Lent 3 · Romans 5:1-8 · February 24, 2008
By Glenn A. Nielsen,
That’s Core, That’s Basic
Sometimes it’s good just to go back to the basics, just to hear once again the core of what we believe, just to listen to what brings peace, hope and joy to our hearts. Romans 5 does just that. The Apostle Paul is assuring us of the basic, core hope we have when he says, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (v.1).
This sermon is not about what God wants us to do this week. It is not about our understanding some deep and mysterious doctrine. It is not even about how we feel today. No, this sermon is just about being justified. It is all about what God has done and how His deep and mysterious way of doing things shows how He feels about us.
Yet having said that, we begin by talking about ourselves. We begin by realizing once again that we are weak, ungodly, and sinners. We begin by admitting that God needs to save us because we cannot justify ourselves before Him.
Of course, weak, sinful, and ungodly is not how we want to see ourselves. If anything, we want to see ourselves as just the opposite. It starts young.
I read about a school system in Nevada, although I could not verify where it was, that wants to change the grading system so that no one can fail. Instead of A’s or B’s you are described as “extending.” If you are more of a C student, then you are “developing.” And those who should get an F are “emerging.” In this school system, you can only succeed. You are only described in positive terms. That is how we want to see ourselves—as adults too.
The St. Louis Post Dispatch (Sunday Section A+E, July 29, 2007) printed a John Losos review of a book tided Americanism, written by David Galernter. The book tries to make the case that America is blessed because we have talked about God so much in our country. Presidents and others make mention of God in their speeches and because of our inherent virtue, we have put God on a pedestal. Here is a line from the review: “That proves how worthy we are; we deserve all the wonderful things God has consequently bestowed upon us.”
That is how we want to see ourselves. But that is not how God sees us. Not inherent virtue, but inherent sin. Not strong and emerging, but weak and sinful.
When I tried to Google the Nevada school system’s grading policy to verify that story I read, one of the first links that showed on the screen was to the September 13, 2006 Las Vegas Sun. It read: “Cheating on standardized tests in Nevada schools nearly doubled last year as students relied on phone cameras, text messages and those old standbys—wandering eyes and passed notes.”¹ God’s way of looking at us is much more accurate.
When it comes to adults, I think of the controversy about posting the Ten Commandments in courtrooms in this country. I know the reason is to have us follow God’s ways in our judicial system, but could you imagine sitting in God’s courtroom and He is the judge? That is scary! The Ten Commandments are printed in huge block letters on the wall behind Him. He reads the second commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” No use of four letter words. No carelessly saying “Oh God” in the middle of a sentence. No justification for calling someone a nasty name because you were angry. Just the commandment staring you in the face, saying, “Did you keep me all the time?” and God asking “How do you plead?”
Not inherent virtue, but sin. Guilty as charged.
Should I pick another commandment, say, “You shall not steal”? No greed. No anxiety over money. No cheating on taxes or some other financial form. No buying so much stuff that you cannot be generous in giving to those in need. No cheating your family or church or friends out of time because you are too busy working to make more money. Just the Commandment staring you in the face saying, “Did you keep me all the time?” and God asking, “How do you plead?”
Not good, just guilty. Just weak, ungodly and sinful.
No, we do not want to be in God’s courtroom with the Ten Commandments on the wall behind Him. His justice would declare us to be unloving, unlovable, helpless, completely unable to do anything of eternal consequence, sinful, and deserving of God’s punishment. That’s core, that’s basic.
What is true and accurate is the confession of sin we make in our worship services: I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto you all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended you and justly deserve your temporal and eternal punishment.
That is how God sees us if we were stand before Him all by ourselves in His courtroom with Him as judge.
But we are not in His courtroom. We are in His house, His church. We are in the one place where we remember that the greatest injustice of all time has saved us from God’s punishment. Here in the church we do not just stare at God’s Law and wilt under our guilt. No, we also see Jesus’ cross and rejoice in our justification. That’s core, that’s basic.
Remember that dark Thursday night. Jesus has gone to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. It is quiet and His disciples fall asleep. Then a small group of soldiers and religious leaders surround Jesus. One of His disciples, Judas, steps out and betrays Jesus—with a kiss of all things. Peter wakes up and tries to stop the arrest, but Jesus wants no violence here, no rescue. He is going to trial and nothing will stop Him from being accused.
The court is hastily convened. People come forward to make charges, but their testimonies do not agree. Jesus is innocent. Here is the one person who is inherently good. He is strong, godly, and sinless. No charge can stick against Him except for one that is trumped up. So an injustice is perpetuated, and Jesus is sentenced to die.
Yet justice is served when Jesus is nailed to that cross—God’s justice. Our sin could not go unpunished. Our weakness could not be ignored. Our breaking of the Ten Commandments could not be simply excused. No, someone had to die. Someone had to take the eternal punishment, and that someone was Jesus. Our sin and His death combine on a cross and God’s justice is satisfied. We are justified, not because of anything we have done, not because of any inherent virtue within us, not because we are somehow deserving. No, we are justified in God’s sight when in faith we hold onto Jesus as our one hope, our peace with God, our only reason for rejoicing when we stand before God on Judgment Day.
I remember seeing a plaque in a Christian bookstore. It had a picture of Jesus hanging on a cross. A question is written above Him: How much does God love us? Beneath Him the answer is: He stretched out His arms as wide as they could go and died. The apostle Paul says it this way: “God showed His love for us in this: while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” Remember at the beginning of this sermon I said it was not about how we feel, but how God feels about us. God loves us, and Jesus on the cross is the deepest expression of His love. That’s core, that’s basic to what we believe.
Remember when I said this sermon is not about what we do? When it comes to being justified, saved, at peace with God, we can do nothing. I read about a man named Bill who donated one hundred pints of blood. It was in the Reader’s Digest some years back. No doubt that was a good thing Bill had done, and many people owe their lives to his kindness. But this is what Bill said, “When that final whistle blows and St. Peter asks, “What did you do?” I’ll just say, “Well, I gave 100 pints of blood.” Bill says with a laugh, “That ought to get me in.” A writer by the name of Joe McKeever made this comment about Bill. “Bill was probably joking. But if he was serious… [i]f Bill is counting on the giving of 100 pints of blood to get him to heaven, he is trusting in the wrong blood.”² Our faith is in Jesus, because His blood shed on the cross justifies us. That’s core, that’s basic to what we believe.
Remember when I said that this sermon is not about our understanding some deep and mysterious doctrine? Well, I sure do not understand how He could do this, but I am glad Jesus did something no one else would do. Oh, you might hear of a soldier falling on a grenade to save his buddies or a parent dashing into a burning building to save a child or perhaps a stranger risking her life to save a toddler who is running out into a busy street. But Jesus dies for the ungodly no matter how evil that person may be. Jesus dies for the weak and helpless. For the unloving and unlovable. For the sinful and those who can do nothing of eternal consequence. For you and me. Imagine that! That’s core, that’s basic to what we believe.
But you know something? When you go back to the core, the basics—that we are weak, ungodly, and sinners, yet justified because God’s love is shown in Jesus, who, at just the right time, died for us—it makes a difference in how we feel. We rejoice. It makes a difference in what we do. We endure when we suffer, even more, we become people of character and hope. We love and live for Jesus. And it makes a huge difference in what we know. It is deep and mysterious, yet our faith holds on to one core, basic truth: God’s love was shown when Jesus stretched out arms as wide as they could go and died for us. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Yes, it is good to go back to the basics. Amen.