January 27th, 2013

Jesus Christ made the difference so that between us there wouldn’t be any.

Romans 3:21-26

January 27, 2013

They – you – we

Romans 3:21-26 is, in one writer’s opinion, “possibly the most important single paragraph ever written.”[1] Whether or not that is hyperbole, reading this paragraph should give you the same thrill as the first time you ever tasted a Caramel Machiatto at Starbucks, or peered over the rim of the Grand Canyon, or stared up at the Eiffel Tower, or saw a Hubble space telescope image of the Crab Nebula.

But this paragraph only has that effect on you if you have read, and absorbed, Romans 1:18-3:20.  After the prologue of Romans, Paul jolts his reader with the very uncomfortable idea of the wrath of God.  Yet when he tells us what sins God’s wrath is being revealed against, his list sounds like Ponzi schemes, child pornography, and killing innocent children at an elementary school.  Even when he includes gossips and out of control disobedient children, these are sins of other people, of “them.”

When Paul has you focused on those out there somewhere who deserve God’s wrath, however, he turns to “you” and says, If “you” judge them, “you” are as bad as they are because “you” are not God.  It’s still a dark world when the only people are sinners and those who judge them.  If “you” condemn, exclude, distance “yourself” from those “you” think are worse than “you”, “you” also deserve God’s wrath.

But what about those of “us” who have a little more light?  If “we” have God’s laws and “we” know what God wants, aren’t “we” better off?  No, Paul says, because “we” carefully select those laws “we” keep and the ones “we” ignore or rationalize, so “we” also are under God’s wrath.

Paul’s summary statement leading up to today’s Scripture is in verse 19, “…that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.”

But now….

And then we come to verse 21, and the first of two phrases in this paragraph that capture my heart: “But now.” If you have tracked Paul so far, these two words are like the moment when you learned that the “F” on your report card was a computer error, and your grade was really a B+, or the man you thought was a confirmed bachelor asked you to marry him, or the biopsy was negative, or sat down at the desk for the job you waited years for.  There is the darkness of the past, and there’s “but now….”

This changes everything.  Linda and I will never forget the night we were called to this church twenty years ago.  Honestly, on our part, we were OK no matter how things turned out.  We loved our church and community in Thomasville, and had not sought this position.  But here at Corinth, there was a battle going on, with all the worst of what some of you have lived through among church people.  Gossip, innuendo, power struggles, anonymous letters, false accusations.  A sizable group of people were quite determined that Bob Thompson would never serve as Corinth’s Pastor.  The night I preached my trial sermon in the sanctuary, the tension was as thick as fog on Grandfather Mountain.

Nobody knew if the required 2/3 vote would be there.  Everyone was weary.  Some were tired of 25 years of liberalism from the pulpit.  Most wanted a change from pews mostly empty except for a few gray heads and a handful of children.  Everyone was fatigued by the constant bickering in every church meeting.  I preached the trial sermon that night.  The ballots were collected.  The vote was announced.

Some of you think our traditional service is stiff now, but twenty years ago Corinth was a very formal church where the sanctuary was quiet before services and applause or anything not listed in the bulletin was rare.  But when Tonya Bailey stepped to the mic to say that 71% of the people had voted to call Bob Thompson, you would have thought you were in Reynolds Coliseum and N. C. State just beat Carolina for the first time in seven years.  It was a “But now…” moment that thrilled everyone there – well, 71% of those who were there.

You have one or more of those moments in your past as well.  Paul wants you to recall that thrill when you read Romans 3:21.  Those God-haters, “they” were under the wrath of God.  But now….God has made a way to see “them” as perfectly good.  “You” who judge them deserve God’s wrath.  But now… the Judge can declare “you” not guilty. “We” who know God’s law well enough to know we cannot possibly keep it bring God’s wrath on ourselves.  But now….that same Law bears witness that “we” can be righteous not by trying harder to keep laws, but by placing our confidence in Jesus.  He poured out his blood in full view of humanity that he might turn aside God’s wrath from our sin.

Every one of us deserved hell.  But now…. God can be good and declare us good.

No difference

The other phrase that captures my attention in this passage is in verse 22, “There is no difference.” The Greek word for “difference” comes from the musical world, referring to the distinction between sounds made by musical instruments.  That’s a good reminder on this “combined Sunday,” that in God’s mind whether we sing our praise to a guitar or an organ (say it with me), “There is no difference.”  The reason we have these three services at Corinth has nothing to do with whether one makes God happier.  With him, “There is no difference.”  The combined service is our “no difference” service.

But Paul uses this musical analogy to make a different point.  “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  “All have sinned” is a metaphor from the archery range.  We have all missed the mark.  “All… are falling short of the glory of God” invokes the image of the track.  In the race toward God’s glory, nobody comes close to the finish line.  We are all falling short.  “There is no difference.”

Handley Moule, a bishop in the Church of England more than a century ago, said it this way:  “The harlot, the liar, the murderer, are short of God’s glory, but so are you.  Perhaps they stand at the bottom of a mine, and you on the crest of an Alp; but you are as little able to touch the stars as they.”[2]  I haven’t been to the bottom of a mine, but I have been to the lowest place on the surface of the earth, the Dead Sea, and I have been to the Swiss Alps.  And in neither place was I anywhere close to touching the supernova the Hubble photographed called the Crab Nebula.

Paul goes on to say there’s not only no difference in our pre-Christ state, there is no difference in the result when God gets through with declaring that we are good.  The sentence, “There is no difference,” continues on through verse 24.  “There is no difference” in that all have sinned, but “there is no difference” in that all who believe “are justified freely by his grace” through Christ Jesus.   There are not degrees of God’s acquittal.  God doesn’t see some of us as “more righteous” than others.

Jesus Christ made the ultimate difference so that will never be any difference among us.  Between that sex or drug addict who has been pardoned by Christ, and you, there is no difference.  Between someone who has judged you or still does, and you, there is no difference.  Between the one passionate about obeying and enforcing God’s laws, and you, there is no difference.  Between that Christian you think of as too liberal, and you, there is no difference.  Between that Christian you think is too conservative to be compassionate, and you, there is no difference.  Between that believer who loves the music you can’t tolerate, and you, there is no difference.   Between that lifelong believer who still acts like a baby Christian, and you, there is no difference.  Between that godly, humble leader you want to model your life after, and you, there is no difference.   Between someone who loves Jesus and hates sin like Pastor Paul, and is the coolest pastor I know, and you, there is no difference.  God’s generous goodness has declared them, and you, and us, not guilty.  Justified freely by his grace.

How Justified Are We?  (Paul Cummings)

When I was in high school in Rocky Mount, the person everyone judged their grades by was Dana Burgess.  I would come home and Dad would say, “What did you get on the test?”  48.  “What did Dana Burgess make?”  98.

But when we took the SAT, there was no difference.  OK, so I only made 700, but so did Dana Burgess. Everything changes when there is no difference.

Justification is what makes us equal before God.  But in high school we didn’t talk about what justification is.  Justification is an act of God (not people) where he declares (not makes) us righteous in Christ.  When we hear Christ say, “It is finished,” he is saying that the justification of people is complete.

I’m glad Bob started asking you to repeat things.  Every time I say, “We are so justified,” you answer, “How justified are we?”

We are so justified!  “How justified are we?”  We are so justified that we are justified apart from the Law.  A law is created to regulate behavior.  We are justified not by how well we keep the Law.  As Billy Graham says, “The Ten Commandments are there to show us not good we are, but how holy God is and that we can’t keep the law.”  In the Old Testament people would bring a blood sacrifice.  God’s righteousness is shown through the Law.  But God can’t give us righteousness based on what we have done.

We are so justified!  “How justified are we?”  We are so justified that it required the sacrifice not of some human, but of the Son of God.  We all have faith in someone.  If I sit in a chair, I have faith in it.  Whether I believe in Christ or not, I have faith.  Faith is only as good as what I put my faith in.  Jesus said, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed….”  It’s not about the amount of faith.  If you believe Christ’s blood covers you, you are justified.

We are so justified!  “How justified are we?”  We are so justified that it came at great cost to God the Father Almighty, but it’s free to you and me.  But it cost God the death of his Son.  God had passed over the sin of those before Christ’s time, as in the Passover story.  The angel of death passed over, covered over, their sins.  How long do you want to be in a messy scenario like that?

I love that my wife has a passion for making our garage clean.  I would just throw a blanket over that junk.  She wants to clean it out.  John says of Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”  Wouldn’t it have been a waste of time if Jesus did all he did and never removed sin?

We are so justified!  “How justified are we?”  Perfectly, because God has perfect justice.  We can’t confuse justification with sanctification.  Why is justification so easy to find in the world?  Because people look to justify themselves.  But they are imperfect judges.  God the Father Almighty is the only perfect Judge.  Then why do I keep on sinning?  That’s sanctification.  But you are still justified.  That’s how I see you.  Even when your life is up and down, God’s just nature is seen in the Cross.  The wrath of all sin was poured out on Christ.  God, who had never been separated from himself turned his back on Jesus when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The cross is the perfect picture of God’s absolute attributes (justice, holiness) and his relative attributes (mercy, love).  God was willing to give his own Son for you and me.  So what can you do?  You can believe.

If today you are standing here and are aware that you have never trusted in the holy and completed work of Christ on the cross, I would like to give you a chance to respond.

Holy Spirit, do a mighty work.  You know our hearts intimately.  If we have not confessed and repented, convict us in your love.  We want to put our trust in what you have accomplished.  In this moment of quiet, knock on the hearts of those here that they would respond to you.

Jesus, are your sheep, the people of your pasture.  Sanctify us.  But let us rest in the justification of God Almighty himself through Jesus Christ.  Amen.

[1] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 173.

[2] H. C. G. Moule, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, p. 97.

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