The holy defense lawyer
I hope you had a blessed weekend. I certainly did.
Today's text is a challenge. It is difficult to understand Paul's deep theology outside the context of the book of Romans. But I think that, with the Holy Spirit's guidance, we can come to an understanding that will be fruitful.
Paul has been discussing, by way of introduction to this letter to the believers in Rome, how the people without the law -- the Gentiles -- and the people with the law -- the Jews -- are all equally under condemnation. To be honest, the first couple of chapters in Romans are pretty depressing. The more you read, the worse you feel about your own sin and guilt. "There is none righteous; no, not one."
Then Paul, beginning here in chapter three, makes his rhetorical flourish. One of my favorite theologians called this "Paul's big 'but'." And you have to admit, considered in context with the flavor of Romans to this point, the statement at the beginning of today's passage is one of those go-get-her lines: "But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe."
All. All? ALL?!
You mean I can go to heaven just by accepting Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord and believing that God raised Him from the dead as a sacrifice for my sin? It's astounding. And it's hope-filled. Folks, it's freakin' good news.
After going over a laundry list of problems, sin, and difficulties in human conduct; after reviewing the long list of crimes for which we, the condemned, have to face sentence (death, of course), our defense attorney -- Jesus (and if David can call God the Good Shepherd, I can bless him as the Holy Litigator) -- asks to approach the Father's bench and says, "Dad, I already covered this."
Down comes the gavel, and the Father proclaims: "Case dismissed: 'the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.'"
This has been the point of Paul's monotonous, depressing litany of sin and despair: "For there is no distinction," between Jews, Gentiles, men, women, black, white, neon green, "since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith."
Did you catch all that? It's a long sentence, but it's chocked full of theology and hope. Let's break it down:
(1) "There is no distinction" -- no matter our heritage, our nurture, or our nature, God does not make a distinction between us.
(2) "since all have sinned and fallen short fot he glory of God" -- as Paul established earlier in Romans, nobody is good enough on their own. Everyone has fallen short. The standard is not "being a good person," but achieving the "glory of God" -- his righteousness. Any takers claiming to have done that?
(3) "they are now justified" -- even though we have sinned, God has justified us...
(4) "by his grace as a gift," -- ...for no other reason than his grace: his willingness to love us despite our sin. But how in the world did he do this?
(5) "through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus," -- Oh! Through Jesus. Going back to the courtroom analogy: only Jesus can walk up to the Bench of the Righteous Judge and say, "I have kept your commandments wholly, completely, and righteously." Only in Jesus can redemption be found. That sounds really exclusive though: what about people who are sincere in their faith? Surely that's good enough, right? why would God exclude them?
(6) "whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood," -- Because Jesus' blood satisifed God's just requirement that our sin have consequences. Because God is just, he can't let us off the hook: the consequences for sin laid down in the law (death, remember?) must be upheld. Jesus Christ stepped forward from eternity and laid down his life as a 'sacrifice of atonement'. As the old song said, "What a friend we have in Jesus." So this happens automatically for everyone, right?
(7) "effective through faith." Nope: if God's grace and Christ's atonement is a gift, we have to accept it. After all, when someone gives you a birthday present they don't just buy it and say, "From now on, this birthday present is for everyone! Hooray! Happy birthday, world!" No. Instead, someone chooses a present for you, wraps it, and gives it just to you. It's your gift. Jesus has worked hard on this gift, and He wrapped it in his burial cloth: it's up to us to accept it by faith.
Amazing, isn't it. God is willing to commute our sentence over onto Christ if we accept Jesus' offer to be our lawyer. "He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance [God] had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus."
With God's power and forgiveness on display, and with Christ's self-sacrificing love in full view, it's easy to see how Paul segues into his next comment: "Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded." Christians, as Christ proclaimed in the sermon on the mountaintop (talking to mountain folk, then, right?), are to be blessed when they are humble. I cannot save myself. I cannot rescue myself from this body of death. But thanks be to God, who has lifted me up from the grave. He has become my salvation.
And by all of this, God, who loved the world so much that he was willing to give his own son so that you and I would avoid the gallows, did this for us, and in doing so, he upheld the law.
Now that's one heck of a lawyer.
Heavenly Father, we confess that without you, we are fallen short of life and hope. We confess that we sin, and that our sin caused you to sacrifice your only Son for our sake. We adore your love for us, in sending us Jesus Christ to live among us, be one of us, and die for us. We glorify your grace and your willingness to cover us with Christ's righteousness. Help us, Lord, to honor Jesus' sacrifice by clinging to your will and your Truth. Grant that we may serve you with all of our lives, whether in faith, in work, in friends, in conversation. Thank you for saving us, for loving us, and for making us a part of your Kingdom; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.