August 25, 2011

Friday after the Ninth Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 22, 1 Sam. 17:28-40
Evening - Ps. 25, Micah 2, Rom. 3:21

Commentary
Romans 3:21-31

The point of Romans 1:1-3:20 has been to show that all people are sinners and under the wrath of God This is the very first thing we must understand if we are to grasp the primary message of Romans, "the just shall live by faith" (Rom. 1:17). Tonight's reading turns to a second point, justification by faith, or the righteousness of God given by grace to unrighteous people. This point is made in Romans 3:21-4:25.

Verse 21. The Book of Romans has three foundational themes which are re-stated several times throughout the Book, and around which the entire Book is organised. These themes are; the Righteousness of God, the Sinfulness of all People, and the Free Grace of God in Christ. Much of the wrong thinking and wrong living on the part of those inside and outside of the Visible Church is cause by a tragic misunderstanding of three foundational truths; the Righteousness of God, the Sinfulness of all People, and the Free Grace of God in Christ. Regarding humanity, the prevailing doctrine of Church and world proclaims the basic goodness of all people. According to this view, man, being basically good, is perfectible individually and culturally, through education and political structures. It is not man that is the problem; it is the oppressive structure of the political and cultural situation in which man finds himself that is the problem. If we can change them we can perfect man and accomplish justice and world peace. This view is the complete antithesis of Biblical teaching. According to the Bible, the problems in culture and politics arise from problems within man himself. In other words, man is not evil because he finds himself in an evil cultural situation. Rather, the cultural situation is evil because it is created and run by evil people who know to do good, but choose to do wrong. They "hold the truth in unrighteousness" (Rom.1:18 & 19). Therefore, the first step in changing culture is to change the people creating, running, and living in it.

We have spent some time looking at this problem of sin and the resulting barrier that exists between man and God and man and man because of it. We have not spent much time looking at the subject of the Righteousness of God. Part of that is because the Righteousness of God is so difficult to grasp and to put into words. Part of it is because I know about human sin from personal experience, while the Righteousness of God is almost foreign to me, indeed, would be completely foreign to me apart from the Grace of God in Christ. And yet, we can never really understand the reality and sickening wickedness of our sin until we begin to see something of the absolute, glorious, perfect righteousness of God.

God is absolute perfection. His Righteousness has no flaw (Jas.1:13, 17). What does it mean to be absolute perfection? Isn't it absolute love? (1Jn.4:8, 16). Because God is absolute, complete and perfect love, He cannot tolerate the presence of anything or anyone that in any way falls short of His love. He cannot tolerate the presence of those who lack absolute love. To lack love is to hate. To sin is to hate one another. To sin is to hate God. People today talk about "hate crimes." All crimes are hate crimes. No one ever says, "I love you, therefore I am stealing your money, burning your house, and killing your dog." Any time you break a commandment of God in thought, word, or deed, you are committing a hate crime against humanity and against God (Rom. 13:8-10). And God in His Love cannot tolerate our hate.

Is God just? Of course, He is perfect in justice. What is justice but love in action? In other words, because God is love, He is just. And, because God is love He can not tolerate injustice or those who are unjust. So, the love of God requires Him to hate hate. Thus we see, maybe, a little glimpse of the Righteousness of God.

Righteousness without the law is manifested. How wonderful. The Righteousness of God is manifested, meaning, revealed, and given to unrighteous sinners without the law. We need to understand that His Righteousness is known in His wrath against sinners, and by His absolutely just condemnation of all people because all are guilty before Him (Rom. 3:19). The law of God, found in the Bible, is a manifestation of his Righteousness, for there He reveals everything we need to know about how to live according to His will, and the consequences of disobedience. The law/Bible teaches us to do righteousness and to be righteous. Though we have failed miserably, the standard is known to us in the law, thus, the Righteousness of God is seen in the law. But how is the righteousness of God known without, or, apart from, the law? Paul is saying something like this; since we are all sinners we are all under the condemnation, or, wrath, of God. And we can never atone for our sins. We can never make them right. So, if we are ever going to be received back into fellowship with the Great Righteous One, and escape His Righteous Wrath, it is going to have to be on the basis of something other than the requirements of the law. It is going to have to be on the basis of something other than our efforts to be good enough.

Francis Schaeffer gives a good illustration of this, saying our guilt has created an infinite chasm between ourselves and God. Any attempt by us to fill that chasm by doing good things is like throwing finite buckets of righteousness into the infinite chasm of our guilt. The harder we try, the more we realise it is impossible to fill infinity with finitude. So, if that chasm is going to be filled, it has to be filled by God Himself, and He has to do it without requiring us to meet the standard. It has to be done apart from the law. Fortunately, there is a way, and this way has been witnessed to by the prophets of the Old Testament and even by the Law itself. "[B]oth the Old Testament and the New Testament tell us that there is a "righteousness of God without the law" (Finished Work of Christ, p. 75).

How does the law of the Old Testament manifest "the righteousness of God without the law"? The law shows three things. First it shows the absolute unchanging standard we are required to meet. Second, it shows the absolute failure of all people to meet the standard. Third, it shows a Substitute that gives its life for sinners. In the New Testament we realise Jesus is that substitute. He is the "Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world" (Jn. 1:29).

I am going to tell you a secret. It is not confidential information. It is meant to be shouted from the housetops and known by all people. It is a secret because very few people know it. What is it? Salvation does not really make us just, at least not in this life. Rather than actually becoming just we are simply declared just by God.

Verses 22-24. Now we begin to see how God can be just, and, at the same time, justify sinners. Justification, as used in the Bible, means to be declared righteous and worthy of Heaven. Justification is the opposite of being declared guilty and worthy of condemnation. Because of the sacrifice of Christ, those who believe in Him through Biblical faith are declared just by God. We have not suddenly become just. We have not suddenly by our own power erased and undone our sins or transformed ourselves from being inclined toward sin to being inclined entirely toward righteousness. We have not suddenly and miraculously become keepers of the Law in absolute, 100% perfection. Rather, apart from the Law and independently of it, we are declared righteous by God.

To understand this we must understand verses 21-24. Let me share William Hendriksen's commentary on these verses.

"apart from the law, a righteousness from God... comes to all who exercise faith ... for all have sinned ... being justified freely by His grace through the redemption [accomplished] in Christ Jesus; whom God designed to be... a wrath-removing sacrifice, [effective] through faith" (Romans, New Testament Commentary, pp. 126-128).

So, we are all sinners and without excuse. We can never make ourselves be anything but sinners, and we can never make up for our sins or make things right between ourselves and God by means His law. Thus, we are all under God's wrath and are condemned to suffer the penalty for our sins. Do you understand this? Do you grasp this, not only intellectually as truth, but also in your spirit as reality in your life? Do you feel it deep in your soul that you are a sinner, guilty of terrible crimes against God, and that you truly and deeply deserve to be cast into hell for eternity? If you don't understand and grasp this in your soul, you have missed one of the two central teachings of the Bible. If you don't understand this you cannot understand what it means to be saved; and, indeed, you cannot be saved or forgiven of your sins. You cannot be a Christian because you will never flee to Jesus as your only hope and Saviour. You will always retain some hope of justifying yourself to God by something you have done or something you have become by yourself. You will never understand that the only possible way of escaping the penalty for sin is for God to make a way to justify you without requiring you to measure up to the absolute, perfect standards of the law. God has done this by offering Christ on the cross. He took your sins. He assumed your "debt." He became responsible for the payment for your sins. Your sins were placed in His account, and He paid for them. His righteousness is placed in your account, and you are declared just. This "justification" is probably much deeper than we will ever be able to understand, but this is all we need to know about it for now. In Heaven we will understand it better, but that will simply mean we understand this whole process better, not that we will see that justification was another and different process. So, without the law, that is, apart from it and on a completely different basis, we are declared to be without guilt.

Verse 26 raises an important question. People often ask how a God who is good can allow evil things to happen. Well, what is the alternative? The alternative is for God to make us simply pre-programmed automatons. But God has not done that. He has left us free to choose. The freedom to choose God requires the freedom to reject Him, just as the freedom to choose good requires the freedom to choose evil. Yes, there are great limits on our ability to choose, and we cannot ignore these limits. Neither can we ignore the fact that we are always free and responsible for our choices. It is also important to differentiate between freedom and ability. We are always free to choose good. That is not the same as saying we are always able to choose good. We must remember that we are naturally inclined towards evil, and we tend to act on the basis of this inclination. That's what makes it so difficult to do good sometimes. It may be compared to jumping over the moon. I have the freedom to jump over the moon; what I lack is the ability.

This also raises the issue of the difference between freedom and will. I am free to ride my horse in a steeple chase. Fortunately, I have no will do so. Likewise, we are all free to choose good at all times, 100%. What we lack is the will to choose it.

These are not the primary questions I want to raise at this point, however. The point, or question, I want to raise follows naturally from the teaching that God will justify people apart from the law. The question can be stated; how can God be good, yet not punish sinners? How can God be just, yet still provide a way for sinners to be justified apart from meeting the standards of His law? To not condemn us seems like He is just letting us off. It seems like He is just dismissing the charges. It seems like He is simply not enforcing the law. To simply ignore the law and our sin would make Him exceedingly wicked. Simply letting us off would be a tragic miscarriage of justice, and would make God Himself a sinner. So how can God justify us, and still remain just? That is the problem addressed in this verse. One of the best explanations of this is found in Francis Schaeffer's book, The Finished Work of Christ pages 80 and 81, which I quote.

"How can God remain the absolutely just ruler of the universe, and yet justify me, an ungodly sinner?
Note first of all that God must remain absolutely just, or we have no real basis for moral standards. It is impossible to have moral standards without there being a moral absolute. Without an absolute we are left with either hedonism or some sort of relative standard, such as, 'whatever is best for society.' Words like right and wrong cease to have any real meaning. There must be an absolute, and the Bible provides the only adequate answer to this need for a moral absolute: The moral absolute is the perfectly 'just' character of God Himself.
That's why 3:26 is such a key verse. Because Jesus has borne our guilt on the cross, God can remain 'just.' The moral basis of our universe can be upheld. Yet at the same time He can be the 'justifier' of all those who believe in and accept Christ's payment for their sin.
Whether I have been among those with the Bible, or those without the Bible, I have been numbered among the ungodly. Whether I've been a Jew or a Gentile, I've been under the wrath of God. So how can God justify me? As soon as God would justify me by overlooking my sin, He's no longer just. And as soon as He is no longer just, we no longer live in a moral universe, everything collapses. But there is a way in which God can deal with my sin and your sin, and yet remain just. There is a way in which God, remaining just and therefore not deviating one iota from His holiness, not letting down the bars one tenth of one percent, can justify you and me. He can do this because Jesus Christ, His Son, took the full punishment for our sin.
God's love is seen, not in forgiving sin, for in a sense no sin can ever be forgiven or we would cease to live in a moral universe. God's love is seen rather, in sending His only Son, Jesus Christ, to pay the price, to be the covering for all our sin. God maintains His holiness. He doesn't deviate from His total justice. And yet, without abandoning His moral law, He can fully justify anyone who believes in Jesus and accepts His perfect sacrifice for sin.
So who is eligible for this covering of sin? Anyone? Everyone? Unlike many modern philosophers, God does not view us as just so many faceless masks. He doesn't deal with us as if we were machines. He treats us as individuals. He deals with us on the level on which He created us-as moral and rational beings. Therefore, even though Christ's death is a sufficient covering for all sins, there is a condition on who will receive this covering. This covering of sin, this justification, applies only to 'everyone that believeth' (1:16), to 'all them that believe' (3:22), to 'him which believeth' (3:26).
Which individuals does God justify? He justifies those who through faith accept what Christ has done for them, those who are united to the work of Jesus Christ through the instrument of faith"

Verses 28- 30 bring us to the conclusion is that we are justified by faith, not by the law regardless of our background. Jew and Gentile are saved by one way only, faith in Christ. I quote Francis Schaeffer again, p. 82.

"Paul has brought it all together. Why do we need salvation? Because we're guilty. Why do we need salvation? Because we're under the wrath of God. The man without the Bible, the Gentile, is under the wrath of God (1:18-2:16). The man with the Bible, the Jew, is under the wrath of God (2:17-3:8). Then Paul draws them all together declaring everyone to be under God's wrath (3:9-20). Then he tells us this marvelous way of salvation that God has provided through the finished work of Jesus Christ (3:21-28). Then he draws all mankind together again, declaring that God is the same God toward all people; and all people-Jews and Gentiles alike-must be justified in exactly the same way (3:29-30)."

Do you see the Good News in this? Do you see that because of Christ we are relieved of the terrible burden of having to be good enough for God, all the while knowing we can never be good enough? Do you see that in Christ your guilt is gone forever because He took your guilt upon Himself? Do you see that Christ suffered the penalty of your sins for you, and that you are declared righteous because of Christ? Do you see that the gates of hell, once pulling you relentlessly toward them have now been shut, and you couldn't get in even if you wanted to? Do you see that Christ has purchased Heaven and peace, and everlasting joy for you, and it is yours forever and forever, and all you have to do is receive it by faith? This is justification by faith. This is the meaning of Romans 1:17, "the just shall live by faith"