predestined”—notice—“to be conformed to the likeness of his Son,” to be shaped like his Son, to be molded into the very characteristics of Jesus.
I don’t know if there’s any truth in the notion that people become like their pets or they look like their pets—but it is a truism isn’t it? You’ll hear people saying, “Well, you know, people look like their pets.” And I’m not actually sure whether the process is one whereby the pet begins to look like the human being or the human being begins to look like the pet. I have a sneaking suspicion in certain cases in our neighborhood, but I would never be so bold as to make the point. I’m not qualified to talk in these matters—but it is also suggested that couples, husbands and wives married for a long time become so interwoven with one another that it is not infrequent that they are asked if, in actual fact, they’re brother and sister, because they’ve taken on so many characteristics of one another. This would make some sense, wouldn’t it? It would testify to the fact that we become like the company that we keep—that the presence that we engage in, the people that we spend time with, have an impact on us, and we on them. That’s why, incidentally, friendships formed are so important. That’s why it is inevitable that we have to teach our young people, especially as they go into their teenage years, that friendships are seldom neutral. There are people in whose company it’s easy to be good, there are people in whose company it’s easy to be bad, and therefore it is vitally important that we establish friendships that nurture and help and encourage and so on. Well, here we find that God from all of eternity is nurturing his children so that the children, those who are following after he who is “the firstborn among many brothers”—many brothers and sisters—are actually being fashioned into the likeness of Jesus.
Now, it is in light of that that I think we ought to study the verse which is a far better-known verse, which is the verse that precedes it, Romans 8:28. And many of us would probably have neglected verse 29; it’s a bit of a sticky verse, it raises all kinds of questions, and we tend to retreat into verse 28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who’ve been called according to his purpose,” and we press that into all kinds of service. But it is actually verse 29 that helps us to understand the “good” towards which God is working. And what is that good? That we might “be conformed to the image of his Son.” In the King James Version, I think it is, “And we know that all things work together for good,” as if somehow or another the “things” that are “working” are working to good. I think the NIV is a better translation, don’t you? “And we know that in all things God works for the good.” It is God who is at work in and through all the different things and aspects of our life, and he works according to his good purpose.
You can read of his eternal purpose in Ephesians chapter 1. We won’t turn there, but it reinforces this notion that when you think about your life, wherever you are today, whatever is happening, and you say to yourself, “Well, as I try and understand where I fit in the great panorama of God’s redemptive purposes, it is an immense thought to recognize that God from all of eternity has purposed to make me like his Son Jesus.” And so for example, James, when he writes concerning the trials that come into our lives, writes about them in a way that is frankly staggering. He begins his letter, you will remember, “Consider it pure joy when you face trials of various kinds.” “When these trials come into your life,” he says, “do not resent them as intruders but welcome them as friends!” Why? Not because you’re a masochist, not because we rejoice when things are inherently and horribly difficult, but because of something that we know. What do we know? See, we must always bring what we know to bear upon how we feel, because how we feel when these difficulties come is inevitably overwhelmed, buffeted, fearful, perhaps desiring to run away; so therefore the only way that we’re going to get any kind of equilibrium is to bring what we know to be the case to bear upon what is happening to us. And he says we know “that the testing of your faith develops perseverance [and] perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Well, when will that day dawn? I mean, hopefully we’re a little more mature than we were last time we were together, a little more towards completion. But there are so many gaps and uncertainties, and that is why we recognize that there are lessons learned in those experiences, purposes that are accomplished in those experiences, that aren’t accomplished any other way. And I think many of us would testify to the fact that more spiritual progress has been made in our lives by way of disappointment and failure and tears than has actually been made in the realm of success and laughter. Not that we would go and seek these things out, but that we would recognize that Father knows best, that nothing is taking him by surprise, and that from all of eternity, in the ebb and flow of life, in that which we regard as good and bad and sometimes horrible and impossible to deal with, in the challenges that we face that sometimes appear to never go away, in the experiences of unanswered prayer—or at least the answer comes back in a prolonged wait or in an apparent “No”—that still in the midst of all of that, God’s eternal purpose is at work in the lives of his children. So that when we read Christian biography and we say to ourselves, “What is God doing in the life of his children?” What was he doing when they took their jackets and laid them down at the feet of a fellow called Saul of Tarsus? What was he doing in the life of Stephen? He was accomplishing his eternal plan to make Stephen just like Jesus.
Doesn’t seem right, does it? Especially not when we’ve been bred on the notion that the way that all of these things happen is in tranquility and in blessing and “Everything’s going fine,” and “Aren’t we having a wonderful time?” and “Isn’t it a great day?” Well, it is a lovely day, but I can guarantee you that I speak to a congregation this morning that is marked by all kinds of difficulties and challenges, by lives that are marked—if we were honest—by at least significant spells of quiet desperation; that if ever we were to come clean about what it is that we’re pushing in our wheelbarrow, there would be so much that mitigates against this. What is it then gives us equilibrium? Well, to get up in the morning and to say, “Whether it’s raining or sunny, whether I am frail or forceful, I thank you today, gracious God, that you are my Father, that in Jesus you have made me your child, that you have plans and purposes from all of eternity that you will definitely accomplish, and that today is another opportunity for me to make progress down that road.”
You take, for example, the life of Gladys Aylward, the “Little Woman.” You know? Tiny wee lady with straight black hair who wished that she was a tall lady with blonde hair and had a conviction in her heart that she ought to go to China where she’d never been. And the missionary society told her, “You’re too small and too silly and too frail for us ever to send you to China.” But she went to China. And when the boat pulled in and she looked across the quay and saw all these tiny little ladies with straight black hair, she said, “Well maybe this is the place that God has for me,” a tiny little lady with straight black hair who became the mother to all these orphan children, helping them in their physical world and leading them to faith in Jesus Christ.
No, if you don’t get this from your Bible, get it from a good hymnbook: “The work,” to quote Augustus Toplady, who seems to be hymn writer of the week for me so far—to quote Toplady,
The work which his goodness began,
The arm of his strength will complete;
His promises are Yes and Amen
And never were forfeited yet.
Or, to go to another hymn writer,
He cannot have taught us to trust in his name
And thus far have brought us to leave us in shame.
For each Ebenezer—
(sign of God’s choice blessing)
For each Ebenezer we hold in review
confirms his dear promise to bring us right through.
That’s the first word this morning; it begins with “p”—it’s the word “purpose.” The second word also begins with “p”, and it’s the word “process.” And for this we go forward to 2 Corinthians chapter 3. It is God’s eternal purpose. You could say, actually, we didn’t need to go to “process”; we could say it is his existential purpose as well, but that would sound a little highfaluting, wouldn’t it? So we’ll just go to “process”, I think. 2 Corinthians 3:17: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory”—notice here the present continuous—“are being transformed into” what? “Into his likeness.” Okay? So it is God’s eternal purpose, those he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son—that’s the purpose in his eternity. What is his purpose today? To continue the process. It is an ongoing process.
And the context—and I’ll need to leave you to read 2 Corinthians 3 for homework—but the context here is the contrast between the reflected, fading glory of the Old Covenant and the freedom to gaze upon the glory of God in the face of Jesus. So, for example, if you look at verse 7: “Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory”—which it did—“so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that condemns men is glorious”—insofar as by the Law no one could be set right with God—“how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness!” And then he goes on all the way down through there: “We are not like Moses”—verse 13—“who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It [hasn’t] been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away.” That says something concerning the nature of Jewish evangelism, incidentally. Even to this day, when Moses is read a veil covers their hearts—hence the agony of Paul for his own people. “But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” And there you have it. “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness.” Remember it was said that Moses’ face shone and he didn’t know—that his face shone and he didn’t know. His face shone even with the opportunity that he had. And what Paul says is if the face of Moses shone in that fading, dimming glory, surely the faces of those who’re in Christ ought to really shine. Shine!
We used to sing in Scotland all kinds of crazy choruses. They’d never be allowed now, but they’re so etched in my memory. One was, “Come leave your house in Grumble Street and move to Sunshine Square, for that’s the place where Jesus lives and all is sunshine there.” Well, of course we know that it rains and so on, but you get the point. And I think of that chorus every so often as I stand in front of a Sunday congregation and look out on the people, and I think, “This should be the opening psalm,” you know, as we’d say to one another, “Come leave your house in Grumble Street and move to Sunshine Square.” Would anybody ever think for a flying’ rat’s tail’s moment that what is actually happening to us is that we are in the process of being conformed into the image of Jesus? You know, that when they come into our churches they say, “Now there’s a group of people where something’s happening. I don’t know what’s happening to them, but they just shine. They are the shining people. There is a glory about them. There is something about them.”
I just read a biography of one of my favorite soccer players—and I’m excited about this soccer camp. Finally, we get some good sports into this place! That was just a joke. One of my favorite soccer players ... and as he died as a young man in hospital in London, one of his sisters writing the biography—the girl was not a Christian, nor was this man—she talked about a nurse in the hospital looking after her brother during the night, and there was, she said, about this nurse some strange aura, that there was something about her that she couldn’t put her finger on. She came in one day (that is, the sister) to find that there was a Bible beside her brother. The Bible was marked with “Psalm 121,” “Psalm 23,” “Psalm 46,” and so on. And when she inquired where the Bible came from, she discovered it came from the nurse; and when she asked the nurse why she put the Bible there, the nurse told her, “Because in the Bible I met Jesus,” and then the sister said, “And that’s presumably why you shine the way you shine.”
You see, the work of the Holy Spirit is to turn our gaze towards the Lord Jesus. And as we look at Christ, so there is this reflection, a glory that is revealed in the gospel itself, the wonderful, freeing, transforming story in the gospel: that he died in our place to free us not only from the penalty of sin, as we have noted, but also from its power and its dominion. So, for example, “Rock of Ages cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee”—that is, in Jesus.
Let the water and the blood
From your riven heart which flowed,
it’s kind of archaic language,
From your riven heart which flowed
Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.
So that we have been cleansed from all the guilt and stain of sin. We are being cleansed from sin’s power. And that is why it is vital, loved ones, that we have a solid grasp of the gospel: so that we can preach the gospel to ourselves—as Jerry Bridges has reminded us most helpfully in one of his recent books—so that we can preach the gospel to ourselves every day. I don’t think it would be surprising if I did a survey here and amongst an august group of individuals like this to discover that people said, “Well, you know, the gospel is something that gets you started. It’s way in my past. I believed the gospel a long time ago, and I’ve moved on from that.” Oh, I hope you haven’t. I hope you preach the gospel to yourself today, because that’s the only way you’ll stay sane, that’s the only way you’ll make progress. Because “When Satan tempts you to despair and tells you of the guilt within,” what’s your answer going to be? “Upward I look and see him there who made an end to all my sin.” That’s the gospel.
Our standing in Christ is unalterable. On our best week we’re no closer to God, on our worst week we’re no further from God, because our standing with the Father is all in the righteousness of Christ. We are not put right with God on account of something done by us, nor are we put right with God on account of something done in us. We are put right with God on account of something done for us—so that as Luther said, in one realistic way the gospel is all outside of us. Now, if you think about that, it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Because if you set yourself up for a little inventory this morning—“Here I am, Monday, twenty-something-th of July,” and you say to yourself, “Now let me just do an inventory of how well I’m progressing. How’s my prayer life, on a scale of one to ten, with ten being high?”—what do you want to give yourself? Brave enough to give yourself a four? There you go: four. Okay, so we haven’t even hit the fifty percent mark. Alright? A scale of one to ten: witnessing in the Speculator area ever since I got here, shining for Jesus, and giving a word of testimony if the opportunity arises—scale of one to ten, with ten being high. Someone wants an eight? Wait for tomorrow; tomorrow’s about humility. The rest of us will be hard-pressed to give ourselves a two. And so we could go down the inventory, because our hearts condemn us, and justifiably so. Because if we constantly look within to see how well we’re doing as a basis of our standing with God, we will constantly feel that we have no standing with God. But when we realize that God’s eternal purpose, which he is definitely going to complete, is to conform us to the image of his Son, and that the ongoing process in which we find ourselves engaged is that very selfsame thing: that we are being transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ.
Notice, it’s in the passive as well: we are being transformed into his likeness. Well, is this passivity? No, but it is a reminder to us that this is a process that is Spirit-endued and in which we are involved. We don’t just sit back and let it happen. There are means of grace which God has provided so that as we avail ourselves of the means of grace we make progress. So, for example, when the writer of the Old Testament speaks prophetically of the Son, he says about the Son (that is, Jesus), “you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness.” So I know that I’m not making much progress in being conformed to the likeness of Jesus if I’ve determined that I’m going to love wickedness and hate righteousness. It just doesn’t happen, you see, because the grace of God that has appeared (Titus 2) teaches us to say no to ungodliness and all kinds of wickedness and to live upright and self-controlled lives in this present age. The Spirit that teaches us through the Word enables us by his presence within us, but no more than God believes for us so that we might be saved—’cause he doesn’t, we must believe in order that we might be saved—so the work of God within us to make us like Jesus is his work in which he includes our endeavors. So, for example, in Philippians: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”—in other words, “get up off your hind legs and let’s get going”—“for it is God [who is at work] in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”
The purpose from all of eternity, the process which is ongoing, and finally, the promise that keeps our chins up and allows us to keep heading in the right direction. 1 John 3:2: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known.” It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” Somebody came to the Apostle John after one of the services and said to the Apostle John, “What’re we going to be?”; he says, “Well, frankly I don’t know the answer to that question.” I’m always very encouraged by the agnosticism that I find in the Bible: “Dear friends, now we are the children of God, and what we will be we don’t know yet because it hasn’t been revealed in fullness. But we do know this: that when he appears”—here’s our phrase—“we shall be like him.” Now, we ought not to be surprised by that, because the very reason that God has saved us is in order that that might be true; that his purpose from all of eternity is that we would be conformed to the likeness of his Son; that what he’s doing with us in the experience of our earthly pilgrimage is completing the process; and finally, even though we know what we are, a ragtag and bobtail gathering of people, with all our faults and all our foibles and our stumblings and our failings and so on, the fact of the matter is that when he appears, we will be like him.
The brevity of John in relationship to these things, I think, is quite striking. He tells us that Jesus will appear, he tells us that we will see him, and he tells us that we will be like him. Paul, interestingly—and you needn’t turn to this—but Paul, when he talks about it in Philippians 3—you know, where he says, “our citizenship is in heaven” and so on—he says in verse 21, “… who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body,” and what he anticipates and he affirms is the fact that not only will we be like him, but we will be with him. In fact, you know, when he says, “I really don’t know whether I should leave or whether I should stay with you” and so on, the fact of the matter is, he says, “I don’t know whether I should depart and be with Christ or stay with you for a little while longer.” So for Paul, the anticipation is that we will be with him; for John, the anticipation is that we will be like him. And for all the rest we can wait confidently and contentedly.
Well, I think our time is gone. It’s twelve minutes past. We have to stop at fifteen, and so we will. Two children’s songs as our close—I’m not going to sing them; you can relax. Here’s a children’s hymn from an old Anglican book. Remember when we had children’s hymns? Remember when we had hymns? (No, that was not a bone to all you old fogies. That was not an argument in favor of hymns, it was just an observation. Let’s don’t say, “Oh yeah, he hates the modern stuff. He mentioned it this morning. He’s a hymn man. He’s one of us. He’s a hymn man.” Don’t play that game. Don’t start your nonsense.) Here we go: two songs and we’re finished. It’s now thirteen minutes past, so put up your tray tables, we’re gonna be on the ground here in just a moment.
I wish to be like Jesus,
So humble and so kind.
His words were always tender,
His voice always divine.
But no, I’m not like Jesus,
As anyone can see.
O Savior come and help me
And make me just like thee.
And the final one,
Cleanse me from my sin, Lord,
And put your power within, Lord,
And take me as I am, Lord,
And make me all your own.
And keep me every day, Lord,
In the narrow way, Lord,
And make my heart your palace
And your royal throne.
Ethics is an exhortation to become what we’re not. The call of Christianity is to become what we are. You are in Christ. Come on now: let’s be like Christ. Tomorrow we’ll think along the lines of some of those characteristics.
Father, thank you for the privilege so far of this day, for the opportunity to be in this place and to open our Bibles, and we pray that you will work in us and through us as we go throughout the day, and indeed throughout this week. And we pray all these things seeking the forgiveness of all of our sins in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 Romans 8:28–31 (NIV 1984).
 Philippians 1:6 (paraphrased).
 Referenced in Joseph Clayton, Bishop Westcott (London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., 1906), 110–111.
 Augustus Toplady, “A Debtor to Mercy Alone” (1771).
 Romans 8:29 (NIV 1984).
 James 1:2 (paraphrased).
 James 1:2 (J. B. Phillips Paraphrase).
 James 1:3–4 (NIV 1984).
 Augustus Toplady, “A Debtor to Mercy Alone” (1771).
 John Newton, “Begone, Unbelief” (1779). Paraphrased.
 2 Corinthians 3:17–18 (NIV 1984, emphasis added).
 2 Corinthians 4:6 (paraphrased).
 2 Corinthians 3:7–9 (NIV 1984).
 2 Corinthians 3:13–14 (NIV 1984).
 2 Corinthians 3:16–17 (NIV 1984).
 2 Corinthians 3:18 (NIV 1984).
 Exodus 34:29 (paraphrased).
 Author unknown.
 Augustus Toplady, “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me” (1776).
 See Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2006).
 Charitie Bancroft, “Before the Throne of God Above” (1863).
 Martin Luther, “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” in Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor Books, 1961), 86–96.
 Psalm 45:7, quoted in Hebrews 1:9 (NIV 1984).
 Titus 2:11–12 (paraphrased).
 Philippians 2:12–13 (KJV).
 John 3:2 (paraphrased).
 Philippians 3:20 (NIV 1984).
 Philippians 1:22–24 (paraphrased).
 Author unknown.
 R. Hudson Pope, “Cleanse Me from my Sin, Lord” (n.d.).