|The Gospel of Godís Grace #6 . . .
Nothing But the Blood of Jesus
October 12, 1997 / Romans 3:21-26
You donít clean windows with motor oil. You donít use harsh detergents on delicate silk. You do not ó as one of our children learned several years ago ó clean the splatter off a stainless steel cooktop with steel wool. And for sin, it takes blood.
The blood of lambs, goats, and bulls wonít remove sin. Oh, the principle is there in the Old Testament that blood is the basis for life and atonement. "For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for oneís life" (Lev. 17:11). Yet even the prophets (and thoughtful worshipers!) of that Old Testament period knew that the blood of animals wasnít sufficient to remove sin. Why? There is no equivalence in the life of a human being and a lamb, a person made in Godís own image and an animal created to serve that personís needs. In the divine economy, there is nothing in the animal creation on the level of humankind in the likeness of God.
In order to find a substitute who could make full atonement for human sin, no animal could ever be enough. But where is the human who could be the "substitute" for any other man or woman? You may be thinking that a mother would die for her children or that a husband and father would die to save his family. Yes, I grant that. But the exchange in a genuine sacrifice of atonement has to be innocent for guilty. So, while many of us fathers would die for our children or their mothers, not one of us could die to make atonement. We have the guilt of our personal sins to our account. Thus we could not substitute ourselves for one of our children. We have our own transgressions of divine law ó the penalty for which transgressions is death ó to account for.
Something has to happen that is better than anything human beings can devise or offer from ourselves if the sin problem is to be addressed. Before the coming of Christ, the most thoughtful theologians had been frustrated over this problem. Can there be an atonement for human sin? Can a reconciliation be brought about between humans and the God we have offended?
Thereís a Right Way and a Wrong Way . . .
Everybody knows that something is wrong down here on Planet Earth ó terribly wrong, devastatingly wrong, destructively wrong. We continue to produce the likes of Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot, Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein. Our political systems have created racial injustice in South Africa and the United States, totalitarianism in Cuba and Albania. All of us indulge our greed or lust or desire for revenge at times. We have jettisoned the ideals of "truth" and "right" in order to affirm a relativistic value system that permits us to indulge the flesh with chemical dependency and sexual license.
At the most personal level, people are frustrated with their human existence and terribly, terribly lonely. Millions have no spiritual goals for the lives. Ask the average Man on the Street the meaning of his life, and you will get a pitiful deer-in-the-headlights stare. He hasnít a clue!
These same spiritually unfocused persons canít relate to one another, donít keep their promises, and wonder aloud why they arenít happy. Marriages fail. Parents and children donít speak to one another. Adults cry themselves to sleep at night and wish they could die. Something is wrong. Something is dreadfully wrong in this world.
Perhaps the greatest myth to come out of an anguished worldís awareness of sin is this: Weíre supposed to do something to fix it.
Burdened now to remedy our world, we go searching for something divine and discover law. Instinctively we seem to know that we have problems in our lives because of our disregard for and disobedience to law. We break laws and discover that itís something like putting our noses in a meat slicer; thereís no happiness in it. So we make a sincere commitment to the law and go looking to find and obey it. Some of the laws we discover are divine laws; some are written on our consciences, and others are written in Scripture. When we canít find or justify a divine law, we sometimes write a human one ó some of which make sense and some of which defy justification. And we press for conformity to those laws.
We begin obeying the laws we have found and/or invented, and the situation improves. Things start to look brighter with some structure and order. We have learned from our parents that things go better when we follow the rules. School reinforced that message as we grew up. Society told us to obey the rules, get along, and stay out of jail. So we agree with others that keeping the law is good and form a "social contract" with our neighbors. Sure enough, things do go better when the trains run on time, when we observe the posted speeds, and when we honor the letter and spirit of the law.
As things begin to go better for us, we start pressing hard for others to obey the laws too. We figure that what works for us will be good for others as well. We believe that everyone will be better and happier if the rules are kept generally. So we create mechanisms for publishing and enforcing the laws we have found to be so helpful.
With every disobedience and failure, though, comes guilt. The more sincere and conscientious the person is about law, the greater the sense of guilt when he or she fails to keep one of them. The guilt becomes oppressive. Then there is struggle, followed by tiredness. Next comes shame. Then more failure ó with mounting shame. Finally come collapse, deliberate disobedience, and rejection of the original laws that had once proved so helpful.
We thought weíd found the key to deliverance, but it has backfired. The harder we try, the more we seem to mess up. The more we mess up, the more it hurts. The more it hurts, the more ashamed we are. The more ashamed we are, the less reason we have to think there is any point in trying any longer. (Here is where some people kill themselves!) Somehow, this once-promising path just doesnít seem to be working. It isnít fixing the problem; if anything, itís making it worse.
Thatís the wrong way to fix the problem of whatís wrong with our world, whatís wrong with us as persons. But it is the method most of us try for at least part of our lives. And, for some people, it is the only path they ever learn about or attempt to travel in addressing what they know to be a very real, very serious problem. Some of the strongest encouragement those people get to believe that this path of performance by the rules is their best (or only) positive option comes at church. Some people only know church for being big on the rules, shaking accusing fingers, upholding the sanctity of law.
Know what Romans says about this approach? "No one will be declared righteous in [Godís] sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin" (3:20). What "law" does Paul have in mind here? You name it, and Paul has it in mind. Itís the Code of Hammurabi. Itís what we have come to call "natural law." Itís Gandhiís "seven principles." Itís Mosesí Ten Commandments. Itís Jesusí Sermon on the Mount. It doesnít matter who the lawgiver is ó even the Son of God himself! ó nobody will ever have peace through law-keeping. Nobody is ever going to fix what is wrong with this world by law-keeping. Nobody will ever stand before God in confidence by law-keeping. No one will be declared righteous in Godís sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become more weighed down with the guilt and shame that have resulted from our sinful behaviors. But if this is the wrong way to fix the mess of this world, what is the right way?
"But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus" (3:21-24). Law-keeping doesnít work? There is another, better way? Oh, this is hard for us to hear! And what is this strange new way for fixing what is wrong with our world?
Hold on, now, for we are about to go a totally new direction. Even though Robert Fulghum reminds us how we learned in kindergarten that the person who makes the mess has to clean it up, Paul is going to tell us that such a practical, common-sense rule of thumb doesnít always hold true. In fact, he is going to insist that in the one thing that matters most, it wonít work at all.
Godís scheme of redemption does not call for us to put things right with our world. To the contrary, it calls us to leave the initiative with God and to trust his ability to do everything that will be necessary to save us. He will not do it through law but by faith in what someone else has done, not by helping us be better rule-keepers but by loving us in spite of our inability to keep law as well as even we would wish to keep it. God saves us by grace, apart from law. God saves us by love, in spite of our breaking ó even misunderstanding the nature and requirements of ó law. He gives us righteousness (i.e., right-standing) "through faith in Jesus Christ" and insists that we learn that we "are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus."
That is the gospel message. And it sounds strange to many of us because for years we were taught law-keeping as gospel. Some of us even thought we were sharing the gospel with others when we were imposing the old, failed, hopeless method of law-keeping. What a horrible realization! How ashamed I am of my own part in that! We were preaching rules, imposing judgments, and increasing shame ó thinking all the time that we were preaching the Good News of God to the world. It sounds so ridiculous in light of the gospel of Godís grace in Romans, but it seemed to be so perfectly logical at the time. It made so much sense to my fallen, unspiritual mind.
Godís way starts with love. From his wonderful love come release and full pardon. This, in turn, gives freedom. But then, strangely enough, comes a sense of guilt ó arising both from oneís personal failures and a sense of unworthiness before a holy God. So God gives more forgiveness and grace. Then worship and joy follow. And faithfulness and fruitfulness result. Oh, yes, this is the good news ó wonderful news ó of the ways of God with human sinfulness!
Justification through law leads to disobedience and failure. Salvation by grace produces obedience and faithfulness. This sounds so unnatural to our carnal ears and worldly hearts that it makes no sense! It seems to defy logic! It is so radical an approach to the problem of "making things right" that most people reject it. Can you believe this truth that Paul eventually came to understand ó although he too started on the law-side of this issue ó or is it simply too good for you to believe?
Five Significant Truths About Righteousness
The term "righteousness" (Gk, dikaiosune) is a word of critical importance in Scripture. As much in Romans as in any book of the Bible, it is imperative that one know what is at stake when the word is used. When it is used in relation to human beings, it may have either of two distinct but related meanings.
Righteousness can stand for an ethical concept that denotes virtue, integrity, and upright behavior. Paul certainly uses it that way later in Romans when he pleads with Christians to yield their bodies to God as tools for righteousness (6:13). Used this way, the term is practically synonymous with the commandments and laws of God. Thus Jesus could tell John the Baptist, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness" (Matt. 3:15; cf. John 16:8).
The same word may also be used as a salvation concept to denote a status of rightness, freedom from sin, and right-standing with God. Thus the Williams translation of the New Testament renders the expression "righteousness of God" as "Godís way of giving men right-standing." The word is certainly used with this meaning in the following text from Paul: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). And it is this second meaning of the word that Paul develops in Romans 3.
As an ethical concept, righteousness is something to do. It focuses on your behavior. One who has turned from death to life through faith in Christ Jesus is called to pursue lived righteousness (i.e., upright conduct) in the strength of the indwelling Spirit of God. As a salvation concept, however, righteousness is nothing to be achieved by human effort. It points not to oneís performance but to his position in Christ. It is a status of right-standing with God that is credited to those who accept Jesus Christ by faith. It is undeserved and unearned. It is Godís act of accepting ungodly persons as if they were godly on the basis of Christís atoning death at Calvary.
Thus the gospel is the good news that God has provided a way of giving men and women right-standing with himself. Preaching the gospel to people involves telling them how God has done for us what we could never have done for ourselves. Although it is good news, it is not entirely new news. Godís method of saving humankind was both anticipated and illustrated (e.g., Abrahamís experience) in the Law and the Prophets of Hebrew Scripture.
In his development of this wonderful salvation concept, Paul declares five important truths about the right-standing with God that has been brought to fulfillment in Christís work and revealed to us in the gospel.
First, right-standing with God is "apart from law" (3:21a). It has nothing to do with keeping rules, so letís toss that out from the start. Rule-keeping wonít fix what is wrong in our relationship with God. Keeping the law will always be an unsuccessful endeavor for you because, even when you are trying, you will trip up and break a rule occasionally. So God has determined to go a radically different way and says, "I will give you right-standing apart from law. It will not be predicated on your performance." Thus Paul writes: "But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known . . ." (3:21).
Second, right-standing with God comes instead "through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe" (3:22). If our right-standing does not depend on what we do, on what basis can it be granted? It is credited to us on the basis of what Christ did on our behalf. God has taken the initiative for your salvation, has done everything necessary for it, and asks you simply to trust that what he has done through Christ is enough. That means that you must stop trying to fix the sin mess yourself and trust Godís provision as all-sufficient. God doesnít need your help or mine to save us ó any more than he needed our help to create the universe and make it orderly and habitable. It is unnatural for some of us to let somebody else drive the car, make the decision, or take the responsibility; we are controllers and fixers by nature. In order to be saved, however, we have to do the unnatural thing of stepping back and letting God be in charge from start to finish. Do you trust that what God has done in Christ is enough?
"But donít you believe that a wicked person has to repent of his sins in order to be saved?" someone asks. Of course I do, because that is faith. "Do you think people need to be baptized?" Of course, because that is faith. "Do you teach that people need to attend church and be honest in their business dealings and faithful to their families?" Of course, because that is faith. But some of you have this thing so confused in your minds that you are still thinking that enough of those things or a certain number of favored things off that list is what secures your right-standing with God. Thatís salvation by your own good works and an utterly false teaching. Paul said that people who teach such a doctrine have perverted the gospel and are under the anathema of God (Gal. 1:6-9).
Salvation is not by works but is only and always through faith. But the faith that saves is never "faith alone" (i.e., faith apart from the behaviors appropriate to itself, cf. Jas. 2:24). True faith is not a mere head-faith but a faith that embraces oneís heart and total being. For example, demons have what I have called "head-faith." They know God exists and that he has acted in Christ to save all mankind; yet they are damned eternally because they did not act on what they knew and submit to him (Jas. 2:19). Yes, faith causes you to do some things that are holy and that honor God. But what saves you is not what you do but what God has already done through Christ. Your active, obedient faith simply thanks God for what he has done for you. It lets the world know that you are trusting God. It says aloud what is in your heart and declares that you have chosen to stand with Christ.
"Oh, I see," someone says, "and then if you do enough of those things over a lifetime . . ." No. No. NO! Thatís the old, wrong way of thinking about righteousness. It isnít something you do for God. It is something you accept as a free gift from God and for which you spend the rest of your life saying, "Thank you!" You canít do enough good things in a lifetime to have confidence before God in the last day, but you can believe that God has already "done enough" and be grateful for it.
Third, the right-standing we have from God comes through his pronouncement that all who are in Christ are "justified" (3:24a). This important biblical word is borrowed from first-century legal contexts. It is a court term meaning "to acquit." Someone brought into a court has a serious charge read against her, hears the relevant evidence presented, and eventually hears the judge deliver a verdict. To hear the judge say "Acquitted on all counts" would mean that she goes free and could never be tried again on those charges. There is no double jeopardy in a fair court.
Under the figure of a courtroom procedure, Paul has presented the charge against all of us: "Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin" (3:9). The evidence relevant to the charge has been presented in the first three chapters of Romans. There is no doubt that we are all guilty as charged, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (3:23). Yet we now hear the judge saying to all those who have trusted the saving work of God in Christ, "Guilty, but acquitted on all counts and set free!" The truth of the matter is that we are not just, yet God has declared us justified in his eyes. How can it be?
Fourth, our right-standing with God is given "freely by his grace" (3:24b). This is how God can allow sinful persons to be treated as if they were altogether free of sin. He does it "freely" (i.e., at no cost to us) and "by grace" (i.e., without our deserving or earning it). Salvation is a free gift of God to be received not by our good works but through faith. Justice is getting what you deserve as a sinner; mercy is getting less that your sin deserves; grace is getting what a sinner could never deserve.
Fifth, our right-standing with God was secured by the "redemption that came by Christ Jesus" (3:24c). Although redemption comes at no cost to sinners, it was secured at great cost to God. Although our salvation is free, it was not cheap. "God presented [Christ Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished ó he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus" (3:25-26).
Jesus had to die for our salvation. He had to be separated from the Father and the Holy Spirit for our sakes. Jesus tasted hell on his cross so we will never have to experience it. So Iím going to heaven ó not because Iím a good guy but because Iíve got a Good God! Iím flying on a ticket somebody else bought. Iím attending the heavenly banquet because somebody else bought me a plate at the table. It is by grace, by grace, BY GRACE!
One of the hardest things for anyone to believe is that God provides salvation as a free gift, to give up the "wrong way" of thinking salvation is to be deserved and earned through law-keeping and to embrace the "right way" of understanding that it is apart from law and through faith in Christ. One believer expressed his struggle over this matter in these words:
One Sunday morning I made up my mind to be a Christian, and never doubted that I knew what to do. I thought I must leave off this evil thing and that wicked habit and do only things that are good. I must read my Bible more, pray more, repent, and weep if possible. So I began. On Sunday I prospered, on Monday and Tuesday I almost succeeded, but on Wednesday and Thursday I made some serious slips. Finally on Friday I gave up in disgust.
I began the same process again the next Sunday. In my self-confidence I thought I knew now where I had gone wrong, so I increased my devotions, prayed more, and was careful to restrain my evil habits. Still I did not find peace.
Then I heard the new minister give his first address. He expounded on many things, but I can remember only one sentence, and that was the living Word of God to me: All you have to do to be saved is to take Godís gift and say, "Thank you!" Up to now I had been trying to get the Lord to take my gift and to make that offering worthy of his acceptance. Now I saw it was I who had to do the taking and that Christ was the one I must receive. My heart turned to him in gratitude. I took the gift and have been saying "Thank you" ever since!
Have you ever noticed that people sometimes sing better theology than they actually teach or believe? That was certainly the case with me. Long before I understood the message of Romans and appreciated the nature of the gospel, I sang a familiar old hymn that taught the truth about the two ways people seek salvation. Am I saved on the basis of what I offer God? Or am I saved by accepting what God offers me?
Nothing can for sin atone ó
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
Naught of good that I have done ó
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Those lyrics written by Robert Lowry in 1876 have been around a long time now. I suspect Iíve sung them a thousand times ó and will be singing them throughout eternity. Iím finally beginning to grasp their meaning.
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