God Makes a Way
Romans 3:21 – 31
God Makes a Way
The suspense is killing me ...
Most of you will know that in the last month we’ve seen some significant growth in our church’s ministry down on the South Coast. We now have 3 Bible Study Groups and a kids’ program running in Middleton on a Sunday evening. And because the great majority of the people who are part of that have no other connection with our church, those study groups aren’t following the same study material as the rest of us in our Bible Studies. Instead we’ve prepared a set of study guides particularly focussed for them.
And one of the questions in the study the other week, was this, “If humanity were to devise a solution to the problem of sin and separation from God, what would it look like?”
And generally everyone agreed, that if humanity were to come up with a solution to the problem of, living in God’s world, but living as God’s enemies, and therefore facing God’s righteous anger, the solution would almost certainly be based entirely on us doing something, to try and get back into a right relationship with God. But the problem as we’ve seen in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome over the past few weeks, is that doing, can never work. The conclusion that we reach at this point in the letter to the Romans, is that individually and collectively, whether Jew or Gentile, we all face God’s righteous judgment for our sin and rebellion, and there’s nothing at all that we can do about it.
We are so far from God,
So far from living up to God’s standard of perfection,
We so completely reject God’s pattern for life, and so determined to exchange other things for God, that any effort on our part,
Any attempt to bridge the divide that we have created between us and God, is ultimately fruitless.
And so we’re left with the question hanging over us, the suspense is enormous,
How can sinful humanity be put right with God?
We’re hanging, waiting for an answer.
When I was a kid I used to read Hardy Boys novels, the 2 brothers who were amateur detectives, and every chapter of the stories, finished with a cliff-hanger, some problem that needed to be solved, and you had to turn to the next chapter, to find out what the solution was. That’s where we find ourselves today, about to turn the page, on the great cliff-hanger of human existence; How can we gain a right standing before God.
The opening verses of this section have been called “the very heart of the Christian message”, and I think it was David Smith, the Senior Pastor of Trinity City Church, who once said, “there is a sermon in each and every one of these verses.” To which I would add, “at least one sermon!”
But because of their significance, we’ll spend most of our time, in these opening few lines.
So how can we gain a right standing before God?
And so Paul’s answer, to that great and pressing problem, of how can sinful humanity get into a right relationship with God, is that God himself makes a way.
Verse 21, But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.
Paul’s saying this is where we were, but now, something’s changed.
Do you remember Jared from the Subway TV ads years ago? He was always holding is trousers that were now 20 sizes too big because he lost 200 kilos eating Subway sandwiches?
Before and after.
That’s what Paul is showing here.
Although we were all in that situation of being under the power of sin and facing God’s just judgment, now the righteousness of God has been made known.
Many of you will work in occupations, or be involved in other activities that have their own particular language associated with them.
I remember when I was studying biology at university, and struggling with all the strange new words I was learning, I read that a first year biology student would learn more new words, than a student studying a foreign language!
Well, it’s the same in Christian thinking. There are some words that are absolutely key to understanding the Christian message, which may be new to us, or maybe we’re not entirely sure what they mean, and here, we find one of these words; righteousness.
Righteousness is the character or action of God, that means he deals rightly with his people.
God’s righteousness means that he judges justly, for example.
God’s righteousness means what when he saves people, he does it rightly, he doesn’t do wrong to these people, in order to save those people.
And when people are spoken of as righteous, it’s particularly the idea of having a right standing before God that is on view.
Being not guilty,
Having a clean record, if you like.
And Paul says here, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been made known.
This verse has been the subject of much discussion over the years, and actually, many of us will have different words in front of us, because the updated NIV translation of the Bible, which is in the blue church Bibles, differs from the older NIV, which probably lots of us still have.
Has God changed his plans with regard to righteousness?
They haven’t changed the meaning of it at all, don’t worry, but they have made it more clear.
This is slightly complicated, so I need you to try and stick with me. And it’s important, because if we’re unclear on this, we’ll misunderstand how God has worked across salvation history.
The old NIV says But now, a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known.
If that’s the translation that we’re familiar with, we have to make sure that we don’t think that Paul is saying, a righteousness from God, which comes to us apart from law, has now been made known, because that would imply that, previously, in the Old Testament era, a right standing before God, did come, through the law.
Do you see that?, If we understand it, as some people do, that Paul’s saying, a righteousness . apart from the law, has now been made known, well then previously there must have been a righteousness that did come through the law.
And lots of Christians think that.
They assume that that in the Old Testament, you were OK with God, if you obeyed the works of the law of Moses, but then in the New Testament, things changed,
God had a new idea,
A “mid-course correction”, as they say in election campaigns.
But we know that a right standing before God could never be achieved by obeying the law, that’s there in verse 20, no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law;
No, the but now doesn’t signal a change in how a right standing before God can be achieved.
It’s not that the righteousness from God can now be ours, apart from the law, but as the updated NIV says, But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been made known.
The change that Paul is highlighting, the but now, is not to do with how righteousness is received;, but on how it’s disclosed, how it’s made known.
Now, apart from the law, God communicates something new about how people can come into a right relationship with him.
now, in Christ Jesus,
Through Jesus’ death on the cross,
Through the preaching of the gospel, which Paul himself is doing,
Something new about God’s righteousness is revealed, and Paul unpacks just what has been revealed through Jesus, and the preaching of the gospel, a few lines down.
There hasn’t been a change, in how God makes people righteous.
Old Testament, New Testament, Today.
What has changed, is the way that God communicates, reveals, how we can gain that righteousness.
And there’s one other reason, that we know that God hasn’t changed the way that people can be accepted by him, with the coming of Jesus, he hasn’t switched from righteousness by law, to righteousness apart from the law, and that is, because the whole Old Testament testifies to God’s plan of making people righteous by faith.
The Old Testament witnesses to God’s plans to make people righteous through faith in Jesus
It is this right standing before God through faith to which the Law and the Prophets testify Paul says.
The gospel of Jesus, that says come to God freely and be welcomed by him, because you can never earn God’s favour, or a right standing before him, that gospel is not some afterthought that God added, because his first plan, righteousness through the law fell flat on its face.
No God had always planned to save people by his grace,
He had always been working towards that plan of giving righteousness.
Imagine someone were to ask us, “What is the purpose of the Old Testament law? What’s the purpose of the Old Testament more generally?”
Some of us, I imagine, might struggle to answer that question.
What would you say?
Well, we saw last week that it wasn’t so people could obey their way into a right relationship with God.
So, maybe the purpose of the law was to provide a moral framework for God’s people to live by?
That’s, part of the answer.
To, provide a legal structure for the nation of Israel?
Again, that is true, that’s part of the picture.
To reveal people’s sin?
Yep, verse 20 of chapter 3 tells us that.
But Paul here teaches us that the law also has a prophetic function.
Yes, the Law that God gave to his people through Moses provided a moral standard,
A legal framework,
And a consciousness of sin,
But the Old Testament, what he sums up as the law and the prophets, testify to the righteousness that is being revealed.
The Old Testament testifies to the right standing before God, that can be ours, because of Jesus, through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe
Would that have been part of our answer?
What is the purpose of the Old Testament?
What is it good for?
To testify to the right standing before God that can be ours through Jesus.
We know about testifying, it’s what witnesses do in court. You might have heard some of the testimony this week, in the case against Rolf Harris, terrible testimony of crimes committed.
And of course the testimony is only required, if there’s someone opposing it, if someone’s saying, “No, that position is not true!”
To testify is to speak of the truth against a counter-claim.
The judge doesn’t put the scarred and fragile witness through the harrowing ordeal of having to testify if everybody already agrees, “Yes, that’s exactly what happened.”
And of course, the testimony of the Old Testament is opposed.
There are plenty of people today, as in the days of the Old Testament itself, who claim that a right standing before God can be achieved by some other means, other than through faith in Jesus Christ.
Obey the law, someone says,
Give money, “I had a dream,” said rapper Kanye West, “That I could buy my way to heaven.”
Do good, someone else says,
“I have earned my place in heaven”, said Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York. “When I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.”
And it’s all because of his work for gun control, his anti-smoking message, and campaigns for healthier eating.
No, the Old Testament witnesses to the fact that a right standing before God comes, through faith in Jesus.
Time and time again, the Old Testament promises that God will be true to Word,
The promises to draw a people to himself will be fulfilled.
The Old Testament says you cannot live up to God’s standard of perfection,
You need some other way, to be given a right standing before God,
And the Old Testament pictures a day, when people will be welcomed by God, because they’ve trusted in the way to relationship that God provides.
They’ve thrown themselves on God’s mercy and accepted the free gift of relationship and blessing that God provides,
That is the message of the Old Testament.
Naturally then, this dispels the myth that the Old Testament is somehow an inferior revelation from God.
Yes, the right standing before God that can be ours has been made known apart from the law, it’s been made known through Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, but it is exactly to that means of coming into a relationship with God, that the Law and the Prophets testify.
And this witness of the Old Testament is an ongoing testimony.
It didn’t just stop to have that function when Jesus turned up.
Testify there is a present participle, for those of you who like grammar, the law and the prophets are testifying.
It’s not that they testified back then, but now they have ceased to function.
The Old Testament today, testifies against those who would promote some other message about how sinful people can be welcomed and made acceptable to God.
It is only through faith in Jesus Christ.
Justification is offered as a free gift for all (v 22b – 25)
And so having made the great statement that a right standing before God is available to all who believe in Jesus, Paul now turns his attention to exactly how this can come about.
Look with me, if you will, at the last part of verse 22, There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
All are justified freely by God’s grace.
Again, here’s a technical word that we need to make sure we understand rightly;, justified.
It’s a word that comes out of the legal world.
So depending on, who you are, think either Atticus Finch, in to Kill a Mockingbird, or the DA in Law and Order, or Judge Judy, whichever one of those is your world! Picture that scene in your mind, and that’s where this word comes from.
To justify someone is to declare them righteous.
In fact it’s a very similar word, and you may have heard me say before, that to be justified, is to be righteous-ified.
A person is justified, when God declares them righteous.
So remember courtroom language. It’s the verdict being handed down, “Not guilty”, “acquitted”.
Of course, once the judge says to the person “you’re not guilty”, they’re not treated like a criminal any more, are they? “You’re free to go, there’s no charge for you to answer.”
I was reading this week about the Congo Free State, which, really was established as the personal property, of King Leopold the Second of Belgium.
And such terrible atrocities were committed there, that a visiting missionary wrote to the governor, and he said “I was so moved, Your Excellency, by the people's stories that I took the liberty of promising them, that in future, you will only kill them for crimes they actually commit."
Once you’ve been declared not guilty, you should be treated as not guilty, and so when God justifies someone, declares them to be not guilty, and in a right standing before him, he treats that person as not guilty.
That is justification.
To be treated by God as if you’ve never sinned,
As if there’s nothing getting in the way of you having a relationship with him,
Because there isn’t.
Who can be justified this way?
And Paul says, this is for everybody,
There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace
The Changi prison in Singapore is kind of famous for internments during World War 2, but it is an actual prison, and some years ago I was in the prison, as a visitor, I should point out, not as an inmate!
And I was given a copy of the New Testament, that the prison chaplain gives to inmates when they arrive in there.
And because most of the people arriving there are unfamiliar with the Bible, to help them understand the message of the New Testament, there’s a note that says, start reading here, with these words, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace
Verse 23 all have sinned,
Verse 24, all are justified freely by his grace.
It’s the same category of people who are out of relationship with God, who can be brought in to right relationship with God.
There is no person to whom this justification is not available.
There is no person here, no person that you know, for whom this justification cannot work.
Think of the person who to you seems the least likely in the whole world, to ever come into a right relationship with God and become a Christian.
If they’re sitting next to you, don’t look at them, that could be awkward!
Even that person can be justified freely, declared not guilty, because of Jesus’ death.
How is justification achieved?
And so we come to the means by which justification is achieved, The reason that a righteous, just, and holy God, could look at you, or could look at me, or could look at that person you thought of, who may or may not be sitting next to you!, and declare them not guilty, and in a right relationship with him, is explained in 4 pieces, that make up the whole picture.
Firstly, in verse 24, we are justified by grace.
Michael Bloomberg thinks he’s earned a right relationship with God. Paul says “sorry, Michael, that’s not how it works.”
A right standing before God comes by grace.
That is, it’s free.
It is undeserved.
Which means that people who think they deserve it, invariably, miss out on it.
People who think they deserve a right relationship with God, miss out on it, unless something happens to change their thinking.
Now, naturally as humans we react against this free gift of justification.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch, we think, let alone a free right relationship with God!
But being justified, gaining a right standing before God, isn’t like running a marathon, where you run and run and run and run, so I’m told!
But you run and run and run, and if you run well enough, better than everyone else, you get a prize!
That’s what Michael Bloomberg thinks. “I’ve run well enough, I’ll get the prize.”
But see the problem with that is, until the point that you stumble over the finish line half dead,
Until that very last split second, you don’t know whether you’ve made it, do you?
You don’t know if you’re good enough!
If a right standing before God depends on your effort, you can’t ever be sure, that you’ve done enough.
If I’m saved, right with God because of my works, then my works, or the lack of my works, can undo my right standing before God.
But if I’m right with God because of who God is, and what God has done, then I have ultimate assurance, because God never changes.
Despite Michael Bloomberg’s grand talk, if our justification depends on our own efforts, there is never any assurance.
Just crossing our fingers, and hoping for the best.
No, we are justified freely by God’s grace.
One hymn writer wrote
No merit of my own I bring
Before my maker’s face.
For in me dwelleth no good thing,
My only plea before the king –
A sinner, saved by grace
By an act of redemption
So justification is free for us, but it came at a cost. Paul says out justification comes about Through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
Redemption says that there was a price to be paid.
This is a word from the slave market.
In the ancient world, if you couldn’t pay a debt, you might be sold into slavery. And you could be redeemed from slavery, if someone paid the debt that you owed.
Now you might have heard some people say that Jesus paid this ransom to Satan, to redeem us to him. That is utter rubbish.
We’re not in debt to Satan. We’re in debt to God!
Jesus pays the debt to God, that we couldn’t pay ourselves.
God’s law says there is a penalty for sin.
You cannot push God to the edge of your life and beyond, with impunity.
The penalty for that, is death and separation from God.
And either we pay that penalty, all eternity far from God and far from his blessing, or we accept the payment that Jesus made, the redemption he offers, when he suffered under God’s righteous anger at sin.
Through the propitiation of Christ
See, the price, is the life of God’s own son.
And here’s another word we need to get a handle on!
See verse 25, God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood
That phrase sacrifice of atonement translates just one Greek word, that means “propitiation.”
It’s a word that came from the pagan religious temples, and it means to turn away anger, specifically, to turn away the anger of the gods.
Propitiate: To turn away anger, especially through offering a sacrifice.
Now, the pagan gods of ancient Greece and Rome were an unpredictable lot, .
You never knew quite what might make them angry on any given day.
And if the gods were angry, you needed to turn away their anger,
You needed to propitiate them,
And the propitiation was the sacrifice that turned the gods’ anger away from you, and onto itself.
If you know the story of King Kong, when they arrive at that island, and the villagers have left the young woman outside the village. She is a propitiation. She’s left there, so that Kong might be satisfied, and not destroy the whole village in his anger.
Actually, it happens in reality today. I know a woman from Ghana, who had been a propitiation to pagan gods.
There’s a barbaric practice in West Africa called Trokosi, where a young girl is handed over to the gods, made a sex slave in a shrine, because the pagan priest declares that some member of her family, or even some long-dead ancestor, has angered the gods.
As long as she remains in the shrine, it’s thought that the gods’ anger is turned away from the rest of her family.
Now, many people, many Christians, don’t like the idea of a God who gets angry!
But the propitiation pictured here, is not like satisfying the gods of ancient mythology, or even the fetish gods of West Africa.
God’s anger isn’t capricious, unpredictable, fly off the handle anger, like the gods of those ancient myths,
Nor is it the “I get angry when things don’t go my way!” anger of my 2 year old!
It’s not even the “embarrassed, patience running out” anger, of my 2 year old’s father!
God’s anger is the necessary reaction of righteous God, to sin.
God’s anger is his settled opposition to sin.
God’s anger is deserved, that’s been Paul’s argument up to this point in the letter, hasn’t it.
But perhaps even more than any of that, this propitiation, is not made by frantic worshippers,
Or desperate family members, sending their daughter away to the shrine,
This propitiation is made by God himself.
Verse 25, God presented Christ as a propitiation, a sacrifice of atonement,
God turns his anger at sin away from us, and onto himself.
It’s the picture we see in the Old Testament, on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, where a goat would be sacrificed, as a sign, a reminder, of the turning away of God’s anger at sin. The goat propitiated God’s anger.
I have a friend who’s a missionary in Japan, and I was speaking with him about this passage, just this week. And he showed me, that in the Kanji characters of the Japanese language, the word for justify is the character for “goat”, with the character for “person”, underneath it.
That’s, justification, being covered, by the propitiation.
In the death of Christ, God spares us, and judges sin, by bearing the full weight of sin and its cost himself. It’s why Paul can say, in verse 26, he can be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus
God doesn’t look the other way.
Sin receives its due penalty.
And yet if you receive this offer of a right standing before God by faith, you will never even taste the smallest part of God’s righteous anger at your sin.
There is nothing now, to be reckoned against you.
That is the offer of justification.
It can be ours, simply through faith.
We saw it back in verse 22 didn’t we?
This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe
Putting people in a right relationship with God, is God’s work. And yet, each person has to make a response.
The way to receive the right standing that God offers is by believing in Jesus.
We’ve said throughout this series in Romans, that it was in significant part, through studying this book, that the 16th Century theologian Martin Luther, re-discovered that this truth, a right relationship with God, solely by faith, was at the heart of the Christian message.
And so Luther called this kind of faith, in Latin, fides viva, a living faith.
See, it’s not just enough to say, I believe Jesus died. Any historian will acknowledge that. The death and resurrection of Jesus are probably the most well-attested events in all of ancient history!
A living faith says, I believe Jesus died for me.
I believe that Jesus paid the price for me.
And a living faith will say, “Since I am right with God, I will live as someone who is right with God.”
That’s the motivation for morality and conduct, not as a means to justification, but as a response to justification.
At the risk of confusing us, by adding another term, that isn’t actually in this passage, many of us will be familiar with the concept of sanctification.
Sanctification is the process of our lives becoming more and more like what God wants them to be.
Sanctification is ethical,
It’s about living rightly.
Lots of Christians, assess their justification, their standing before God, according to their own sanctification.
They look at their life, “Today, am I doing good? Or am I doing bad?”
And from that they conclude, “therefore my standing before God today, is either good, or bad.”
Can you see that that’s the wrong way round!
We ought to think about our sanctification, our ethics, our lives, our choices, in the light of our justification.
“I have been welcomed and accepted by God.
That does not change. Not today. Not tomorrow.
Therefore I have both a motivation and a framework, for living in a way that is pleasing to God.
When God looks at me, he sees someone who is not guilty!
Wow, can that change the way I live?!
When God sees me, he doesn’t see a single wrong thing that I have done, he sees his Son, Jesus, who paid the price, and took the punishment that I deserved.
I’m free from the power of sin,
I’m free from sin’s condemnation,
I’m free from trying to impress God by my efforts.
What enormous freedom that gives me, to live as someone who has a right standing before God.
My dad used to tell the story of an English man who went on a driving holiday across Europe in his Rolls Royce –“touring,” I think they call it when you have a Rolls Royce!
And a good choice, because you know what they say, “A Rolls Royce never breaks down”!
And so this guy’s halfway across Europe, when the engine just cuts out, on some narrow country road. Try as he might, he just can’t get it started, so he hitches a lift into the next village, and calls the Rolls Royce factory back in the UK.
“Ah, we’re very sorry, sir. We’ll have someone out straight away. In the meantime, we’ll put you up in a nearby hotel, and there’ll be a Rolls Royce loan vehicle at your disposal.”
So they organise the hotel, and the second car, and they fly a mechanic, to Europe, to the little country lane, and he spends 2 days fixing this man’s car, before they deliver it to him about 2 countries further on. When he gets back home, he thinks, “I really should write and thank them, for the extraordinary service!” So he sends off a letter, you know, “Dear Rolls Royce people, thank you for the amazing service you provided when my Rolls Royce broke down.”
Couple of days later, he gets a letter back.
“Dear sir, thank you for your letter. We have no record of your Rolls Royce ever breaking down!
Yeah, it’s a silly story!
That is exactly how God will respond to those who trust in Jesus, for righteousness.
“Dear Clayton, I have no record, of your sin and rebellion.”
“Dear, fill in your name”, I have no record, of your sin and rebellion.”