Guilt and Grace
Passage: Romans 5:21–5:21
Guilt and Grace
October 12th, 2008
Way of Grace Church
I. "Exhibit A"
Several weeks ago my wife was summoned for jury duty. When she arrived and went through the appropriate steps, she found herself in a courtroom as a potential juror with a list in her hands, a list of the charges that were being filed against the accused. She was shocked to find that there were 87 charges spread across many pages, and a list of witnesses for the prosecution that seemed just as long.
Well, it all made sense when she looked up and recognized the defendant. She was a potential juror for the "serial shooter" case. Well, a trial expected to last 8 or 9 months, and 3 children at home ages 6 and under made it unrealistic for her to continue.
But her experience made me think about another trial.
Imagine if you will, that you are on trial; that you are the defendant. And imagine that the list of charges against you is not 87, but 87,000. Imagine that the prosecution's witness list is not several pages, but several hundred pages.
The jury is picked, the lawyers are ready, and the trial begins. Day after day the case is being made against you. Witness after witness describes wrongs you've committed against them or circumstances in which they saw you say or do something against someone else. Security camera footage from your office, traffic camera footage, wiretap data, all of your past e-mails are carted out by the prosecution. In many cases, your own words are being used against you. Charts, and photos, and experts all testify against you, producing what is, without a doubt, indisputable proof that you are guilty. And throughout it all, your defense lawyer says nothing. No cross-examination of any of the witnesses or experts.
The prosecution looks confident, the jury is glaring at you, and the judge seems well beyond convinced.
But finally it is time for the defense team to respond, a task that seems almost pointless after months and months, and a mountain of testimony and evidence against you. Your lawyer stands and asks for one item to be brought into the courtroom. It is labeled "Exhibit A" The lawyer takes what looks to be a small box, he approached the bench, and opens it so the judge can see inside.
Suddenly, without much hesitation, the judge declares that you are "innocent", slams down his gavel, and says "court dismissed". The courtroom of course explodes with the noise of questions and shouts of protest. The reporters present are quickly e-mailing and phoning in their stories. Before you are escorted out, a free person, you overhear, from one reporter, the working title of his piece: "A Travesty of Justice".
This morning we are continuing to talk about this concept of justice.
And I want to return to the passage we concluded with last week. So please turn with me to Romans 3:21-26. (Page 941) The reformer Martin Luther called these six verses "the chief point, and the very central place of the Epistle, and of the whole Bible." I think we'll see why he thought that.
II. The Passage: "Justified by His Grace" (3:21-26)
Now before we work through these verses, it's important that we understand something about what the Apostle Paul has written in the verses leading up to this passage.
A. Review/Summary of Romans 1:18-3:20
Let me give you three truths from these opening chapters that I think can help us understand the argument Paul is making here and thus, help us understand what he's saying in 3:21-26.
First, Paul tells us in the opening chapters of Romans that every person is guilty, in thought, word, and deed of disobeying God's commands and failing to honor God as God.
Look at what Paul says at the beginning of chapter 3: 9 What then? Are we Jewsï»¿ any better off?ï»¿ No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one." (Romans 3:9-12)
When we compares ourselves to others we might say, "Well, I'm a good person." But when we compare ourselves to who God designed us to be and to his standard, we're all guilty.
Second, Paul also confirms here that because God is just, he must and will respond rightly to every wrong of every person.
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things...5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. (Romans 2:1, 5)
Last week we talked about the fact that God is just; he is a God of justice. If you remember we said that justice is delivering what is deserved when our moral choices are weighed in light of God's moral order.
Just as a human judge uphold justice by delivering what is deserved to men and women who break our civil laws (our country's moral order), so too does God deliver justice to all those who break his divine laws. God responds rightly to unrighteousness; the very thing we'd want him to do if there was a serial killer or a serial pedophile who was laughing in the face of human and divine laws. All of us have been wired to long for justice.
If God is perfect, and therefore perfectly just, how could he not rightly address every wrong? And because he knows all, He will even judge our secrets as Paul states in 2:16.
Third, Paul makes it clear in these opening chapters that imperfect religious activity will not satisfy the perfect justice of God.
Paul tells us in 3:20, Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
God's commandments were ultimately given to Israel, and in sense to all of us through our conscience, as Paul confirms in Romans 2, not to be a ladder, but to be a smoke detector. They were not given so men and women could climb up to God. They were given so that men and women would cry out to God.
There's no amount of religious activity that we can do for Him to make up for all of the ways we've sinned against Him. Furthermore, the religious activity we do perform, the good we engage in, is so often imperfect in the sense that it is so often inspired by our own pride or fears or guilt, rather than from a love and respect for God.
So that is the picture Paul has painted for us in verses 1:18 to 3:20 of this letter. The certainty of our guilt, the certainty of our judgment, and the certainty of our helplessness. If we take Paul seriously, all of us should be despairing in light of this.
This is when we need to go to our main passage, to those verses that Luther called "the central place of whole Bible".
B. A New, But Not New Righteousness
Look at what Paul writes in 3:21-23.
21 But now...[do you hear that? "But now"...those two words announce to us that something is different...something wonderful has happened..."But now"...] the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it- 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God...
Do you understand what Paul is telling us here? To understand it, we need to understand what Paul means by the phrase "the righteousness of God". I believe there are two sides to what Paul is saying here.
On one side, God's righteousness is the righteousness He demonstrates. On the other hand, God's righteousness is the righteousness he dispenses.
In talking about that righteousness God demonstrates, one author has explained that "God can always be depended upon to act in accordance with what is right, as defined by God's person and promises."
And he has acted in accordance with what is right by dispensing a righteousness according to his own righteousness. What I mean is that He has acted justly in order to declare us just.
Listen to how Paul describe this righteousness dispensed in another of his letters: [that I] may be found in [Christ], not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith... (Philippians 3:9)
How has he declared us just or righteous? He's done so apart from the Law. Of course; the law was not a ladder. But the Law, along with the Prophets, a shorthand way of saying the Old Testament...the Old Testament though does give us clues that God was going to act justly in order to declare us just apart from the law.
And how did God do this? He did it with "Exhibit A". What was in that box? What was it that led the judge to declare you innocent? What was it that set you free? It was...faith. That's it. Nothing else. Faith.
The Law and the Prophets did reveal this, just as Paul stated:
Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)
...but the righteous will live by his faith... (Habakkuk 2:4)
But faith in...?
Romans 3:22-The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.
You believe in Jesus, and God declares you innocent, not guilty. You believe in Jesus and God declares you set free and not judged. You believe in Jesus, and God does what you were unable to do.
Have you ever heard of anything as wonderful as this? Have you ever heard of anything as baffling as this?
You see, God declares us "innocent", but we're not. We're guilty. As Paul put says in verse 23: All have sinned and have fallen, or better translated, are falling short of the glory of God [that is God's glorious presence; fellowship with Him in that glory].
We're guilty. Everyone knows it. The evidence is indisputable. And Paul knows this. Look at what he says in the next chapter:
And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness... (Romans 4:5)
God is not justifying the godly. He's justifying, He's declaring innocent, righteous the ungodly! What happened to the justice of God? Has it been thrown out the window? Remember justice is delivering what is deserved when our moral choices are weighed in light of God's moral order.
That's not what's happening here. Is this, as the reporter called it, "A Travesty of Justice"? How can this be called God's righteousness?
C. Jesus Uplifted, Justice Upheld
Look back how Paul explains this. Beginning at the end of verse 22:
For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified [declared innocent, declared righteous] by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 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. 26 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.
Through the grace of God, that is, God acting on our behalf, not because we deserved, but because he pleased to do so...through the grace of God given as a gift, that we receive as grace...some has called faith "the hand of the heart", it's the hand that receives God's gift.
What's the gift is the redemption that is in Christ Jesus...the buying back that Christ has made possible...the buying back out of slavery to sin, that slavery which all of us have experienced...
What incredible grace. But still, what about the justice of God? This still doesn't make sense. God cannot call evil good.
Look at verse 25. Look at this incredible solution that God had purposed in his wisdom and mercy. God put forward Jesus Christ as a propitiation, an atoning sacrifice, made with Jesus' own blood.
The animal sacrifices that fill the pages of the Old Testament no longer have a place in God's righteousness. Jesus has become the sacrifice.
But how is this possible? How can one man's death change the just verdict that God issues to every person? Listen to how Paul explains it in II Corinthians 5:19 and 21:
God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them...[how did he do this?]...God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
This God, who as Paul put back in Romans 2, this God who "will give to each person according to what he has done" (justice) has, in his grace, given to Jesus Christ according to what we have done.
But that was not unjust, because Jesus voluntarily took our sins upon himself. He was the only who could have done it. Of course Jesus is the only way to God. Of course he is only hope any of us have. Only Jesus is both God and man. Only Jesus lived a sinless, pure, righteous, just life on this earth. And thus, only He could voluntarily take our sin and become a curse for us, so that God could, with justice, judge SIN in the person of Jesus Christ.
This was no travesty of justice. It was perfect justice perfectly satisfied with perfect grace.
Did you see how Paul emphasized this in Romans 3:
This [offering Jesus Christ as an atoning sacrifice] was to show God's righteousness [probably here better translated as "justice"...to show God's justice], because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 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.
The animal sacrifices of the Old Testament could never effect true forgiveness. None of those things could actually satisfy the justice of God. Sin is too black; too heinous. God's forgiveness before Christ was always looking forward to Christ. God knew what He would do. He proves himself just in offering up Jesus. He show us the true darkness of sin; the true cost of sin. The cost was God's own Son.
We can be declared righteous, not because we are righteous, but through Jesus who is just. We can be declared innocent, even though we are guilty, because Jesus satisfied the justice of God, Jesus met the Law's demands, Jesus paid our debt. Justice is an essential part of the Good News, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The grace of God showered. The justice of God satisfied. The gift of God offered. All because of Jesus Christ.
III. Your Perspective on God's Justice
Has there been a "but now" in your life? Have you received this gift of grace? Have you been declared innocent through "Exhibit A"...through faith and faith alone?
There are only two kinds of people in this world: those who live with the reality that they will one day in the future face the justice of God, AND those who live with the reality that Jesus Christ one day in the past faced the justice of God in their place. Which one are you?
Sure, some people don't acknowledge God's justice. They think that's just superstitious talk. They are eager to see a criminal get his due. They are outraged when justice is corrupted and the innocent suffer. They are quick to talk about injustice and how this or that is not fair. But strangely, they don't believe in ultimate justice, even though everything in their heart, all of their longings are testifying to such a reality.
Jesus Christ has done an incomparable work, but if we do not believe, it does us no good. Through faith we are declared innocent, righteous because of Christ. But if you don't believe you're really guilty, you won't care about a ruling of innocence. If you don't believe there will be a day of ultimate justice, then you won't look for a way to be righteous before the Judge. If you don't believe that your religious activity is unable to satisfy God's justice, you will not look for a righteousness apart from such activity.
You will keep resting on the fact that you are a "good person" and that God has come to the same conclusion.
Please don't live in denial. But also, don't live in fear or hopelessness. God has made for you, for me. We can be right with him.
And when you are right with Him, when you do live in the reality that Jesus faced God's justice for you, then you live differently. You see, unlike the courtroom illustration we started with this morning, you are not set free in order to go back to your old life. No, you are set free, you are declared innocent, in order that you might reconciled to that same judge you were standing before.
Through Jesus Christ, our Judge becomes our Father. When you leave the courtroom you arrive at home, in the Father's house. You are no longer the accused criminal. You are the adopted son or daughter.
And when you live in light of these truths we've talked about this morning, what has been called "justification by faith", you begin to walk not simply in justice as we talked about last week, but also in grace.
Justice calls us to live uprightly. To be fair in all of our dealings. Not to show partiality. To set right what is wrong. To stand up for what is right. But grace calls us to live mercifully. To be understanding in all our dealings. To be impartial in love. To forgive what is wrong. To stand up for what redeems.
Let me give you an example of this balance. Some of us heard about some young ladies that had the courage recently to speak the truth, in court, about a sexually abusive father. And because of their testimony, that court delivered what that man deserved. He will be locked up for the rest of his life. Justice was served, it was satisfied. We all recognize that.
But what does grace look like in a situation such as this? Grace is not asking for this man to be liberated from prison. But it is praying for this man to be liberated from sin. Grace is prayer for this man's heart to be changed by the love of God.
Sometimes it's easy for us to recognize when someone's done something wrong. But it's not always easy for us to pray that they would do what is right and that they would be right with God.
Yes we need to be people that talk about what is just in our society. But we also, always, need to speak in grace and about grace. God is perfectly just. And yet God made a way to demonstrate grace without compromising justice.
Are you living in the hope of God's justice satisfied by God's grace through the sacrifice of God's Son? When you are declared innocent through faith, you are at peace with God, Romans 5:1. And when you are at peace with God, your life is changed. Your heart is changed.
Has there been a "but now" in your life? Through Jesus Christ there can be. I'll God calls you to do is believe.