Sermon for 06-26-11: “Roman Road, Part 3: The Faithfulness of Christ”

This sermon is Part 3 of our Vinebranch series, “Roman Road,” which takes us through Paul’s letter to the Romans. In today’s scripture, Romans 3:21-31, Paul turns the corner in his argument: whereas before, all humanity is standing the dock, awaiting the Judge’s verdict of “guilty,” now there’s a surprise! Verse 21 begins “But now…”

“But now,” Paul writes, because of what Christ accomplishes through the cross, we can have life and salvation, even though our sin deserved death and hell. This sermon tells the story of this good news. Enjoy!

Sermon Text: Romans 3:21-31

I could cite many examples of times in my life when I became deeply, painfully aware of the depths of my sinfulness. And some of you are probably like, “Do tell…” We are, after all, deeply curious about other people’s sin. I guess it makes us feel better about our own problem with sin. One congressman has been in the news recently, as most of us know, for tweeting or texting inappropriate photos of himself to various women who are not his wife. And lying about it repeatedly before fessing up when the evidence contradicted his alibi.

Naturally the congressman has checked himself into a rehab center. Is there a rehab center for everything these days? Got a problem with gossip? Better go to rehab. Got a problem with jealousy, envy, covetousness? Rehab it is. Got a problem with greed and materialism? Rehab… The truth is all of us, because of our sin, could be eligible for rehab. And we do go to rehab—every week I hope. It’s called church. Church should be, among other things, a rehab center for sinners. Amen? “My name is Brent, and I’m a sinner.” Could you turn to the person sitting next to you, and say that? See, we’re all in the same boat here. We all have the same problem.

I grew up in a Christian tradition that emphasized the personal testimony. I love testimonies. Here’s the kind of person I was before I came to know Jesus, and this is the kind of person I am now. Jesus delivered me from this life of sin. Testimonies were a feature of nearly every youth group retreat, every youth camp, that I went on when I was a kid. And those of you who know about that tradition know that the more dramatic the testimony—the more extravagant the sinfulness of your life before Christ—the better. It was always seemed to be a more powerful witness for Christ if you could cite drug abuse or Satan-worship or some other big sin, and then say, “Jesus delivered me from that!”

I’ll never forget after one retreat in ninth grade my friend Chuck felt very convicted that he needed to turn his life around, re-commit his life to Christ, renew his decision to follow Jesus. Nothing wrong with that. He came back from this retreat on fire for the Lord. On the Wednesday night following the retreat, he gave his testimony to the youth group. Chuck was 15 years old, and he was a headbanger. He loved heavy-metal—hair metal. It was the eighties, you know? And Chuck looked the part… He even wore spandex sometimes! And he decided that this music was Satanic—many preachers were saying that back then. And that it had been a terrible influence in his life, and that God was calling him to get rid of his heavy metal records and tapes.

So while he was telling the youth group all this, he opened a box filled with records, and he began smashing them, breaking them in half. And I was thinking, “Oh, well… The world won’t be much worse off without that Quiet Riot, Judas Priest, or Van Halen record.” But then he pulled out this pristine vinyl copy of the Beatles’ Abbey Road. And I was thinking, “What are you doing? You don’t throw away the Beatles!” I didn’t even have that album on vinyl at the time! But he broke it, and threw it in the trash!

Chuck’s had some ups and downs in his life, but he’s a believer to this day, I’m happy to report. But even he winces when he looks back on that experience. He has since repurchased all the Beatles’ catalog. I didn’t like what he did by throwing away his music. It seemed impulsive and wasteful, and I wish the church had provided him with some more mature guidance on the issue. But in his own misguided way, Chuck had become convicted of his own sinfulness—and he wanted to make a change. That’s a good thing! I think Chuck was trying to fit his spiritual renewal into the template of these dramatic testimonies that we had so often heard.

These dramatic testimonies can make the rest of our more ordinary Christian lives seem kind of boring by comparison. We may think, “I don’t have any of those big sins to repent of.” But here’s the problem: If we’re not careful we can begin to think that sin itself isn’t such a big deal. Maybe it is for other people—but not for us.

But that can’t be true—not if we’re going to grasp what the Apostle Paul is saying in today’s scripture. Sin isn’t just a problem for other people; it’s a problem for me and you. All of us together. Remember? “My name is Brent, and I’m a sinner.” Paul’s main argument up to this point in Romans—leading up to verse 21—is that we’re all standing in the dock, awaiting the judge’s verdict, and we know what that verdict ought to be: “guilty.” This is the starting point of the gospel. If we don’t get that, we don’t get the gospel. If we have learned from our United Methodist Church or any other church that sin is no big deal, the church has lied to us and let us down.

But what about grace? we might ask. Aren’t we Methodists all about grace? Don’t we emphasize grace… grace, grace, grace! How many Grace United Methodist churches are there in the world? At least dozens, but probably hundreds. What I’m arguing is that before we join Grace United Methodist Church, we better spend a little bit of time at God’s Wrath United Methodist, before moving on to Judgment United Methodist Church. I’m serious! Because if grace has any meaning at all, it’s only because we rightly understand the alternative to God’s grace: God’s justifiable anger over sin and punishment of sin. Scripture is clear: there will be judgment, and sin will be punished. Sin must be punished, unless God was lying when he warned Adam and Eve that sin leads to death. Sin must be punished if justice is ever finally going to be done.

I think that we kind of, sort of, mostly want justice to be done—at least we want justice done to other people if not to ourselves. The sense of relief, or even vindication, that we felt when Osama Bin Laden was killed, indicates that we want justice to be done. But it is a very rough justice. We can’t do it very well in this world. I’m relieved Bin Laden can’t work evil in the world anymore—but think of the price that innocent Iraqis and Afghans paid in our very human effort to find justice for the victims of 9/11: It’s no exaggeration to say that hundreds of thousands of non-combatants have died as a result—because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe we say, “It was still totally worth it and in the long run the world will be a better place,” but in the short-run, there are still indirect victims of our guns and bombs who also need justice to be done. And the Bible’s answer is clear: “God will see to it that justice is fully and finally done.”

But if we want justice to be done, what we’re really saying is that we want God to punish sin. This may seem harsh to our modern sensibilities. We want God to be not simply loving, but also “nice.” In his book Exclusion & Embrace, a contemporary theologian named Miroslav Volf, who lived through the civil war in the former Yugoslavia in the early ’90s, talks about our difficulty with the idea that God judges and punishes sin. He asks us to imagine telling people in a war zone that God doesn’t judge and punish sin. He writes: “Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit.” He continues, “In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, [the idea that God doesn’t judge and punish sin] will invariably die.”

God isn’t nice about sin and evil.

So… where does that leave us? We’re all sinners. And a holy God is justifiably angry about our sin. And if God is a God of justice, God must judge and punish us for our sin. It doesn’t sound very hopeful for us, does it?

But not so fast… Because in verse 21 Paul writes the two most profoundly beautiful words in the English language: But now. But now! It’s true that before, we human beings were headed for death and hell because of our sin; we were hopeless… but now…? But now God’s righteousness has been revealed apart from the Law, which is confirmed by the Law and the Prophets. God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him.”

But now—because of the cross of Christ—God the Judge announces the verdict for all of us who place our faith in Jesus. And the verdict is not guilty! 

This may seem like a surprising verdict, especially if we’ve followed Paul’s argument up to verse 21 of chapter 3. It may seem surprising but Paul wants us to know that this was God’s plan all along. Not guilty… My fellow sinners, did you hear the good news? Not guilty! What’s that again? Not guilty! If you believe in Jesus and what he accomplished on the cross, there’s no sense in walking around feeling guilty any longer. We can get on with our life—not with our old life, not with business as usual, not with our sin-filled, destructive, death-dealing life apart from Christ—but with our new life. The life that God gave us through the sacrificial death of his Son Jesus! Because of the cross, God pronounces us what? Not guilty! How can God do this? God can do this because on the cross, Jesus took our place. Jesus suffered our punishment. Jesus died for us.

There are more than a few Christians these days who get a little squeamish when we preachers talk about this biblical and classic Christian doctrine known as substitutionary atonement, or penal substitution: that Jesus suffered the punishment for sin in our place. And in fairness to these Christians, they get squeamish because of the way this doctrine has been caricatured by skeptics and atheists—who accuse God of “cosmic child abuse”; that an angry, bloodthirsty God had to punish and kill somebody to make himself feel better, so he punished and killed his Son. That’s the caricature. I hope we see what a terrible distortion that is—for a lot of reasons.

Besides, God is Trinity. The cross isn’t about God sending somebody else to suffer and die for us. The cross is about a loving God, unwilling that we should suffer death and hell, coming to us in the flesh in Jesus, who is God, and offering himself—God’s own self, God’s own life, on our behalf. On the cross, Jesus suffered death—which is identically the same as saying that God suffered death—that we may no longer die, that we may not experience hell, but thst we may be brought into a saving relationship with God, and that we may have eternal life.

And because of what God did on the cross, I can be confident that the guilty verdict that my sins deserved along with the punishment, that my sin deserves, has been taken care of. It’s all a free gift. It’s all grace.

I swear I’ve never talked more about sin, wrath, and judgment in a three-week period than I have these past few weeks in Romans, but finally… good news! We’re back at Grace United Methodist Church after all.

And here’s some more good news: Membership at Grace United Methodist is free. You don’t have to pay for it. You don’t have to earn it. You don’t have to show any any credentials to be a member here…

Except for one. You have to be a sinner. Are you a sinner? Then you’re welcome here. Amen?

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 304.

4 thoughts on “Sermon for 06-26-11: “Roman Road, Part 3: The Faithfulness of Christ””

  1. Brent, I like this. Especially that you have to admit you are “lost” (a sinner properly condemned to die) before you can be “saved” (receiving God’s grace). “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” “That man went home justified, and not the other (who thought he was ‘good enough’).”

    I only have one question, and it is on a point not in the scope of what you here address, but which agitates me in conjunction with some preaching on grace. That is, what does God do with respect to our sins after we are saved? It is true that he forgives them, but I see that as, “You aren’t condemned to hell for them anymore.” However, I think they still “have effects,” not simply as in “hindering fellowship” (certainly the case), but also “eternally,” in the sense of “rewards and punishment.” “I will give to each man according to his deeds.” Sometimes I feel the “rush towards grace” indicates to people that sin, once a Christian, then indeed becomes “no big deal,” because it is all covered by grace. As I say, your sermon was not on that point, and may be a point in a later sermon, but I note it just because I get irritated by such statements (as my pastor makes) as, “God will not love you any more or any less based on what you do than he loved you when you got saved.” Regardless of whether spoken of as “love” or not, see John 14:23, certainly God “thinks and acts” differently toward us based on our subsequent obedience or not.

    1. Tom,

      I think my words in response to Nancy on that earlier post apply here. We Christians are not exempt from final judgment, which is (see Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25) a judgment based on works. It’s true that we’ll be saved in spite of our sins because of what Christ has done for us, but that judgment will be more or less painful depending on our actions on this side of death and resurrection. This pain will be good because it will be cleansing (“purgative” is a good theological word, from which the Catholics get purgatory).

      Sin is still a big deal! God isn’t lowering the bar for us because previously (with Israel and the Torah) the bar was too high. I’m sure I’m bound to say more about this as we move forward in Romans. One week at a time!

      Thanks for the thoughtful question!


  2. Brent, thank you for hammering this idea home! It has to be repeated and often, because even as a 60+ year old, life-long member of the church, I missed the true meaning of just this concept! Here is an excerpt of a letter I wrote to my own children that tries to prepare them for raising children. Unfortunately much of what we know early on about God comes from our parent models. I couldn’t have had better models, but that ol’ Baptist thing about sin really stuck with me!

    “I have lived my life under a terrible burden. My mother, bless her heart, who loved me and whom I loved, gave me that burden. She raised me with the thought that I could never measure up to her expectations. She didn’t mean to do this…I’m sure it was the way she was raised. I know without a doubt that my mother loved me without reservation. But as hard as I tried to be “good” and do all the right things, it never seemed to be enough. There was always a word or look that meant “You could have done better”. Unfortunately, I used the same parenting model on you kids. For that, I am truly sorry.
    Because of this belief that I was never good enough, I have had a difficult time with my relationship to God. Again, it was a relationship in which I was never “good” enough. It has only been in the last few years that I have learned how much God loves me and how little he demands of me! I always ‘feared’ God. He was the parent ready with a critical word about how I botched this or messed up that. I didn’t trust that God really, truly, without reservation loved me. I hope this letter will in some way help each of you to find the right relationship with God. He really is loving and good to us, even though he sometimes disciplines us! As you have children please think about this…what are you communicating to them? Do they feel that you love them no matter what? When you discipline do you do it with love?”

    1. WIse words, Jane. I think I’m doing better in this regard than my own parents, but I have room for improvement.

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