Who Am I ? - Justified in Christ
Topic: Justification Passage: Romans 3:9–3:26
Who Am I?
Grace Community Church
May 8, 2016
Who Am I? Justified in Christ
Please turn with me to Romans chapter 3. John Carpenter was one question away from winning a million dollars on the TV show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. If he got it right, he'd walk away with a million dollars. If he got it wrong, he'd lose almost all of the $500k he had already won. The question was: Which of these U.S. Presidents appeared on the television series 'Laugh-In'?" A) Lyndon Johnson, B) Richard Nixon, C) Jimmy Carter, or D) Gerald Ford. If you were in his seat, where a right answer would win you a million dollars and the wrong answer would lose you a half million, would you know what the correct answer is? Just for the fun of it, I'm not going to keep tally, but raise your hand if you think it was A) Lyndon Johnson, B) Richard Nixon, C) Jimmy Carter, or D) Gerald Ford.
Carpenter had all of his lifelines left, and when he saw the question, he used one of them to call his dad, not to ask him what the answer was, but to tell his dad that he was about to win a million dollars. He was completely confident that he knew the answer: B) Richard Nixon, final answer. He was right, and Carpenter walked away with a million dollars.
The Bible tells us that the most important question in life, the question upon which the most hinges, the question with the highest stakes, is the question a rich young man asked Jesus once. "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" It's the same question the jailor asked Paul and Silas, "What must I do to be saved?" There's no more important question than this: how do we go to heaven?
Many people go through life confident they have the right answer to that question, only to find out they got it wrong. In my intensive research of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, I ended up watching about a dozen Who Wants To Be A Millionaire failures and one of the things that surprised me is how many people answered quickly and confidently, only to immediately realize it was the wrong answer. With all eternity hinging on our answer, we don't want to be the person quickly and confidently giving the wrong answer on that day, only to realize with eternal regret what we'd lost forever. Jesus says on that day there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth - an expression of deep, deep regret and remorse.
How can we inherit eternal life? There are many possible answers: some pick A) there is no God, or heaven, or hell, so I don't need to worry about it. Others pick B) God is a forgiving God and will forgive me of whatever wrong I've done. Sadly, one of the most common answers, sometimes even among people who call themselves Christians, is some form of C) I try to be a good person, I do good works, I'm very religious and I'm confident that the good in my life will outweigh the bad in my life, convincing God to allow me into heaven. Final answer.
The good news is, we don't have to guess at what the right answer is and hope that somehow we got it right. God has given us a lifeline called the Bible, and the Bible explicitly tells us that none of the above are right. We're in a series about our identity in Christ and when it comes to how can we be assured of eternal life, the answer isn't something we need to do, it's something we need to be. We need to be D) justified in Christ. Jesus accomplished so many things that radically transform our identity as believers, but nothing is as radical or as transforming as the awesome truth that those who believe in Christ are justified in the sight of God. We are justified in Christ.
Many Jews, and in particular the Jewish religious leaders, believed that their standing before God was based on their keeping the law meticulously. Over time they had become confident that they were righteous in God's sight because they did things like eating kosher, observing the Sabbath, washing their hands before eating, and other spiritually commendable things like praying long prayers, which they loved to do in public, where they got double the benefit: it earned spiritual points with God and people admired them. They also shunned and rejected sinners - those who, in their estimation, were breaking the law - with religious zeal. They enjoyed being God's mouthpiece expressing God's utter contempt and hatred for those who slipped up in any way. On what basis would God accept them? They were confident they had it right: keep the law. Final answer.
It's really easy for Christians and churches to make the same error that the Jewish religious leaders made. It's called legalism. Legalism is the attempt to be righteous enough to earn God's acceptance by our own efforts. Legalism is our default setting and it's where our hearts tend to drift if we don't guard against it. Many Christians and many churches come up with lists of do's and don'ts, religious rules that, if you keep them, qualify you to be accepted by the church (and they believe, by God), and if you don't keep them, qualify you to be shunned and rejected by them (and, by extension, rejected by God). Such churches often talk in terms of being "serious about God" or "we aren't compromising like so many churches are" and again, there's a double bang for the buck: it feels good to look down on other, inferior churches, and it makes us feel so good about ourselves. It's a win-win.
This legalistic set of do's and don'ts are rarely stated quite so bluntly, it's more something that gets into the air. I talk often about the DNA of a church, legalism gets into the DNA and produces an atmosphere that is performance driven rather than gospel-centered.
Do you ever find yourself basing your relationship with God on your performance? To be honest, this is something that I struggle with. From the time I was very young, I have had a tendency to smuggle performance into my relationships and I do that with the Lord too. A full bore legalist feels that God's acceptance and love of them goes up and down depending on their performance. Read the Bible this morning? I'm not talking about a verse or two, but a chapter or two at least? God loves you - today. But you better not slip up tomorrow. Wait…did you pray this morning? How long? God is watching and evaluating your performance and on the days you do good, you feel that He accepts you. And on the days you don't do good, you feel that God withdraws His love from you.
And then there's that list of do's and don'ts that the Bible clearly forbids (not sure exactly where, but it's somewhere in there): don't smoke, don't listen to rock music, don’t go to the movies, don't drink alcohol, don't get a tattoo, and -for the guys - don't get an earring. What's ironic is that while legalism focuses on things like these that really aren't mentioned in the Bible, it rarely worries much about truly biblical sins like pride, self-righteousness, gossip, and other sins that are harder to measure or regulate. Often the most legalistic churches are full of back-biting, gossiping, and self-righteous critics, and they’re good with that.
Another characteristic of legalistic systems of earning acceptance with God is that they're heavy on comparison. I know I can't be perfectly holy, but if I can just be holier than you God will be impressed. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Be more spiritual than the next guy. It reminds me of a story that Ravi Zacharias tells of two brothers, both well known for their crooked dealings in business, and for ruining people's lives in the pursuit of getting wealthy. And over time it paid off and they became very wealthy. Then the day came when one of the brothers died. The surviving brother, wanting to air brush his brother’s image (and by doing so, improve his own image) searched for a minister who would praise his brother in the eulogy. He found a minister and made this promise: “I will pay you a great deal of money if you will do one thing. In my brother’s eulogy I want you to call him a saint. If you do that I will reward you handsomely.” The minister was tempted as he thought of all the good he could do in the church with that money and finally he agreed to the deal.
When the funeral service began, the sanctuary was filled with townspeople, not because they came to pay their respects but because almost all of them had been personally and financially destroyed by the deceased and, not knowing about the deal the brother had made with the minister, they were hoping that the man’s wicked character would finally be publicly exposed in the funeral service.
The moment they were waiting for came at last and the minister began the eulogy. He began: “the man you see in the coffin was a vile and debauched individual. He was a liar, a thief, a deceiver, a manipulator, a reprobate, and a hedonist. He destroyed the fortunes, careers, and lives of countless people in this city, some of whom are here today. This man did every dirty, rotten, unconscionable thing you can think of. But compared to his brother here, he was a saint.”
The moral of the story is that the term saint means nothing when comparing two wicked people to each other. Comparing ourselves to others can lead us to feel smugly self-righteousness (cause we think we're better than someone else), or it can lead us to feel inferior and condemned (because we feel we don't measure up), but either way those comparisons means nothing to God. He doesn't grade us on a curve - setting the standard by the best in the class - He grades according to one standard: His blazing, unrelenting holiness and perfection. Can our good works, or religious acts, or charitable giving, or long prayers and fervent bible studies, or anything else, enable us to attain to God's perfect standard? Paul says no. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his (God's) sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (vs. 20) We can't keep God's laws perfectly enough to be justified in God's sight. The law has no power to make us righteous, it can only reveal our guiltiness. But God gave us a lifeline. Let's read on.
Romans 3: 21-26
This is all our hope and stay: the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. This is a righteousness based on something completely different than keeping the law, than legalism. When we place our faith in Christ, we receive the righteousness of God (which more than meets God's holy standard) as a gift. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…
But what does it mean to be justified? Sometimes people have sought to define the word with the clever saying, "justified means just as if I'd never sinned." It's clever, and it's true as far as it goes, but it doesn't go nearly far enough. Being justified doesn't stop at making us innocent in God's sight (as if we had never sinned), being justified is to receive Jesus' righteousness as if it were our very own. It's a legal term that signifies that in God's sight we are as righteous as Jesus is, because it is his righteousness we wear. That's why the Bible speaks of wearing robes of righteousness. It's not our righteousness - in fact Jesus tells a parable of a guy who sneaks into the wedding feast wearing his own shabby robe and is kicked out into eternal darkness. Anyone who appears before God in his or her own righteousness (legalism - thinking my works are good enough for God) will find themselves condemned. They might be a saint compared to Hitler, but they will be a filthy, guilty, condemned sinner compared to God.
But how did Jesus accomplish this? How are we able to be justified through faith in Christ? There's a big word in verse 25 that tells us how: propitiation. That's not a word we use much anymore but it's an important word when it comes to how Jesus has made us right with God. Let's unpack this important theological truth a little more.
Sin makes God very angry. The bible uses the term "wrath" to describe God's violent hatred of sin. Now that can make us feel a little uncomfortable - we don't like to think of God being angry. We might want to imagine a God who didn't hate sin violently or punish sinners, but that would be the worst kind of God imaginable. The other day a man ran onto a school playground and stabbed a 7 year old girl, leaving her in critical condition. When that man is caught, if you were put in charge of sentencing him, and you said to him, "I have no room in my heart for anger for what you did. Let's look at the bright side - it could have been worse. The child could have died. I'm going to let you go free and not punish you for what you did. Have a nice day." We would not look at that as kindness or some kind of nobler attitude. That would be to add a greater evil to an already evil act. It would say that child's pain and suffering - emotionally as well as physically, and the child's parents, and the other children who witnessed it, mean nothing. It would also reinforce to that man, and others, that they can do such atrocious acts and get away with it. Evil acts like that would multiply unrestrained. No, it is right and just and good to be angry - not out of control, flying into a fit of rage anger, but a controlled, just, proportional anger that metes out the proper judgment for the crime. God is perfect at this. At Judgment Day God will vent His wrath against sin, the sin that has created such death and destruction and heartache and injustice and abuse and oppression and devastation in the world, and the punishment will be precisely measured to the crime. And because all of us are sinners, we have all committed crimes. And many more, and much worse, than we are currently aware of.
But in the greatest act of love and sacrifice ever, God sent His Son Jesus, who lived a perfect and righteous life, pleasing His Father in everything he said, did, and thought, and then willingly went to the cross where God vented - exhausted - His wrath for our sin on His beautiful Son. That's what propitiation means - an offering put forward to satisfy God's wrath. Jesus became our propitiation by taking our sin upon himself and willingly receiving God's wrath poured out on him for all our sin. God exhausted His wrath on His Son - for those who believe in Christ there is no wrath left.
That's why it says that this was to show God's righteousness because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins. How could God righteously forgive the sins of the saints in the OT and still be righteous? You might say, well, He just forgave them, no big deal. Tell that to Uriah's mom. King David slept with Uriah's wife while Uriah was on the battlefield, got her pregnant, and to cover up his sin had Uriah - a good and loyal man - murdered. Tell Uriah's mom that God could righteously forgive David just because. Yet God did forgive David. But it was because in His forbearance He looked ahead to the day when His Son would bear David's terrible sin and it would be paid for in full by Jesus.
The cross exalts God's righteousness by showing how much He hates sin and corruption. And so, in the cross, God is displayed as both just - He will not let sin go unpunished - and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. We are justified in Christ, not because our sin was ignored, not because our punishment was passed over, but because our sin has been perfectly paid for. Jesus took our tattered, stained robe of sin, and he gave us his perfect, clean, robe of righteousness. The most important work of God through Jesus was to make it possible for Him to justify us. The only way we can inherit eternal life and enter God's eternal kingdom is to be justified in Christ. Final answer.
Someone might think, doesn't that remove all motivation to obey God and live a holy life? My brother in law went to a church many years ago where the pastor would repeat to his congregation throughout every sermon, "I just want to see you make heaven. I just want to see you make heaven." Wouldn't it be more motivating to us to think that eternal life hinged on what we did every day? Some churches act as if that were true - thinking that threats of eternal separation from God will keep believers on their toes.
This morning I remembered something from when I was a young child, maybe 5 or 6 years old. My dad and I were in the car and I was nagging and complaining about something and being a real brat. He had something he had to do and he parked the car and said, "I'll be right back" leaving me in the car (parents did that more back then). Well, he was gone for a little while and it got into my head that he left me because I hadn't behaved well. I remember crying and calling out, "I'll be good Dad, please come back." I thought my dad had walked away from me because I hadn't been good. That's not how God motivates us to obey Him.
Today is Mother's Day - what makes you moms so great is that you give love, nurture, correction, and direction to your children, but you don't threaten to disown them if they step out of line. You want their best, but you love them unconditionally even when they are at their worst.
Rather than this demotivating us to obey God, it provides the best kind of motivation: it gets to us from the inside out. We are loved and justified in God's sight, and we want to please and obey the Father who has loved and saved us. We want to love and follow Jesus who is our Lord and Savior because we know he will never leave or forsake us. We know that we are loved and justified in him.
As the band comes back up, let's ask God to search our hearts. Are you trusting in Christ's finished work to make you acceptable to God, or are you trying to smuggle some of your good works into your relationship with God? Do you feel condemned when your performance doesn't measure up? Do you feel superior to other Christians when you think you're doing better than they are in comparison? These are all the wrong answer. Trust only in Christ for your righteousness. He alone is sufficient to save us and make us righteous enough to enter heaven.
What must I do to enter eternal life? For the believer there is only one answer: I must be justified in Christ. Final answer.
More in Who Am I?
July 3, 2016Who Am I ? - I Am a Citizen of Heaven
June 26, 2016Who Am I ? An Ambassador for Christ
June 19, 2016Who Am I ? I Am Secure Because I Will Never Be Forsaken by God Part Two