Getting Things Right
Have you ever heard something that totally changed the way you look at the world? Nine-eleven did this for a lot of folks. We couldn’t understand the world to operate in the same ways after that infamous morning. More broadly speaking, the intellectual foundations which ultimately brought the world into the modern era—quite a change—were laid when in June and September of 1905 a German young man working in a Swiss patent office submitted two papers to the Annalen der Physik scientific journal. The first paper was entitled “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.” The second paper was entitled “Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content?” The two papers were both less than 10 pages in length and, shockingly, contained no external references—meaning every idea in the papers originated with the author. To you give a bit of context, I wrote a biochemistry research paper on an important compound used in chemotherapy. The paper was 20 pages long, included 47 external references, and contained basically one original-to-me idea. My paper got me a good grade in the class, but contributed nothing to the overall scientific community, let alone bringing about a change in the whole world. This young man’s first paper irrevocably changed not only the way scientists had to understand how the world works, but also the way you and I think about it. It led to many if not most of the physical discoveries about our world that have happened since. The second paper led to at least as many scientific advancements including thrusting the world into the atomic age. Their impact did not stop there, though. The worldview implications of these two papers brought about revolutions in philosophy, sociology, theology, psychology, and several other disciplines. While some of the changes took several decades to fully unfold, when the world learned that Albert Einstein believed in a concept called “special relativity” as well as the fact that the energy of an object is directly related to the product of its mass and the velocity of light squared, or e=mc2, as the idea is more familiarly known, everything about the world changed.
We are now in the second week of our series, “Do Over.” The whole idea for this series is that all of us have been in a time or place in our lives when we needed a second run at things. We’ve all needed a “do over.” In fact, if we spend much time thinking about it, for most of us, we need not simply a single-point do over, we need a do over for our entire lives because they are a train wreck in one way or another. Put another way: we have a problem that we can’t solve. And the problem is this: we can’t live up to God’s standard on our own. The way I know this is because even if you happen to reject God’s standard for living—and I’m glad you’re here if you do—preferring to strive for your own personal alternative, you still don’t even live up to your own standard. And if you can’t manage to fulfill your own standard for right living, how do you think you are going to keep God’s standard which is a whole lot higher than yours? Again: we have a problem that we can’t solve.
Our introduction to this idea came by looking at an early part of a letter an ancient Jesus follower named Paul wrote to some other Jesus followers in the city of Rome. And here is why we take anything Paul said about Jesus as worthwhile: He knew all the guys who knew Jesus personally. He knew James and Peter and John and all the other disciples. Furthermore, he spent the first part of his life committed to killing all the Christians he could find but after a personal encounter with Jesus did a complete 180 and became chiefly responsible for the church being planted in the Western Roman Empire. Eventually that church grew up through Europe, crossed the Atlantic, took hold here, and ultimately entered your ears. This means that if you know anything about Jesus today, you know it because of Paul. Anyway, near the beginning of Romans Paul reminds us that nobody manages to live up to God’s standard (which is perfection). In a verse that we didn’t actually look at last week but which really sums it up nicely, Paul writes: “For by works of the law (meaning human effort to do what we think or have been told will make us right with God or, more broadly, the gods) no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
In other words, when we operate with some standard of behavior in mind—whether God’s or one we have adopted for ourselves—as a way to get right with God or the gods or the universal energy or society or whatever, we have successfully condemned ourselves to a life of futility and heartache because we do not in fact live up to external standards. Ever. And that means that unless we figure out a way to define the standard down (which we will subsequently fail to meet) or to make up for our moral lapses (which will require an ongoing process since we keep having them), we’re all doomed. Put a bit more simply: we can’t meet God’s standard on our own.
Well, I told you at the end of the sermon last week that all of this summed up the bad news. But, the good news is that we aren’t alone in trying to meet God’s standard. We have help and His name is Jesus. I also told you that if you came back this week I’d tell you a lot more about it. So then, let’s go. If you haven’t already done so, find your way to Romans 3:21 so you can look at this with me. In the verse immediately after the one I read for you just a second ago, Paul lays out the basics of the good news. Listen to this: “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.”
Now, if you’ve been around the church for very long, your gut reaction to what Paul writes here might be one of awe and wonder and praise. But, more likely, you’ve been pretty well anesthetized to Gospel excitement as so many Jesus followers have, and your reaction is more along the lines of, “Well, duh! Every Christian worth her snot knows that.” Even if you haven’t been around the church very long, though, if you have spent much time in a Western culture environment—that would be all of us—then this idea isn’t totally foreign because Paul’s writings have played a chief shaping influence on our culture. So even if your reaction isn’t one of the two I just mentioned, hearing this probably doesn’t make you want to jump out of your seat in surprise. But, for the folks to whom Paul was writing, this idea was totally revolutionary to how they looked at the world along the lines of the impact of Einstein’s 1905 papers on relativity and mass-energy. Furthermore, understanding what a shocking idea this was is really helpful to understanding what we need to do about it.
Thankfully, Paul actually does explain this and if you’ll jump forward with me to chapter 4 we’ll take a quick look at how he explains it. First, though, a note on background. All the people to whom Paul was writing had a desire to be right with God or the gods. This is something that all humans in all times have had in common. We have always believed in some sort of higher power even if that power is merely the state. We have also always had a desire to please that higher power. Guess what term is used to describe our attempts to do that. Religion. Human religions have always had three basic elements: An explanation of the fact that in our current state we are not right with what- or whoever we happen to believe the higher power is; a description of the things we need to do in order to fix that; a promise of what will come if we get it right along with a warning of what will come if we don’t. Well, guess what we call that second part. Law. So do you see what the implication here is? All human religion has this as its basic message: You’re not right with God or the gods, but if you do these things you will be. In other words, gaining a right standing before God, which theologians call “righteousness,” comes by works of the Law, or simply works. This is how it’s always been. It’s how people have always thought.
But if you think about it there’s a subtle deceit here that has its roots in the narrative Moses tells for how this wrong standing before God first came about. The basic deceit on the part of Adam and Eve according to Moses was that they wanted to be God. With Satan’s sneaky syllogism leading the way, they sought to make themselves the final authority on their lives. Ever since then, whether we have acknowledged the One True God or not, we have always had a sense that we are somehow not right with whomever we happen to designate the higher power in our lives. We have always had this sense, by the way, because it’s true. But, and here’s where the trick is played, all of our solutions have always ultimately put us in the driver’s seat. In other words, while we have always at least tacitly acknowledged some sort of higher power, when it comes right down to it, we want to be the only higher power we have to deal with. Think about it. If we do all the work to meet with whatever standard we’ve been told will satisfy the higher power, then we don’t really need the higher power except as a rubber stamp to approve what we want to do anyway. That’s why Paul writes in 4:4: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” See it now? Ever thought in these terms before? “God will have to answer this prayer for me—just look at all I’ve done for Him!” Behind all the dressing of religion we don’t often think about it like this, but it’s there all the same.
So what Paul was saying there in 3:21was this: “You know how you and everybody else you’ve ever known understands the world to work? Yeah, it doesn’t actually work like that. The things you do not only can’t, but won’t ever bring about this right standing with God you desire. It only comes when you do nothing except to receive from the one who did it for you. And, I can prove it.” In order to do this, Paul takes us back to the story of Abraham. Everybody in Paul’s audience with even a passing familiarity with the Jewish scriptures understood that Abraham was a righteous man. He was right before God. He had what we want. Scripture proclaims it: “…and [God] counted it to him as righteousness.” So with this in mind, Paul asks a simple question: How did he get that way? What was “it”?
Now, the standard answer you would have given Paul if you had been in his original audience was that Abraham did this and that and worked his way into a right standing before God. If you were a Jew you would have known that Abraham received this right standing before God a long, long time before Moses laid out the details on God’s standard—the Law—and so you might have answered that his righteousness was obtained in his circumcision. After all, that was the chief physical sign that someone was a descendant of Abraham and thus a Jew and thus an heir to God’s promise of blessing. In that day, to be a Jew meant that you kept the Law and were thus right with God. But, you were marked as a Jew by circumcision, thus righteousness really came at the blade of a knife. So of course, it must have been Abraham’s circumcision that made him righteous. It must have been that he fulfilled the checklist; he did everything he needed to do. Except…it wasn’t.
Let me actually push you on this just a bit further. We still think in these terms today. People think like this all the time. Even church people still think like this. There are lots of folks in churches all across this world, maybe even in this room, who do and do and do for God because they reason that if they do enough He’ll accept them. He’ll have to! Just look at all they’ve done to prove their worth to Him. Except, the things we do don’t actually determine our worth. But still, even people who’ve been around the church a long time haven’t fully wrapped their minds around this notion that our doing doesn’t make us right with God. Abraham’s didn’t either. Instead, as Paul argues in chapter 4, this “it” actually happened when God came to Abraham and told him about all the great things He wanted to do through him. Abraham’s response was essentially, “Sounds good. Let’s go.” In other words, Abraham believed God. That was the “it”: Abraham’s belief; his faith. The circumcision and later the Law, those all came as proof of the righteousness Abraham already had by faith. They were God’s way of saying, “When you are right with Me, this is what it will look like,” not, “if you do these things you will then be right with Me.” See the difference?
Come back with me, then, to 3:21. What did Paul say again? “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law [that would be, the things we do in order to earn this right standing]…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who [what?] believe.” All the doing in the world isn’t going to get us there. It was never designed to do that job. Only one thing will gain us the right standing we so naturally desire: belief in Jesus Christ. Jesus offers us His gift of a right relationship with God.
And hey, we’re all in this boat together. Remember the problem we can’t solve on our own? Look at what immediately follows: “For there is no distinction,” meaning, we’re all on a level playing field before God. And what is this level playing field? You’ve perhaps heard this before: “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Or perhaps to put it again as the Psalm Paul quoted for us last week does: “None is righteous, no, not one…no one does good, not even one.” And I know that to culturally tuned ears that rings so harsh. We love to talk about someone who behaves in generally culturally acceptable ways as a “good person.” Of course, we’ll admit, nobody’s perfect. But you see, that’s exactly the problem. God is perfect and we were created to be reflections of His moral perfection. That’s His standard. Calling somebody a good person is meaningless. Think about it. As generous as we are with that particular description, all calling somebody a “good person” means is that they are basically average. Well, do we serve a “basically average” God? I should say not! Why even bother with a God like that? And remember: you don’t even keep your own standards. If failing to keep your own standards makes you a good person that must be pretty worthless compliment. Yours and my best bet is to just accept the truth: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory [or standard] of God.”
Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there and neither does the sentence. Look what it says next. In the same way that all have sinned, so also because there is no distinction, look at this now: “[all] 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 [which is what satisfied God’s wrath], to be received by faith.” This is the great gift of Christ. Jesus offers us His gift of a right relationship with God. Actually, let me change the emphasis on that just a bit. Let me first remind us of what the problem is one more time, though, because it’s really easy for us to forget. The problem that we can’t solve is fixing our standing before God. We can’t do it on our own. We talk some big talk, but at the end of the day we always fail. You know this. You’re like me. We’ve got some moral issues in our lives that we struggle with on an ongoing basis. We’ll muster up some gumption and do okay for a while, but then what happens? We always eventually fall back into it when we’re working on our own. And, even if we manage to successfully extract ourselves from one, we always find another one to fall into don’t we? We just can’t make ourselves right before God.
So what did Paul say? We are all justified. Now, justified is a theological-sounding word and that scares some folks, but to be justified simply means that we are pronounced to be right before God. When we are justified it’s just-as-if-I’d never sinned. That’s cheesy, I know, but you’ll remember it now. And how are we justified? By God going soft on His high standard because we’ve done so much for Him and gotten so close to meeting it that he gives us a little push over the line like my quantitative analysis professor did my freshman year of college? No! What did Paul say? We are justified by His (that would be God’s)…meaning not ours…grace. And what is grace? It is unmerited favor. It is by definition something which we do not deserve and have not earned. And in case that isn’t clear Paul adds “as a gift.” And how do we receive this grace? By hard work? No! It’s through the redemption… And what is redemption? Last year at VBS a generous person got certificates for us to give all the kids that came with a coupon for a free Chick-Fil-A kid’s meal. When you give a coupon to a cashier for something we call that redeeming the coupon. Redemption is the exchange of one thing for another that someone else has determined to be of equal value. You and I don’t have anything to do with it. The coupon by itself is worthless. It’s 39 cents of red and black ink on an odd-sized piece of paper. But, some higher up at Chick-Fil-A has determined that its value is equal to the price of a kid’s meal plus tax.
So then, if we are being redeemed, what’s the thing that’s of equal value? Actually, it’s who is the person that’s of equal value. In this case, it’s Jesus Christ. And what is the price? (I mean, it’s always nice to know how much something’s worth.) Well, in this case, the price was all of His blood to satisfy the debt of offense we owe to God for violating His standard after He created us to keep it. In other words, God was rightly angry at us for taking the gift of life He gave us in the beginning and throwing it back in His face in order to make up our own standards which we then promptly failed to keep. (Remember that whole problem we can’t solve thing?) The fancy theology-word for this, which my translation uses, is “propitiation.” That word simply means, “The thing which satisfies wrath.”
Finally then, how do we make this exchange? That’s the last part of the sentence: “to be received by faith.” No, no, no, you mean “to be received by working really hard.” No, that’s not what Paul said. That’s not how it worked for Abraham. That’s not how it’s worked for anyone since Abraham. We receive by faith what Jesus did on our behalf. He did the work for us because, again, we can’t do it. So it’s not simply that Jesus gives us His gift of a right relationship with God. It’s that Jesus gives us His gift of a right relationship with God.
He did the work. He’s the one who earned it. There’s no such thing as something truly free in this world. Everything costs somebody something. The coupon our kids got when they finished VBS this past year cost Chick-Fil-A the price of a kid’s meal out of their operating expenses without reimbursement. But, they pay it gladly because as a corporation they think Vacation Bible School is important. In this case, Jesus paid the price in order to be able to give us the coupon. We redeem the coupon immediately upon receiving it and we receive it when we, by faith, accept the efficacy of what He already did on our behalf. Jesus gives us His gift of a right relationship with God.
This is really amazing too because it is an exchange in which the only people who lose are the people who refuse to take it. God wins because His plans get accomplished. Jesus wins because by the resurrection His defeat was momentary and His glory eternal. We who receive by faith the redemption found only in Him win because…well…we get the redemption found only in Him. It would be like if Chick-Fil-A ran a copy of these coupons for everybody and then didn’t lose any money on them. The only losers in that deal would be the people who didn’t bother to go and get a kid’s meal. Duh! When somebody offers you free Chick-Fil-A the answer is, “Yes.” We were living under the pall of a standard we couldn’t keep, a problem we couldn’t solve, and now the solution has been made available: Jesus gives us His gift of a right relationship with God. We only have to receive it. Look, the only reason you have for not receiving this is that, at the core of your objection, you really do think your standard is better than God’s. But you’re not keeping your standard! Are you?
You and I are stuck in the muck of a problem we can’t solve and here is the solution: Jesus gives us His gift of a right relationship with God. Your deepest desire—to be made right with God (and the Christian God is the only “higher power” who offers a workable solution to this problem)—can be fulfilled. Jesus gives us His gift of a right relationship with God. You receive it by faith and it’s yours. This is a world changer to which Einstein’s special relativity and mass-energy equations can’t even hold a candle. Jesus gives us His gift of a right relationship with God. If you want a do over at any point in your life, this is how it happens. I hope you’ll receive it and get the fresh start you need.