The Letter to the Romans
The Heart of the Gospel: Romans 3:21-26
The atmosphere in the court-room is tense as the accused and all the people there await the verdict of the jury. Both sides have argued their case well, it is now up to the jury to decide whether the man is guilty of murder. People in the courtroom wonder: was the evidence enough to convict the man, or was it all merely circumstantial? The jury returns to the courtroom and the judge asks the accused to stand. The judge asks the jury for its verdict: Guilty as charged!
Unlike the verdict of this earthly court, there is no doubt over the verdict of the Heavenly Judge if He should happen to judge us on the basis of our own works. We are all guilty as charged; the evidence is clear. Our own consciences testify against us: we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s standard of absolute moral perfection (Rom. 3:23). After all, God’s glory is the standard: who could hope to live up to that? All have failed to manifest God’s holy character of love in their lives, seeking their own self-gratification at the expense of others in disobedience to God (3:10-18). If God should judge us according to our works, as He stated in Rom. 2:6-8, there is no option for us but to despair.
Our Relationship to God
But just at the point when humanity’s case seems absolutely hopeless, God intervenes with a solution to humanity’s plight: "But now a righteousness from God, apart from the Law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify" (3:21). Righteousness refers to right standing with God, to a right relationship with God. Somehow God has made a way for humanity to be acquitted of its crimes against Him without being unjust. What does it mean to have a right relationship with God? First of all, a relationship with God does not refer to a feeling. To have a relationship with God does not refer to feelings of emotional closeness and intimacy with God that one might associate with friendship, family, and romance. That is "relationship" in the soulish or fleshly sense of the term, which has nothing to do with the realm of spirit, the realm of choice, knowing, and faith. One does not "feel" one’s relationship to God at all: it is not a subjective feeling state. Instead, our relationship to God is something more objective than that. Above I spoke of our relationship to God as guilty sinner to God as Judge. Whether we feel this to be true or not, it is nevertheless the truth. Thus, our relationship to God has to do with our fundamental attitude toward God and His attitude toward us. When we were unbelievers, we were in a state of hostility toward God (5:10), regardless of our feelings in the matter, because we were deliberately following our own will in place of God’s (though we were really enslaved to the will of another without realizing it). We were like children estranged from their parents, disobedient and rebellious. We had an "attitude" towards God: "I’m going to do it my way!"
God’s Justice and Wrath
But God also has a relationship to us. Because God is absolutely holy and perfectly just, He hates sin with an all-consuming passionate hatred. The author of Hebrews describes God as a consuming fire (12:29), and speaks of the "fearful expectation of judgment and raging fire that will consume the enemies of God" (10:27; see Rom. 1:18). If human beings are hostile to God in their unbelief, God is also hostile to humanity. Not only do we need to be reconciled to God, God must be reconciled to us and the demands of His holy justice must be satisfied. If God just declared our sins forgiven, without satisfying the demands of justice, He would compromise His character and would no longer be trustworthy as God. In any game the umpire or referee must carry out the penalties and consequences he threatens or the players will cease to respect him. In addition, the umpire would be uncaring, because without someone to enforce the rules and carry out consequences, no game can take place. God cannot simply remove the consequences of sin. He has declared that death is the punishment for sin, and so the sentence must be carried out.
But now God has acted decisively to restore us to a right relationship with Himself, and to remove the death sentence against us, but without being unjust. This right relationship does not come about as a result of our own efforts to obey the Law, to live up to God’s moral standard (3:21). God does not find us acceptable on the basis of anything we could accomplish by independent self-effort, because self-effort itself is sin before God. Our very belief that we do not need God to obey His Law, that we can keep it in our own strength, is offensive to God, a form of idolatry. The belief in an independent self who can keep the Law is a form of self-worship, for then we are viewing ourselves as gods rather than as mere vessels who are operated by powers greater than ourselves. To trust in our-selves, our own imagined abilities, is to be defeated before we even begin. True righteousness cannot come about through the Law, not because the Law is bad, but because an external record of God’s moral requirements cannot change the human heart or deliver humanity from its bondage to Satan.
So if our relationship to God is to be restored, God must act unilaterally to restore it, since we are utterly powerless to do anything for ourselves (a principle that continues to be true for the whole Christian life). In other words, God must do everything; all we do is passively receive His grace (3:24). But what is grace? Grace is God’s unconditional acceptance of us despite our past rebellious behavior toward Him. God’s acceptance of us does not depend upon our prior actions or works of self-effort to please Him. In fact, those acts only count against us, and it is in spite of those very things that God accepts us. Most of us have a difficult time understanding the concept of unconditional acceptance, because we have experienced so little of it in our lives. Many of us had parents that conveyed the message to us that we were acceptable only if we behaved in certain ways, and that we would be rejected if we didn’t. Most of us got the message that it was unacceptable to express certain feelings, or maybe any feelings at A. Even now as adults, we find at social gatherings people are busy trying to impress each other with their jobs, accomplishments, degrees, or abilities, just in order to gain that feeling of being acceptable to others, and therefore to themselves. If only people knew and believed that God had already accepted them perfectly, wholly and completely, they could give up this false pursuit of trying to impress others. Not only does God not consider our accomplishments etc. in accepting us, He accepted us even though in His book we had all negatives against us. We gave Him no reasons at all to accept us, but He did so anyway. That is grace. Taking into account all sins, God chooses to love us anyway, and to receive us as His children. And we can trust His love for us, since it never depends on anything we do, but solely on God’s character and choice to love us.
But how can this be? I have already stated that God, because of His holy justice, must punish sin. He cannot remove the just consequence of sin, the penalty of death, without compromising His character. How can God be both gracious and merciful to us on the one hand, unconditionally accepting us, and holy and just on the other? How is this apparent contradiction to be resolved? The answer is in Rom. 3:24-26. God has presented Jesus as sacrifice of atonement. at this means is that God has poured out His wrath upon His only Son instead of upon us, so that Jesus bore the penalty of death in our place. Jesus was our substitute and our intercessor, taking upon Himself the wrath that we should have endured, so that we might be restored to a right relationship with God. True intercession is when we so identify with the person for whom we are inter-ceding that we take upon ourselves their pain and condition before God as our own. Jesus assumed our place on the cross and took upon Himself the fate we deserved. Jesus endured rejection by the Father, that the Father might accept us. So God is able, at the same time, to maintain His holy justice in carrying out the just penalty for sin, and to be merciful to us and accept us unconditionally despite our sinful actions and rebellion against Him. At one stroke God deals with the problem of His own wrath and hostility toward humanity, while at the same time He removes our guilt before God.
Paul says that we are justified freely by His grace (3:24), but we must remember that although God’s acceptance of us and removal of our guilt is free to us, it is not free. Our salvation cost Jesus not only His life and great physical and emotional suffering, but the experience of abandonment and rejection by the Father on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:46). Who can calculate the infinite pain that Jesus endured when the Father broke fellow-ship with Him on the cross? Who can calculate the cost of Jesus’ intercession for us on the cross? God treated Him as the sinner in our place, enduring the rejection that we should have received. Who can say the infinite depth of loving fellowship with the Father that Jesus gave up for our sake, even if only temporarily? For Jesus was Himself God, the second member of the Trinity, so that the cross reached into the very heart of God. This is a profound mystery, that God would pour out His own wrath upon Himself before allowing us to endure it. This is the depth to which God loves and cares for us.
But think how deeply offensive our sin must be, that such an awesome sacrifice was required! For God would not have done something so drastic, unless it were absolutely necessary. Nothing less than the cross, that the broken fellowship of the Son from the Father could atone for our crimes, so that we ought to be utterly ashamed at the depth of our sin. Fortunately God does not leave us in this total humiliation, but graciously accepts us and draws us to Him out of infinite long-suffering love.
Justified by Faith
Only one thing remains for us to do: to receive God’s grace through our act of faith. This is not something mysterious, for, as Norman Grubb states in The Law of Faith, p. 18, we are always exercising faith at every moment of our lives. Everyone has a particular outlook or philosophy of life that they put their trust in and live by. So faith is a natural faculty or capacity of my spirit that I am always using. Since human beings never have absolute knowledge of anything, everyone must take a leap of faith in a particular direction every time they make a decision. If I didn’t exercise faith, I would be paralyzed and do nothing. Since this is impossible, I am always exercising faith. Faith in the biblical sense of the term means that I bank my life on God’s word. I take God at His word and live as if it were true even if all the evidence and all my feelings loudly scream that the opposite is true. It is not necessary to feel as if God unconditionally accepts you for it to be true, for feelings have nothing to do with spirit, the place of choice and believing. Faith is also not a mere intellectual deduction or belief in a doctrine. We must utterly throw ourselves on the mercy and love of God, and depend upon it as though our lives depended upon it (for they do). The difference between intellectual belief and real trust in God is the same as the difference between the second and third steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. According to the second step, we came to believe that there was a power greater than ourselves (God) who could deliver us from alcohol (or any sin). This is an intellectual belief; no actual trust in God is required at this step. But in the third step, we turn our lives and wills over to God. Faith is unconditional trust, an attitude of total dependence upon God, because we have run out of all other options and find ourselves in a position of powerlessness. Unless God saves us, we have no hope. It is the absolute abandonment of all forms of self-effort, for our best thinking has got-ten us into the situation we are now in. It is this faith that restores us to a right relationship to God, because we were made to be absolutely dependent upon God for everything. It is a self-delusion that we could relate to God in any other way than faith, for we are only vessels of powers greater than ourselves, and faith is the only independent capacity that we have.
At the beginning of our Christian walk, we found that we had to trust absolutely and unconditionally in Jesus’ death on the cross to save us, in God’s gracious acceptance of us. As we shall discover in the rest of Romans, this principle of faith remains true for the whole of the Christian life.
More Articles from The Intercessor, Vol 11 No 2
- God’s Obsession
- Isaiah 45:5-8
- Editor’s Note
- Moments with Meryl
- Excerpts from The Intercession of Rees Howells
- Thoughts on Abraham
- The Single Eye
- The Letter to the Romans
- My Story
- Questions & Answers
- The Key To Everything
- God’s Promises
- The Mailbox
- New Light on the Twelve Steps
- Tape Talk
- Words to Live By