Monday, October 31, 2016

Romans 3:21-16: The Gospel

We spend an inordinate amount of time in our lives justifying ourselves.  You may be scratching your head about that statement, but please hear me out.  To justify one’s self means to argue why you are in the right.  Nowhere is this better illustrated than in an election year.  We are being bombarded right now with candidates who are arguing why you should vote for them–why they are the right person for the job.  Put in other terms, they are justifying why they deserve to be in office.

Furthermore, as people pick their particular candidate, they work to justify the reasons they chose a particular candidate.  For instance, a person voting for Hillary Clinton might say, “I’m voting for her because she has a lot of political experience.”  A person voting for Donald Trump might say, “I’m voting for him because he is not part of the political establishment.”  The person voting for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein might say, “I’m voting for him or her because he/she is not Clinton or Trump.”  The person who is saying these things is justifying their position on their vote.

But we don’t just justify ourselves when it comes to our votes.  No.  Far from it. We justify ourselves in almost every arena of our lives.  We submit our resumes and interview for particular positions justifying–or proving–why we deserve that position.  Then we justify why we deserve to keep that position or merit a raise.  We argue our particular ideology and justify as to why it is correct.  We submit reasons that we don’t attend church regularly justifying our lack of attendance on a given Sunday or series of Sundays.  We even have to justify ourselves to our children.  Some parents might be wondering at that statement, but here’s the reality.  I know you are like me because there are times when you tell your kid to do something or tell them they cannot do something, and they look at you and ask the dreaded question, “Why?”  Essentially, the why is asking for a justification as to your command–even if that justification becomes, “Because I told you so!”  Any time you argue your stance or give reasons for your words or behavior, you are striving to justify yourself.

And perhaps one of the greatest questions we face as humanity is this: given the vastness of our universe and the extreme rarity of life in that universe, why are we here?  What is the purpose of our existence?  Why do we even exist?

There has been much ink spilled over this question, and the answers are far reaching.  I do not have near enough time to cover them in such a short period of time–so I will only speak from the perspective of one who believes in God.  I choose this path because the vast majority of the world’s population believe in some sort of deity, and there is a common belief that God created the world, and God created us.  Each religion has different reasons why God created us, but all of those religions are also in agreement that humanity has failed to live up to the expectations of the deity.

Again, every religion believes that the God who created this world and created us has some sort of expectations for how we live our lives.  Every religion has as part of its code of conduct to treat others as we would wish to be treated, and every religion realizes the failure of humanity to do exactly that.

And so every religion wrestles with the question–how do we justify ourselves before our Creator?  How do we make things right when we go wrong?  If our Creator is just, then how do we account for the injustice we have done?

Paul has wrestled with this question from Romans chapter 1 verse 18 until chapter 3 verse 20.  Paul’s answer is: there is no way that we can possibly account for our injustice.  There is no way we can justify ourselves.  At the end of our lesson last week, Paul left us standing in the cosmic court room without any defense; speechless, condemned before a just and holy God.  The only thing that we could look forward to at this moment was experiencing God’s wrath against our sin.  The outlook was very, very bleak.

Which is why Paul’s opening words in verse 21 are so sweet.  “But now...”  “But now...”  These words signify a break in what would normally be expected.  They signify that something out of the ordinary is taking place.  “You would expect that God would unleash His wrath upon you who stand condemned by your sin, BUT...”  What a sweet word “but” becomes.  Let’s turn to the text.

Verse 21, “21 But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, Remember that Paul has made an important distinction between Jews and Gentiles.  Jews are under God’s Law and are condemned because they don’t follow it.  Gentiles are outside of God’s law and condemned because they don’t meet the standards they hold for each other.  If God is going to save ALL, then His saving power must come from outside the Law, or Gentiles will be excluded.  Since God cares about ALL of His creation, He must act irrespective of the Law–this is what Paul is getting at with these words.  But, this does not nullify God’s Law.  This does not nullify God’s covenant with Israel because the Law and the Prophets testify or point toward’s God’s saving and just action toward the world.

And that saving action, God’s justice is revealed in verse 22: the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. The righteousness of God; the justice of God is revealed–not in following the Law; not in obeying the commands of God; not by being a perfect individual; not by trying to do more good than bad; but it is manifest through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

Now, we need to take just a moment here to talk about faith.  Oftentimes, you will hear people define faith as belief without evidence.  You will hear people define faith as some sort of intellectual assent.  This is summed up in the statement, “I don’t see any evidence of God, yet I believe that He exists.”  This is not what Paul means by the word faith–not at all.  Paul means trust.  There is a big difference between intellectually believing something and actually trusting in that something.

I have illustrated this with a joke in previous sermons.  An atheist skips church on Sunday morning to hike in a remote area of a state park.  While walking along the trail, the trail gives way and he falls.  He just happens to grab a branch sticking out of the cliff side.  It is too steep to climb up.  It is too far to simply drop.

The atheist yells and yells, but to no avail.  Where he is, is too remote. There is no one around.  His arms are growing weary, and he has no options available.  In a last ditch effort, he turns his eyes skyward and says, “You know, I’ve never believed in you, but if you really do exist, I could use a little help.”

The atheist is shocked to hear a voice reply, “I do exist, and I will help you.”

A huge sigh of relief escapes the former atheist as he asks, “What should I do.”

The voice replies, “Let go.”

The former atheist then says, “Is there anyone else up there?”

That, my friends illustrates perfectly the difference between belief and trust.  The person who simply believes in God will still hang on despite the voice.  The person who trusts God, lets go.  That is the meaning of faith.

This is important considering what follows next.  For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.  Paul reiterates what he has just outlined in Chapters 1, 2, and part of 3.  We stand condemned and guilty.  We don’t even come close to reflecting the glory of God, but God has changed our standing.  God has rendered a not guilty verdict.  God has said, “You who deserve my wrath now receive my love.”  Period.  End of story.

Of course, that should make us celebrate–particularly if we know the depths of our sin; particularly if we have had the mirror held up to ourselves in Romans chapters 1, 2, and 3.  But how can God do this?  Sure, it’s good news for us, but what about all of the people we have hurt by our sins?  What about the people we spread gossip about and whose reputations have been ruined?  What about the times we took things that didn’t belong to us?  What about the angry words we spoke that cut like a knife?  And remember, God does not simply change your status–anyone who trusts in Jesus’ action–their status is changed as well.  The murderer–what about his victims?  The racist–what about those toward whom he has spewed hate?  The white collar thief who stole millions–what about those who lost their retirement?  How can God forgive like this and still call Himself just?  How can He claim that justice will be served if our sins are completely forgiven?

Here is how: Christ Jesus has become the sacrifice of atonement.  Whenever a sin is committed, some sort of restitution must be paid.  If you crash into another’s car, you must pay for the damages in order for things to be made right.  If you hurt someone’s reputation, telling everyone you were wrong makes amends.  And if you forgive someone, instead of making that other person pay for what he or she did, you pay for it yourself.  And if you pay for another’s damages, you have taken on their guilt.  There are those who might argue that this isn’t true justice, but think about this for a moment.  If your kid breaks a window at school and the school threatens to kick your child out if damages aren’t paid for; what parent will allow their kid to be kicked out?  What parent wouldn’t jump in and pay the price for their kid?  And if a kid is running in the street, what parent wouldn’t swoop in to push them out of the way of an approaching car and being hit themselves?  Love pushes you to accept and take punishment for others–to pay the price for those who cannot pay themselves.  Examples of this abound–AND GOD HAS DONE THIS ON A COSMIC SCALE.  God has paid the price for all sin through the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross.  For your sins, for my sins, FOR ALL WHO HAVE SINNED.  And the promise that all will be made well stands for those who trust in what God has done in Jesus.  This becomes effective when you trust in Jesus and not yourself.

Let’s press on before we talk about the implications of this finishing up verse 25, He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.  The question for Jews at this moment would be, “Well what about all of those who came before Jesus?  What about the Jewish people and the promises God made to them?  What about the forgiveness of their sins?”  Paul touches on this here.  Most scholars agree that Paul is saying that God never fully punished those sins.  God never gave folks what they deserved and reserved judgement until this time.  He passed over their sins until this present time.

“But they never had the opportunity to believe in Jesus?” is the obvious retort.  Here is where I would like to make a bit of an adjustment in the translation from the Greek.  For the Greek text literally reads, “it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has the faith OF Jesus.”  Now remember what I said earlier: faith equals trust.  The faith of Jesus means relying totally and completely upon God.  Jesus exhibited this faith, and Paul will show what this means in regards to those who have come before in the next couple of chapters.  People before Jesus didn’t have the opportunity to trust in Jesus, but they did have the opportunity to trust in God, and Paul will show that Abraham did–as did others in the Jewish faith.  Hence, because they trusted God, they too have been justified.

Now, what is the significance of this?  It means you are right with God.  You don’t have to prove yourself with God.  You don’t have to trust in yourself to try and do as much good as you can to balance out the cosmic scales of karma.  God has already handled that for you.  You are in right standing with Him–not because of your own work but because of the work accomplished on your behalf–the work of Jesus.  Can you trust in the work of someone else on your behalf?  Can you trust in the work that He has accomplished for you?

This isn’t easy to do because we are taught to justify ourselves.  We are taught to think that everything is up to us when we argue; seek a job; work at school; make a decision; cast our vote.  “Justify yourself!!” society screams.  But Christianity says, “You are already justified.  In the greatest court of all, you are already made right.  There is nothing more you need to do because God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through Him.”  When you trust those words, when you believe down deep that you are already justified despite not deserving it, there is a peace that invades your entire being.  You no longer feel like you have to prove yourself to anyone and everyone.  For the God of this universe has said that you are right.  And if you are right with God, what more do you have to prove?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  In fact, because you have nothing more to prove, you are free.  Gloriously free.  By God’s gracious act through the sacrificial atonement of Jesus you are set free when you place your trust in Him.  This is most certainly good news.  It is the Gospel.  Amen.

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