“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:20-26 ESV)
Over the past several weeks, we have considered how scripture and Paul’s teaching leaves us in a quandary. We have a tendency to justify ourselves and our actions in light of others. We survey the landscape of everyone else’s lives and their obvious failures before God and then try and use them as a means to justify ourselves before God. Our reasoning is, “I might sin and make some stupid mistakes, but have you looked at them? Really, I’m not as bad as THEY are!” This week, I included the last verse from last week’s focal passage – For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
While I didn’t focus much on that verse, you should really read it and then read it, again. Paul’s point? You can’t justify yourself by trying to point out your personal observance of and obedience to God’s laws. Why? Because His law simply reveals how sinful you and I really are. The Laws of God, whether those written down in scripture or those written on our hearts, serve to demonstrate our inability to be completely obedient. The law is really a spotlight on our sin. Up to this point, Paul’s arguments have all been focused on demonstrating our “universal” guilt before God. Nobody is excluded, all are guilty. Jew and Gentile alike, stand condemned before the Righteous Judge. Depressing isn’t it? Thankfully, he doesn’t stop there…
Stop the presses. Hold the phone. Newsflash! Public Service Announcement. Those two little words introduce a HUGE change in direction. They offer HOPE for our situation. In fact, they offer the only hope for our situation. You see, every religion in the world hinges on this same human tendency to justify ourselves before God through religious feelings or zealousness, obedience to religious standards, and our actions or ability to observe them. It doesn’t matter what you label it, how you dress it up, what language or culture originated the religious ideal, it all comes down to human nature, our guilt before a Holy God and our attempts at justifying ourselves before Him despite our failures. Some of the major religions openly acknowledge this struggle by putting in a repetitive cycle of striving to achieve this ideal while others allow for a grand display of religious fervor, devotion and zealousness that seemingly wipes away all previous failures. According to them, we are all weighed on the scales of cosmic justice to determine our worthiness.
How is this message of hope, The Gospel of Jesus Christ, different from all of the world’s other religions or religious attempts at placating or satisfying God? It isn’t based on our personal attempts at righteousness or religious fervor. In fact, it isn’t a religion at all… it is a RELATIONSHIP. According to Webster’s Dictionary, religion can be defined as a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices. Paul’s next statement clears this up with regards to Christ, “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.” The law can really be summed up simply as “religious attitude, belief, or practice.”
Now, Jesus said that He did not come to abolish the law or prophets (Old Testament scripture) but to fulfill them — or to fill them up with himself (see Matt. 5:17). In other words, He came to demonstrate or cast a spotlight on how God intended for them to fulfilled and obeyed. In case your not following me, I’ll lay it out plainly. Legalistic is not a term that was EVER applied to Jesus. In fact, the opposite is really true. The Pharisees, who were very legalistic, considered Jesus a dangerous threat to the Law. Why? Because He demonstrated that God is as interested in our intentions as He is in our actions. Let me see if I can illustrate my point…
In Luke 10, Jesus addresses this very issue. He has been asked by an Old Testament law expert (lawyer) about “inheriting eternal life” (really, just a fancy way of asking – How do I get to heaven?). Jesus responded, “You know the law. So, what do you understand it to say?” The lawyer summarized the law by quoting the two great commandments – “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said that he had responded correctly and if he would do these things then he would live (eternally). The man, wanting to justify himself, asked Jesus: “Then, who is my neighbor?” I really need you to get the point of his question. He felt as though he had successfully fulfilled that command and he was seeking Jesus’ confirmation. I’m certain Jesus’ response did not leave him feeling comfortable. Why? Jesus responded with the story of the Good Samaritan.
While I’m certain that most of you know that story, in it Jesus shows how religious piety and zealousness are not what you might expect. He begins by describing the circumstances of how a man going down to Jericho was, in today’s terms, mugged, robbed and left for dead alongside the road. Notice that the man’s identity and social status are not given. Why? Because it is irrelevant. Jesus then describes how a Jewish Priest and a Levite (basically, a Senior Pastor and another ministerial staff member) come along at different times but both carefully avoid the man by stepping around him being very careful not to risk becoming “unclean” by touching a dead body. Now, they don’t know if he’s dead or not but they aren’t taking any chances. Touching a dead body would mean they would be ritually unclean and unable to perform their religious duties, for a period of time. Afterwards, a Samaritan business man, who seems to travel this route quite often, comes along and sees the situation. He stops and begins acting in a very benevolent and caring way towards this complete stranger. The Samaritan not only provides first aid, but even places him on his own animal and takes him to the inn where he had planned on spending the night. He continues caring for him throughout the night and then leaves money with the innkeeper for his needs as he leaves the next day, promising to repay him on his return trip if it isn’t enough. Jesus then asks the lawyer, “Who do you think acted like a neighbor to the man along the road?” Of course, the lawyer knows and answers that it was the man who showed him mercy. Jesus reply is simple but direct — “Go, and do the same.”
Jesus point? While strict adherence to the law of ritual uncleanness that the Priest and Levite followed might be considered admirable by them, it actually caused them to break the greater commandments of loving God and their neighbor. My point? We make the same mistake the Priest and Levite made and it leaves us guilty of sin and in need of a solution and that’s what Paul is presenting. We often try and follow religious rituals, but those same rituals often cause us to become legalistic in our religious beliefs and actions leaving us guilty of breaking the greater commands of loving God with all of our being and loving our neighbors like we love ourselves.
Solution? There’s a solution to this dilemma? Absolutely! “The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” How can belief in Jesus possibly make things different? Isn’t that just more religious talk and moral requirements? How is that any different? Ah, I’m glad you asked. Let’s take a closer look at what Paul says…
First, Pauls says the righteousness we really need, truly desire and ought to seek is not our own but God’s righteousness and he says it comes through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. So, we aren’t trying to work up enough good, moral deeds to offset our moral and religious failures but are relying upon something that God has done on our behalf. He also points out that this is not a new concept, but has been a part of God’s plan all along and is illustrated and referenced in the Law and Prophets (Old Testament). He then tells us that there is no distinction or difference. This salvation is no different for the Jew than it is for the Gentile, we are all in need of the same work of God’s grace. In fact, he then states “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” In other words, we are all reaching for the stars but none of us have been able to touch even a single one.
I want to take a moment and clarify what I see as a common misconception about sin. This passage, specifically verse 23, says that we are all guilty of sin. This is true but often misunderstood and misconstrued. We have taken the commonality of sinfulness and misconstrued it with the severity of sin. While we are ALL guilty of sin, not all sin is the same. While a lie will make you just as guilty of sin as murder will, the act of murder is certainly a significantly worse sin than lying. To use the analogy above, while we all may be reaching for the stars some may be standing in an underground mine reaching while others might be standing on the mountaintop. However, neither are capable of touching the stars — or to use Paul’s language, they have aimed for the glory of God, but both have fallen short and are justified only by His grace, as a gift.
Next, Pauls says that our redemption (our being bought out of slavery to sin) is through Jesus Christ whom God has put forward as a propitiation. I’m quite certain that is NOT a word you regularly use in your vocabulary. So, let me break it down for you. If you go and do a Google search on “propitiate” then you will get “win or regain the favor of (a god, spirit, or person) by doing something that pleases them.” Quick lesson, this word (Greek: hilasterion) appears only twice in the New Testament, here and in Hebrews 9:5. However, it is used extensively in the Greek Old Testament (called the Septuagint) and is translated there as “mercy seat” just like it is in Hebrews 9:5. The Mercy Seat is the place in the Temple’s Holy of Holies where the High Priest would sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. It is the place where God met Moses during the Jew’s wilderness wanderings and where God’s Spirit dwelt among the Israelites.
Simply put, Jesus’ sacrifice is the Mercy Seat that satisfies God’s demand for justice in response to our sin and, thus, releases the flow of God’s mercy to cover our sin-filled life with Jesus’ righteousness and bring us into fellowship and communion with Almighty God. To summarize, the blood of Christ’s sacrifice is not just sprinkled on the Mercy Seat but He is the Mercy Seat and God receives Him as a substitute sacrifice on your behalf, but this gift of redemption and forgiveness comes by God’s grace and through your faith or trust in Jesus Christ.
Let me spend a minute addressing this issue of faith. Some folks in our culture see “faith” as believing in something even though there’s no reasonable reason to do so. Sort of like, “I believe this even though it makes no sense and goes against everything I see and understand.” That is NOT what faith in Christ is or how faith in Christ actually works. Faith is trust in someone or something because they have shown to be faithful and trustworthy. When someone proves themselves faithful and trustworthy, then it certainly changes our outlook on them and we tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. They’ve been trustworthy in the past, so if something happens and we lack specific evidence, we will tend to believe them based on their past trustworthiness. So, my faith in Jesus is based on what I know about Him, His character, actions, teachings, and the evidence regarding His identity and His resurrection. All of these things add up to define and affirm my faith.
Are there some things I don’t understand or scripture doesn’t explain? Sure there is, but Jesus’ faithfulness and the truth of God’s Word give me the ability to trust Him and leave these questions or issues “in tension” or not fully explained to my finite human mind because I believe He is worthy of my trust in these issues. As Hebrews 11:1 says, “faith is the evidence or proof of those things that I am unable to see with my physical senses or understand with my finite/limited mind (My paraphrase).” We all believe in things we are unable to physically see or fully understand but we see sufficient evidence to support those beliefs. I have never seen oxygen or gravity, but I’ve seen sufficient evidence to know how those things work and impact my life. In fact, my faith in them is demonstrated every day as I take a breath or a step. Are you willing to consider the evidence for the existence of God, the truth of the Gospel and the resurrection of Christ? I pray you are…
Paul then says that God’s acceptance of Jesus’ actions on our behalf is intended to put God’s righteousness on full display and to assure us that He will be just towards past sin that He has not judged and just towards us regarding our sin. Ah, there’s the heart of the matter. Should God be just and hold those who are guilty of sin responsible for their actions? Before you jump out there and give me an answer, consider Paul’s statement regarding the universal nature of sin. We are all guilty. As he has just stated, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” So, how would you answer that question now? Well…
I don’t know about you, but it is much easier for me to think that God should really be just and hold some folks fully responsible for their sin but He can ignore some of mine. That’s really the issue. We want God to be just until it comes to our personal liability, then not so much. I mean, that guy who nearly caused me to wreck my car last week probably deserves God’s full wrath but God should ignore my stupid mistakes. I’m a nice guy, that guy was just a fool. I sure hope you catch the irony in my statements – it is intentional. Paul is doing the same. The Jews felt about the Gentiles the way I do about that crazy driver, they deserve God’s wrath but we don’t. So, Paul has been carefully establishing our universal guilt, then he drops the hammer. We’re all guilty, we all deserve God’s wrath… but Jesus has satisfied God’s wrath by being the sacrifice and the Mercy Seat and He offers you and I the opportunity to let God’s gift of grace cover our guilt with Christ’s blood and righteousness. All it takes is faith in Jesus. Will you believe?
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