Grace, Not Race (Romans 9.6-13)

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Jews are God’s Chosen People. In Deuteronomy 7.6, Moses said to Israel: “The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” But during the first century, most of God’s Chosen People refused to choose Christ. Was God’s choice of them a failure? 

Romans 9.6-13 continues Paul’s reflection on his fellow Jews’ refusal to choose Christ, a reflection beginning at 9.1 and ending at 11.36. He quickly puts to rest the notion that God’s choice was a failure: “It is not as though God's word had failed.” But that assertion needs explanation. How can God’s choice of Israel be anything but a failure if most first-century Jews rejected Christ? 

To answer, Paul distinguishes what we might call physical Israel and spiritual Israel. “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel,” he writes. “Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children.” Of course, at a biological level, Israel is in fact comprised of Abraham’s descendants. But for Paul, this physical fact is not spiritually determinative. Abraham, after all, had two sons—Ishmael and Isaac—but only Isaac was the child of promise. Quoting Genesis 21.12 and 18.10 and 14, Paul writes: 

On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”  In other words, it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring. For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.” 

God’s promise, then, not human DNA, is what defines Israel. 

But Paul intuits an objection to this line of reasoning. Ishmael and Isaac have the same father, but different mothers: Hagar and Sarah, respectively. Surely, then, the objection runs, biology is important. Not really, Paul responds. Look at the difference between Esau and Jacob, who shared the same father (Isaac) and mother (Rebekah). Quoting Genesis 25.23 and Malachi 1.2-3, Paul writes: 

Not only that, but Rebekah's children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God's purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”  Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” 

God chose Jacob over Esau not because of differences in their biology—they were twins—but so that his “purpose in election might stand.” The purpose of God’s choice of Israel was not merely to bless them, but to bless the entire world through them, as Genesis 12.1-3 makes clear. And through Jesus Christ—the scion and prodigy of Israel—God’s purpose is being accomplished.  What matters most, then, is whether we receive God’s promise, not who our ancestors are.  

What matters most, as N. T. Wright sharply puts it, is “grace, not race.”

Cause for Tears, Call to Action (Romans 9.1-5)

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Like most men, I’m not much of a crier. I only remember crying under three circumstances: an irritation in my eye, extreme pain, and the breakup of my engagement. I dripped a tear or two for the irritation and pain, but I spewed tears like a fire hose over my breakup. Relational pain is the worst kind. 

In Romans 9.1-5, Paul expresses his pain over the breakup of Israel’s relationship with God: 

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.

According to Romans 9-11, Paul assigns blame for the breakup of the relationship with God to Israel. Or rather, he assigns blame to those Jews who rejected Christ. All of Christ’s first followers were Jews. Some Jews accepted Christ in the first century, just as some continue to accept him today. 

Despite the blame, Paul still grieves for his fellow Jews who rejected Christ. “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart,” he writes. Pay attention to his adjectives. Paul’s sorrow is great, his anguish unceasing. This is a guy who is crying a lot because the people he loves are spurning the God who loves them. 

In his grief, Paul contemplates desperate measures. He blurts out, “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers.” Paul is ready to go to hell for his people, in other words. God allows such emotions, but not such actions. Only Christ’s sacrifice can save, and even it must be received in faith, one person at a time. 

Why is Paul so sad about Israel’s rejection of Christ? Because God invested so much in them! Notice Paul’s long list of Israel’s God-given blessings: “the adoption as sons; … the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises… the patriarchs, and … Christ, who is God over all, forever praised!” God designed each of these blessings to prepare Israel for Jesus, but when he came, many Jews nonetheless rejected him. They squandered God’s greatest gift. But in rejecting Christ, they rejected God, for Christ is God. (Romans 9.5 is one of a handful of explicit statements of Jesus’ divinity in the New Testament.) 

Reading Romans 9.1-5, I cannot help but think of the people I know who have not yet accepted Christ. It’s a cause for tears, but also a call to action. What am I doing to help them accept God’s greatest gift? What are you?

Introduction to Romans 9-11

Romans 9-11 is one of the most difficult passages to interpret in Paul’s letters, if not the entire Bible. And yet, it plays a key role in Paul’s argument in Romans. Today, I’d like to talk about both why it’s difficult and why it’s important. 

There are several reasons why Romans 9-11 is a difficult passage to interpret. 

First, the social situation in Paul’s day was different than ours. Today, we distinguish Judaism and Christianity as two separate religions. In Paul’s day, however, the distinction was not clear. Jesus, the apostles, the first Christians, and Paul himself were Jews. And they viewed their religion as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants. But while Jews continued to convert to Christianity throughout the first century, by the mid-60s, Gentiles were quickly becoming the majority of Jesus’ followers. The success of the Gentile mission prompted a lot of debates about the relationship of the Old Testament to the New, how kosher Jews and non-kosher Gentiles could attend church together, and about whether God had kept his promises to Israel. These debates are no longer live questions for us. Our social situation is almost entirely Gentile, which makes it difficult for us to appreciate how emotionally wrenching these issues were for Paul and other Jewish Christians. 

Second, the theological argument Paul makes regarding the social situation of the early church is hard to grasp. Although many Gentiles but few Jews were accepting Christ in Paul’s day, Paul nevertheless argued in Romans 9.6: “It is not as though God’s word had failed.” God was faithful to Israel and kept his promises, even though many Jews in Paul’s day rejected Christ. The burden of Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11 is explaining how this is possible. Along the way, Paul uses theological concepts such as election, the remnant of Israel, the ingrafting of the Gentiles, and the inscrutability of God. Romans 9-11 is theologically deep water, and if we want to even begin to understand it, we’re going to have to swim hard. 

Third, after the Holocaust, we have become very sensitive about the way Christians speak of Jews. Although Paul did not intend his letter to be used in anti-Semitic ways, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that over the centuries, it has been. Wrong-headed Christians have misinterpreted Paul’s statements about the Jews’ rejection of Christ as a pretext for persecuting Jews. In the 1930s and 40s, Nazis were able to incorporate these misinterpretations into their genocidal program. As Christians, it is our responsibility to make sure that no one is able to misuse our Bible in that way again. 

If Romans 9-11 is so difficult to interpret, then why bother with it at all? For a simple reason: It vindicates the integrity of God. When God makes a promise, he keeps it. He is a God whose word can be trusted. That’s the basic message of Romans 9-11. And what is his promise? According to Romans 10.13, simply this: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” That promise is true for Jews and Gentiles, whether in Paul’s day or our own.

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Unconditional, Inseparable Love (Romans 8.35-39)

I've been thinking a lot about weddings lately, probably because I've been to three in the past three weeks. When I marry a couple, I lead them in reciting vows of unconditional love to one another. I begin with the groom, who says to his bride:

In the Name of God, I take you to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.

Afterward, the bride says the same vow to her groom.

Every time I hear these vows, I think beyond the couple before me to Christ and the church, for the New Testament speaks of that relationship in terms of marriage. In Matthew, Jesus presents himself as a "bridegroom" (9.15; 25.1, 5, 6, and 10). In Ephesians 5.22-33, Paul models the relationship between husbands and wives on how Christ and the church treat one another. And in Revelation 19.9, John speaks of eternity as “the wedding supper of the Lamb.” The marriage between Christ and the church is a relationship of unconditional love. In the words of the wedding vows, it is “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.” Or, to be more precise, the marriage of Christ and the church moves from worse to better, from poorer to richer, and from sickness to health. And of course, from Christ, there is no parting by death.

So, as I lead couples in the recitation of their vows, my mind is drawn to Christ and his unconditional love for us. In all of Scripture, there is no greater statement of that unconditional love than Romans 8.35-39:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The stresses of life test the authenticity of our vows. It is easy to be in love when you're experiencing "better." But "worse" proves your love for one another. As Paul teaches us in Romans 8.35-39, Christ still loves us in “worse” days. Nothing can separate us from his love!

In Romans 8.31-39, Paul asks five questions whose answers reveal the heart of Christianity. Let’s review the answers:

1. God is for you.

2. He graciously gives you all things with Christ.

3. He justifies you.

4. He hears Christ's intercession for you.

5. And in Christ, he loves you with an unconditional, inseparable love.

How are you responding to the heart of God today?

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Interceding for Us (Romans 8.34)

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Have you ever wondered what Christ has been up to the last 2000 years?

Romans 8.34 provides an answer: â..Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who diedâ..more than that, who was raised to lifeâ at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.â.

Consider the question: Who is he that condemns? Our sins should condemn us in the eyes of God. According to Romans 3.23, â..all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.â. And according to Romans 6.23, â..the wages of sin is death.â. But condemnation is not Godâ..s final word to us. Rather, as Romans 6.23 goes on to say, â..the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.â.

This happens through the great exchange Christ effected on the cross. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5.21, â..God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.â. On the cross, Christ exchanged our sin for his righteousness. That is why Paul is able to say in Romans 8.1: â..there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.â. In Christ, we are not only uncondemned, we are uncondemnable.

So, the second half of Romans 8.34 focuses on Christ. His fate is ours, if we put our faith in him. We have already seen that his death rescues us from condemnation. But now we need to see that his resurrection, ascension, and intercession benefit us as well.

First, his life is ours. As Christians, we rightly focus on the central role of Christâ..s death in our salvation. But for Paul, Christâ..s resurrection was even greater than his death. According to Romans 8.34, resurrection counts for â..more thanâ. death. Why? Because Christâ..s death was the means to a greater end, namely, eternal lifeâ..his and ours.

Second, his ascension is ours. After his resurrection, Jesus ministered to his disciples for about forty days, then he was â..taken up into heavenâ. (Luke 24.51, Acts 1.3). Romans 8.34 says he is now â the right hand of God.â. Two verses in Ephesians make it clear that that is where we are too, spiritually speaking. According to Ephesians 1.20, God â..raised [Christ] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms.â. And according to Ephesians 2.6, â..God [also] raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.â. In ancient cultures, the right hand is the place of honor, love, and blessing. Because thatâ..s where Christ is, thatâ..s where we are too. As Paul puts it in Colossians 3.3, â..your life is now hidden with Christ in God.â.

Finally, his prayers are for us. What has Christ been up to all these years? Heâ..s been praying to God for people. In the words of Hebrews 7.25: â..he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.â.

Always. For them. For us. For you.

Free to Go (Romans 8.33)

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Several years ago, I had an unforgettable run-in with law enforcement. I was driving with my best friend down Pacific Coast Highway when a patrol car hit its siren and lights and signaled me to pull over. The officers approached my car, indicated that they suspected us of driving with open alcohol containers, ordered us to sit on the curb, and searched our car. Youâ..ll never guess what they found.Â

To fully appreciate this story, you need to understand that I was a fairly new teenage driver who had been reared in a tea-totaling family. My friend and I were headed to an end-of-school luau in Corona del Mar with a 32-gallon Coleman container of steamed rice. And the air conditioner on my 1980 Honda Accord leaked like a sieve. It was the leak that the police noticed first. Then they noticed my friend frantically rummaging through his backpack on the floorboard. When they pulled us over, they also noticed the Coleman.

One of the officers asked me, â..Do you have any alcohol in the car?â.Â

â..I donâ..t drink,â. I replied. Why would I have any alcohol if I didnâ..t drink?

He asked the same question again. I gave the same reply.Â

He asked the same question a third time with a bit more of an edge in his voice. I finally realized that he didnâ..t know that tea-totaling teenagers wouldnâ..t be transporting alcohol, so I said, â..No!â.Â

At that point, he asked if I would permit him to search my car. I didnâ..t have anything to hide, so, while the second officer escorted us to the curb, he proceeded to do so. When he saw the Coleman, he thought he had me dead to rights.Â

â..Whatâ..s in the Coleman?â. he asked.Â

â..Steamed rice,â. I replied. â..Mind if I look?â.Â

â..Go, right ahead!â. I said cheerfully.Â

As steam poured out the hatchback of my Honda Accord, even this poor officerâ..s partner laughed at him. It turns out that they thought we were dumping beer out a hole in the floorboard of the passenger seat. Thatâ..s why they were suspicious of my leaky air conditioner and frantically rummaging friend. After explaining this, the officers let us go.Â

Why do I tell you this story? Because at the heart of Christianity is an accusation against us that God himself has refuted. Romans 8.33 puts it this way: â..Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.â. I didnâ..t fear the police officersâ.. suspicions or accusations because I knew I had done nothing wrong. Unfortunately, in our long careers as sinners, we have done plenty wrong. But through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has justified us. He has made us righteous. No charge against us can stick because God himself has made us innocent.

Over the years, my friend and I have laughed about our brief run-in with the law. But that laughter is nothing compared with the joy of knowing that through Jesus Christ, the charges against our sins have been dropped and weâ free to go.

Graciously Given All Things (Romans 8.32)

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In Romans 8.32, the Apostle Paul asks a very good question: â..He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us allâ will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?â.

Letâ..s walk backward through this verse, from the beginning to the end. The phrase â..all thingsâ. translates the Greek word pas. According to my Greek dictionary, pas means â..each, every (pl. all); every kind of; all, full, absolute, greatest.â. Now â..all thingsâ. includes a lot of things that are undesirable: asthma, bursitis, and cancer, for example. Paul is not telling us that God will saddle us with all the bad things of life. Rather, heâ..s telling us that God will give us all the good things of life. Eternity with God consists in the enjoyment of the best of the best of all things in heaven and earth.

Why does God give us all things? As a close reader of Romans, you already know the answer: grace. God will â..graciously give us all things.â. Grace is the unmerited favor of God. We donâ..t deserve to receive or enjoy the best of the best, but God gives it to us anyway because thatâ..s his nature.

Now the epitome of grace, the most excellent example of the best of the best, is Jesus Christ. We are given all things â..along with him.â. Whatâ..s the big deal about Jesus? Why is Paul so insistent that we receive him as Godâ..s best gift to us? Colossians 1.15-20 offers an answer. First, Jesus is the Creator of all things. According to verse 16, â..all things were created by him and for him.â. Second, he is the Sustainer of all things. According to verse 17, â..He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.â. And third, he is the Savior of all things. According to verse 20, God chose â..through [Christ] to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.â. So, if you have Jesus, you have the best of the best of both Creation and New Creation.

And that brings us, finally, to the opening statement of Romans 8.23. It is a statement about God: â..He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all.â. Jesus is not only Godâ..s best gift, he is also the guarantee of every other good gift that God gives us. In logical terms, Paul is arguing from the stronger to the lesser. In other words, if God is willing to give you the very best gift he has, then you can be confident that he will give you every other good thing too.

At the heart of the Christian faith is an unbelievably generous God. The motto of Hallmark Cards is, â..When you care enough to send the very best.â. Well, God sent the very best as a demonstration of his care for us. How can you not love him in return?

God Is for Us (Romans 8.31)

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In Romans 8.31-39, Paul asks five questions whose answers express the heart of Christian faith.

Here are the five questions:

  1. If God is for us, who can be against us? (verse 31)
  2. He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us allâ will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (verse 32)
  3. Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? (verse 33)
  4. Who is he that condemns? (verse 34)
  5. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? (verse 35)

Letâ..s study the first question today: If God is for us, who can be against us?

The obvious answer is, â..No one!â. And, of course, thatâ..s the right answer too. But we shouldnâ..t take false comfort from it. Because God is for us, no one can be against us ultimately. The devil cannot drag us down to hell. Nor can persecution bar our entry to heaven. Some can be against us immediately, however. Christians experience temptation and suffering in at least the same measure as everyone else. God being for us, then, does not guarantee an easy life now. It only guarantees an eternal life in Paradise.

Karl Marx thought that belief in eternity turned people away from the pressing work of reforming the world. He referred to religion as the opiate of the people. And even though most people donâ..t subscribe to Marxism (thank God!), many still are wary of a heavenly mindedness that is of no earthly good.

I understand their wariness, but I donâ..t share it. I believe that confidence in your eternal destiny gives you confidence to change the world. Knowing, in other words, that your future with God is safe makes you willing to take risks to improve the world.

Jesus certainly acted that way. According to Philippians 2.6-8, he was â very nature God.â. He possessed â..equality with God.â. But he did not â..considerâ. these things â..something to be graspedâ. or used to his own advantage. Rather, he â..made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.â. And that incarnation led him to â..the cross,â. by means of which we are saved. Jesus undertook great personal risk for us precisely because he was confident in his relationship with God the Father.

Some people also fear that talking about God being â..for usâ. might mean that heâ..s â..against others.â. In an age when religious extremists crash planes into buildings and detonate bombs on crowded city streets, I can understand their fear. But Christianity doesnâ..t underwrite violence. God is â..for us,â. yes, but heâ..s also â..for others,â. even â..for our enemies.â. The message of Jesus Christ is love, not hatred.

Our mission is to share that love with others, even if it entails personal risk. As C. T. Studd once put it:

Some wish to live within the sound
Of Church or Chapel Bell.
I want to run a rescue shop
within a yard of Hell.

The Good Work of God (Romans 8.28-30)

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Have you ever heard Ronald Reaganâ..s favorite joke?

It goes something like this: The parents of identical twin boys were concerned that their sons had such extremely different personalities. One was a die-hard pessimist, the other an undying optimist. So, they took the boys to a psychologist.

The psychologist put the pessimistic twin in a room filled with brand new toys, but the boy didnâ..t touch any of them. Instead, he cried. When the psychologist asked him why he didnâ..t play with the toys, the boy said, â..Because Iâ..m afraid Iâ..ll break them.â.

The psychologist put the optimistic twin in a room piled to the ceiling with manure. Immediately, the little boy began digging excitedly through the piles. When the psychologist asked him why, he said, â..With all this poop, thereâ..s got to be a pony in there somewhere!â.

Over the past few days, Iâ been telling you about Paulâ..s theology of Christian optimism, based on Romans 8.18-30. So far, weâ discussed three of its four pillars:

  1. The salvation of creation (verses 18-21)
  2. The redemption of our bodies (verses 22-25)
  3. The intercession of the Holy Spirit (verses 26-27)

Today, I want to talk about the fourth pillar: The good work of God.

We find this fourth pillar in Romans 8.28-30:

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; those he justified, he also glorified.

Two misconceptions about these verses need to be cleared away: First, they do not say that everything that happens to us is good. Rather, they say that God is working for our good in everything that happens to us. Second, these verses do not say that God is working for the good of everyone. Notice that Paul limits his remarks to those who love and are called by God. Of course, through faith in Christ, everyone can respond to Godâ..s call with love.

But how do we know God is working for our good? Paul offers two reasons: Jesus Christ and predestination. For Paul, what happened to Jesus Christ is the template for what will happen to every Christian. Resurrection will overcome death. Eternal life in Godâ..s presence will heal all the hurts of life here on earth. The Jesus story will become our story. Christâ..s resurrection is the first of many.

Paul also mentions Godâ..s predestining power. Far too many people view the concept of predestination with alarm. They think it means that God arbitrarily picks some people for heaven and others for hell. But here, predestination simply means that God finishes what he starts. And thatâ..s good to know. Sometimes, when life gets hard and weâ tempted to lose faith, we need to remember that Godâ..s not done with us yet.

Thereâ..s a pony on the other side of all thisâ.¦well, you know.

The Intercession of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8.26-27)

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In Romans 8.18-30, Paul outlines a theology of Christian optimism. The first pillar of this theology is the salvation of creation. The second is the redemption of our bodies. And the third is the intercession of the Holy Spirit.

Hereâ..s what Paul writes about the Spirit in Romans 8.26-27:

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.

For far too many Christians, the Holy Spirit is the unknown member of the Trinity. We know that God the Father created and sustains the world. We know that God the Son entered the world to die and rise again for our salvation. But what does the Spirit do?

Paul answers that question with three statements:

First, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. The Greek word for â..spiritâ. is pneuma, which also means â..breathâ. or â..wind.â. When I was in high school, I played basketball. If the pace of the game was fast, I ran the length of the court many times. Doing that repeatedly tired me out, so occasionally, the coach would pull me out to let me catch my breath. Thatâ..s what the Holy Spirit does. When we are tired out in the game of lifeâ..because of suffering or conflict or the exertion of our best spiritual effortsâ..the Holy Spirit gives us a â..second wind.â.

Second, the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. Just as we get winded in the game of life, so also we find ourselves at a loss for words in lifeâ..s conversation. Sometimes, our thoughts and emotions and desires are so confused and confusing that we simply donâ..t know how to pray to God. This happens especially during times of crisis and suffering. At those times, the Spirit intercedes for us with God. To intercede means â go between.â. And thatâ..s what the Spirit does. He goes between us and God, articulating our inarticulate thoughts to God, so that God might answer the innermost prayers of our hearts.

Finally, the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will. I donâ..t want to give the impression that the Spirit merely tells God what we want. Rather, the Spirit asks God at all times for what we really need. And what we really need is for â..Godâ..s willâ. to be accomplished in our lives. God sees all and therefore knows best. When we are going through difficult moments in our lives, we need his guidance more than ever.

Knowing that the Spirit intercedes for us before God should make us optimists. God knows both where we are and where we need to be. Through the Holy Spirit, he is leading us safely from the one place to the other.

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