Lent 3A

March 17, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 4:5-42

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Exodus 17:1-7

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 95

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Romans 5:1-11

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    On this third Sunday of Lent, we continue to focus on the benefits of Christ’s death. For Paul the key benefit is justification. He has just explained justification using two quite different metaphors: acquittal in a courtroom (Romans 3) and payment of debt in a commercial transaction (Romans 4). Now in Romans 5 he takes his explanation of salvation through Christ’s death (and life) a step deeper by exploring the benefits of justification. It is not just a cold legal verdict or formal commercial transaction. It changes life in every way.

    To put it crassly, when God declares a sinner innocent and pays her debt, he doesn’t snarl, “OK, you’re not guilty. Now get out of my sight. You disgust me.” God doesn’t bark, “Your debt is paid. Now get out of town before I clobber you.” Rather, God says, “Not guilty. Debt paid. Now come to Daddy.”

    The word Paul uses to summarize the ultimate benefit of justification is reconciliation. Before we encounter that word in Romans 5:10, we hear some of the loveliest, most poetic theology ever penned by this allegedly stern apostle. Some of what follows is adapted from my previous explanation of Romans 5:1-5 in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.

    Paul begins with that quintessential Hebrew word for salvation, shalom, peace. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” There is a textual issue here reflected in some modern translations. The NIV translates “we have peace,” while other versions say “let us have peace.” That’s because some ancient manuscripts have an omicron and others have an omega in the Greek word have. So the first translation is in the indicative, the second in the subjunctive.

    Though the textual evidence seems to lean toward the subjunctive, and though no less an authority than Calvin thought Paul was talking about cultivating peace of mind, I think the indicative makes more sense. I say that primarily because of the way Paul ends this sentence. He is not calling us to develop a peaceful conscience; he is telling us that we already stand in the grace of God. In other words, this peace is not a feeling of contentment when we think about God. It is the new status we have with God. We have a new standing with God because of this justification. We now stand in his grace; we have peace with God.

    This is no minor point. Not only are our sins pardoned, but the one against whom we sinned is completely at peace with us. It is well between God and us, from God’s side. It’s not a shaky, uneasy peace either, like the peace that sometimes prevails between, say, the Israelis and the Palestinians. That’s because peace with God is not the result of negotiations, with each side giving a little and taking a little. No, this peace with God is a firm and settled peace, because it is based on the total giving of Christ, which we simply receive through faith.

    So firm and settled is peace with God that Paul speaks of standing in God’s grace. What a remarkable phrase! Usually grace is spoken of as a gift. Here it is like a force field. All fans of Star Trek and Star Wars know what a force field is. It’s what keeps the Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon safe when alien life forms attack with a death ray. Well, says Paul, God’s grace is the determinative force field in the life of a believer. Your entire life is determined, dominated, not by the force field of sin, but by the peaceful grace of God. No matter where you are, no matter what you are doing, no matter what mess you are in, you are surrounded, securely held in the totally underserved and unconditional grace of God.

    That leads to the third benefit of justification—hope for the future, “we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” Paul is talking our hope of the glory of God. That could mean two things. He might be talking about the beatific vision, about that day when we are privileged to see the full glory of God. Verse 11 seems to point in this direction; “we… rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” After walking by faith, seeing through a glass darkly, we will see God in all his glory. Even now we rejoice in that hope.

    Or Paul might be talking about the completion of our salvation, when we finally receive the glory God intended when he created us in his image. Earlier in Romans, Paul has said that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. As C.S. Lewis so memorably pictured it in The Great Divorce, we are so much less that we are meant to be. In Divorce, those who end up in hell are mere carbon smudges, vague insubstantial shadows of their former selves. Those who end up in heaven are so beautiful and solid and, well, human that the hell dwellers barely recognize them. Paul is talking about the hope that we will one day become the glorious creatures God created us to be. We will share in the glory of God. As a result of justification by faith, we are not just forgiven sinners, miserable ex-cons with no hope for a bright future. We are children of God destined for glory.

    Here’s another benefit of justification. We know the meaning of our suffering; “we also rejoice in our suffering, because we know that suffering produces perseverance….” We may not know the meaning of a particular instance of suffering, but we know its overall meaning. So, we can rejoice in it. Note that Paul says, “we rejoice in our suffering,” not because of it. We don’t have to like suffering; that would be sick. No, we rejoice in the midst of it, because as we stand in the midst of our pain, we are standing in the midst of God’s grace.

    God’s grace will use that suffering redemptively. We must preach this carefully. Paul does not say that God sends us our suffering, though he may sometimes. He does not say that God has a purpose in our suffering, though he undoubtedly does. We must be very careful about drawing a straight line between our suffering and the will of God. If the book of Job teaches us nothing else, it teaches that the relationship between our suffering and the God of love is complex. So, don’t say too much about that. Paul says that God is able to use our suffering, wherever it comes from, to accomplish a glorious result, “the glory of God.”

    That does not mean that God is glorified by our suffering. In some mysterious ultimate sense that will undoubtedly be true, but that’s not what Paul means. Our suffering will contribute to our growth in glory: “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; and character hope. And hope does not disappoint us…..” Paul says we know about this chain of hope, but, in fact, we often forget it in the midst of our suffering. Who of us hasn’t wondered about this Christian hope? Who hasn’t wearied of having our perseverance tested and our character developed? And who hasn’t said, how do I know I won’t be disappointed in the end? How do I know that life isn’t going to be one series of sorrows after another, “one damned thing after another,” as the popular cynicism puts it?

    Well, says Paul, “hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom he has given us.” Here’s the final benefit of justification. Paul says that the Triune God has not only declared us innocent on the basis of the perfect work of Christ, but has also lavished his love on us by giving us the Holy Spirit who will change the dross of our suffering into the gold of glory. The Holy Spirit in our hearts is God’s deposit on our future, a down payment, an initial investment that guarantees we won’t be disappointed in the end. Or to pick up on Romans 8 and Galatians 4, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of adoption through whom and by whom we cry “Abba, Father.” From condemned criminal to beloved children—that’s the full effect of justification by faith alone apart from works of the law.

    That’s clear and lovely, but Paul knew that not everyone would hear that as blessed good news. His Jewish critics would have said, “That’s not right! How could a holy God, a perfectly righteous Judge not only declare sinners innocent, but also adopt them into his family?” How could God “justify the ungodly,” as Paul says in Romans 4:5? Paul answers those reasonable questions in verses 6-11. “You see….” There are four parts to Paul’s reasonable answer.

    First, he points out that God did not justify us because we were basically good or because we contributed to our justification. In a crescendo of condemnation, Paul says we were “powerless” (verse 6). We were too weak and sick and disabled by sin to be able to help ourselves. Not only that, we were “ungodly” (verse 6). He doesn’t mean that we lacked a bit of piety or that we fell a little short of godliness. No, we were “sinners” (verse 8) who missed the mark completely. Indeed, we were “enemies” (verse 10) of God. Read that last one carefully. We were the enemies, not God. God is not our enemy. God is our loving Father.

    So, in the second place, Paul points out that this whole justification business was driven by the love of God. He takes pains to distinguish God’s love from ours. When we humans sin against each other, we become mutual enemies, and we won’t do anything good for each other. We might do good for someone on our side, but there are limits to that. God’s love has no limits. “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man; though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love in this, while were still sinners, Christ died for us.” It isn’t that Christ died to make God love sinners. Rather, it is that God loved sinners, enemies, and sent his Son so that we could be saved to the uttermost.

    Third, the death of Jesus was at the heart of this justification/reconciliation business. The only way a righteous Judge could justify sinners was if someone paid for those sins with the punishment God had declared at the very beginning of human history. Many modern readers may quail at the thought of God punishing his own Son, but over and over Paul insists that our salvation depended on Christ’s death. “Christ died for the ungodly.” (verse 6) “While we were sill sinners, Christ died for us.” (verse 8) “We were reconciled to him through his death….” (verse 10) Paul even ventures into the messy realm of blood atonement in verse 9; “Since we have now been justified by his blood….” The ancient people of God knew that the wages of sin is death. Now Paul has explained that God can justify he ungodly because Jesus died for us.

    Fourth, Paul summarizes the poetic theology of verses 1-5 in four clear words: justified (dikaiothentes), saved (sothesometha), reconciled (katellagemen), and rejoice (kauchemenoi). Having explained justification, Paul now spells out the results of justification in our lives. We don’t have to worry about God’s wrath coming down on us in the future. “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s (not in the Greek, but clearly implied) wrath through him.”

    It is theoretically possible that future sins could undo justification. A criminal might be cleared of one charge, but then commit many more crimes and become liable for further judgment. That’s not possible with God, says Paul. Christ’s death took care of all your sins. Now he lives to make intercession for you (ala Heb. 7:25). His resurrection life guarantees that he will rescue you from whatever sin you might commit in the future. “For if when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life.”

    The ultimate result of justification is reconciliation to God. That reconciliation is complete and final: “we were reconciled… having been reconciled… we now have received reconciliation.” Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, those who believe in Christ are completely restored to a perfect relationship with God that nothing can damage or destroy.

    Because we have been justified, saved, and reconciled, we can rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ. The word rejoice is kauchomenoi, which means to exult, glory, celebrate, even boast. Paul has forbidden boasting earlier in this letter, but here he says it is the natural result of complete salvation. We must not boast in ourselves, but it is perfectly appropriate to boast in God, to celebrate what he has done for us, to rejoice in his complete salvation. Since Genesis 3, we humans have lived in guilt and shame and fear, as we have hidden from and rebelled against God. Now through Jesus we can live before God with unbounded joy and peace and hope and love. All has been restored by the death and resurrection of Christ.

    Illustration Idea

    Paul talks about the difference between being justified and being reconciled—the first is legal, the second is personal. An incident from fairly recent history may help to make that clear. On the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, the bombardier on the US plane that dropped the bomb wanted to visit that city and apologize to its citizens. The city officers refused the offer. That bomb had killed 70,000 people and devastated the city. “We understand his sentiments,” they said, “but there are many atomic bomb victims who are still suffering and who do not wish to meet this man.”

    Legally, there is peace between the US and Japan. The war is over; we are allies, even trading partners. But the personal pain continues, and the people of Nagasaki didn’t want to be friends with their former enemy. They aren’t ready for such reconciliation, where there is peace between the man who dropped the bomb and the people who suffered from it.

    A recent news article said that 2013 was a record year for exonerations of prisoners in the United States. Some 87 people who had been found guilty in a court of law and sentenced to time in prison have now been found not guilty. They really had not done what they were accused of doing. They had been declared guilty even though they weren’t. Now they have been exonerated.

    That is the exact opposite of Paul’s doctrine of justification. We have been declared innocent, even though we are totally guilty. We have not been exonerated; we have been acquitted, pardoned, forgiven, even though we are, quite literally, as guilty as hell. And only because Christ died for us.