Called to Suffer and Rejoice: For Holiness and Hope

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By John Piper About Suffering
Part of the series Called to Suffer and Rejoice

Romans 5:1-8
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

I hope in the next four weeks to help you prepare to suffer for Christ. One of the reasons I believe we should prepare to suffer for Christ is because the Bible says we should, and the other is because the modern situation says we should.

Preparing to Suffer

David Barrett, the missionary scholar who edited the Oxford World Christian Encyclopedia, publishes each year an update on the state of the Christian movement around the world with projections of what things might be like in the year 2000. In this year's update he reported that in 1980 there were about 270,000 Christian martyrs. This year there will be probably 308,000 and in the year 2000 he estimates 500,000.[1] These are people who die more or less directly because they are Christians.

In Somalia today tens of thousands of Christians are being intentionally isolated and starved to death by rival factions. The tensions between Muslim and Christian populations in Nigeria is dangerously explosive. The millions of Christians in China and many other countries live in constant danger of harassment and imprisonment.

In our own land the secular society at large, especially the intellectual elites and media leaders, are increasingly hostile to the evangelical church and the biblical vision of righteousness and goodness for which we stand. The first amendment has been so twisted in the service of secular antagonists that it would not be unthinkable any longer for some judge to argue that public provision of water and electricity and sewer to the buildings of Christian churches provides an unconstitutional establishment of religion by government resources and regulations.

Peaceful, pro-life protesters who are simply praying on public property can be violently assaulted by abortion defenders, as in Buffalo, New York, and receive no protection from police but instead be charged with a crime.

The name of Jesus is openly despised and blasphemed by famous entertainers in a way that in previous decades would have made them reprehensible in the eyes of the public, but today is approved or passed over.

The Cost of the Great Commission

What all this amounts to is that being a Christian is going to cost more in the years to come. And finishing the Great Commission is going to cost some of us our lives—as it already has, and which it always has. Eighteen hundred years ago Tertullian said, "We [Christians] multiply whenever we are mown down by you; the blood of Christians is seed" (Apologeticus, 50). And 200 years later St. Jerome said, "The Church of Christ has been founded by shedding its own blood, not that of others; by enduring outrage, not by inflicting it. Persecutions have made it grow; martyrdoms have crowned it" (Letter 82).

We talk so much about closed countries today that we have almost totally lost God's perspective on missions—as though he ever meant it to be easy and safe. There are no closed countries to those who assume that persecution, imprisonment, and death are the likely results of spreading the gospel. And Jesus said plainly that they are likely results. "They will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake" (Matthew 24:9). "If they persecuted me they will persecute you" (John 15:20).

Until we recover God's perspective on suffering and the spread of the gospel, we will not rejoice in the triumphs of grace that he plans.

Obedience in missions and social justice has always been costly, and always will be. In the village of Miango, Nigeria, there is an SIM guest house and a small church called Kirk Chapel. Behind the chapel is a small cemetery with 56 graves. Thirty-three of them hold the bodies of missionary children. The stones read: "Ethyl Arnold: September 1, 1928–September 2, 1928." "Barbara J. Swanson: 1946–1952." "Eileen Louise Whitmoyer: May 6, 1952–July 3, 1955." This was the cost of taking the gospel of Nigeria for many families in recent years. Charles White told his story about visiting this little graveyard and ended it with a tremendously powerful sentence. He said, "The only way we can understand the graveyard at Miango is to remember that God also buried his Son on the mission field."[2]

And when he raised him from the dead, he called the church to follow him into the same dangerous field called "all the world." But are we willing to follow?

What Do You Do with 2 Timothy 3:12?

Two years ago in Ermelo, Holland, Brother Andrew told the story of sitting in Budapest, Hungary, with a dozen pastors of that city teaching them from the Bible. In walked an old friend, a pastor from Romania who had recently been released from prison. Brother Andrew said that he stopped teaching and knew that it was time to listen.

After a long pause the Romanian pastor said, "Andrew, are there any pastors in prison in Holland?" "No," he replied. "Why not?" the pastor asked. Brother Andrew thought for a moment and said, "I think it must be because we do not take advantage of all the opportunities God gives us."

Then came the most difficult question. "Andrew, what do you do with 2 Timothy 3:12?" Brother Andrew opened his Bible and turned to the text and read aloud, "All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." He closed the Bible slowly and said, "Brother, please forgive me. We do nothing with that verse."[3]

We have, I fear, domesticated the concept of godliness into such inoffensive middle class morality and law-keeping that 2 Timothy 3:12 has become unintelligible to us. I think many of us are not prepared to suffer for the gospel. And that is why I feel called to take four weeks dealing with what the Bible says about this and what God is calling us to today.

Four Biblical Purposes of Suffering

Each message corresponds with one of four purposes of suffering. And we can speak of purposes of suffering because it is clearly God's purpose that we at times suffer for righteousness' sake and for the sake of the gospel. For example, "Let those who suffer according to God's will do right, and entrust their souls to a faithful Creator" (1 Peter 4:19; cf. 3:17; Hebrews 12:4–11).

The four purposes of suffering that I have in mind are:

  1. the moral purpose, because suffering refines our holiness and hope (Romans 5:1–8),
  2. the intimacy purpose, because in suffering our relationship with Christ becomes deeper and sweeter (Philippians 3:7–14)
  3. the missions purpose, because God calls us to complete Christ's afflictions as we extend the worth of his through the reality of ours (Colossians 1:24)
  4. and the glory purpose, because this slight, momentary affliction is working for us an eternal weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:16–18).
The Moral (Spiritual) Purpose of Suffering

Today we focus on the moral (or spiritual) purpose of suffering. God ordains that we suffer for the gospel and for the cause of righteousness because of the moral and spiritual effects that it has on us.

Exulting in the Hope of the Glory of God

Let's read one of the great texts on this point: Romans 5:3–4. After showing that we are justified by faith and that we have access through Jesus into grace and that we stand in grace, he says in verse 2 that we Christians "exult in hope of the glory of God." The chief cause of joy in the Christian life is the eager expectation that we will see and share in the glory of God. Hope for God's glory is the heart of our gladness.

Now if that is true, then Paul is perfectly consistent to go on and say in verses 3 and 4 that we will also exult in the things that make our hope increase. That's the line of reasoning here: we start with the hope of the glory of God at the end of verse 2, and then we end with hope at the end of verse 4. The point is: if we exult in hope, we will exult in what brings about hope.

What Brings About Hope

So verses 3 and 4 describe what that is. "And not only this [not only do we exult in the hope of the glory of God], but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulations bring about perseverance; and perseverance [brings about] proven character [a sense of being approved]; and proven character [brings about] hope."

So the reason we exult in tribulations is not because we like pain or misery or discomfort or trouble (we are not masochists), but because tribulations produce what we do like, namely, a stronger and stronger sense of hope which comes through the experience of patient perseverance and a sense of being approved.

God Has a Purpose in the Sufferings of His People

So the main lesson here is that God has a purpose in the sufferings of his people. And that purpose is often different from the ministry goal they are laboring in. The ministry goal might be to evangelize Twin Cities' unchurched single people, or suburban professionals, or Turkish Muslims. But God's purpose might be to produce more hope in the ministers and missionaries by putting them in prison. God is always doing more than that (as we will see in weeks to come), but that would be enough.

In other words God may not go about ministry productivity and efficiency at all the way we would. Again and again Paul had to reckon with the strange work of God in his imprisonments and beatings and shipwrecks and broken plans. How could God be so inefficient as to let his mission be blocked like this again and again? The answer of this text (not the only answer) would be: God is committed to increasing the hope and holiness of his people in the process of reaching the lost. And only God knows how to balance those two things and bring them to pass in the best way.

Three Effects of Afflictions

Now let's look at the effect of afflictions more specifically. There are three specific effects mentioned in verses 3 and 4.

1. Perseverance

First, tribulations bring about perseverance, or patient endurance. Paul doesn't mean this is universally true. For many, tribulations unleash hatred and bitterness and anger and resentment and murmuring. But this is not the ongoing effect in those who have the Spirit of Christ. For them the effect is patient endurance, because the fruit of the Spirit is patience.

The point here is that until hardship comes into our lives, especially hardship for the sake of Christ and his righteousness, we do not experience the extent and depth of our devotion to Christ. Until times get hard, we do not taste and really know if we are fair-weather Christians—the kind Jesus described in the parable of the soils in Mark 4:16–17.

And these are the ones sown upon rocky ground, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.

So Paul is saying that one great effect of tribulation is that it brings about patient endurance and perseverance in God's people, so they can see the faithfulness of God in their lives and know that they are truly his.

2. Proven Character

That's the point of the second effect that's mentioned (v. 4). "And [this] perseverance [brings about] proven character." Literally the word dokimen means "the experience of being tested and approved." We could say "approvedness" or "provenness."

This is not hard to grasp. If, when tribulations come, you persevere in devotion to Christ and don't turn against him, then you come out of that experience with a stronger sense that you are real, you are proven, you are not a hypocrite. The tree of trust was bent and it didn't break. Your fidelity and loyalty were put to the test and they passed. Now they have a "proven character." The gold of your faith was put in the fire and it came out refined, not consumed.

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply
The flame shall not hurt thee, I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.

That's the second effect of affliction: the proving and refining of the gold of our allegiance to Jesus. Perseverance brings about the assurance of provenness.

3. Hope

The third effect comes from this sense of being tested and approved and refined. Verse 4b: "And proven character [brings about] hope." This takes us back to verse 2: "We exult in the hope of the glory of God." The Christian life begins with hope in the promises of God in the gospel, and it spirals up through affliction to more and more hope.

Approvedness brings about more hope because our hope grows when we experience the reality of our own authenticity through testing. The people who know God best are the people who suffer with Christ. The people who are most unwavering in their hope are those who have been tested most deeply. The people who look most earnestly and steadfastly and eagerly to the hope of glory are those who have had the comforts of this life stripped away through tribulations.

Exulting in the Hope of Glory and in Tribulation

So the first thing we say about suffering and affliction in this series is that God has a purpose in it. And that purpose is to bring out the patient endurance of his people for the sake of his name; and through that to test and prove and refine the reality of faith and allegiance to Christ; and through that sense of approvedness to strengthen and deepen and intensify our hope.

We have ministry goals as a church (urban discipling, small group shepherding, evangelizing networks, defending the unborn; mobilizing youth and children); we have a great missionary vision of sending 2000 by 2000; we have a building to pay for and a budget to fund it all for Christ and his kingdom. How much of this God in his sovereignty will bring to pass, I do not know. But this I know, in our obedient pursuit of these goals God has a purpose for every obstacle and every frustration and every pain and every affliction, and that purpose is as important as the goals themselves—your perseverance, your proven character, and your hope in the glory of God.

Whatever else God may be doing at the planning level of our life, this he is always doing at the heart level of your life. And so let us with Paul exult in the hope of glory and also in the tribulations that are coming.

  1. International Bulletin of Missionary Research, vol. 16, no. 1, January, 1992, p. 27.
  2. Charles White, "Small Sacrifices," Christianity Today, vol. 36, no. 7, June 22, 1992, p. 33.
  3. Taken from the foreword to Herbert Schlossberg, Called to Suffer, Called to Triumph, (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1990), pp. 9–10.

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