The God who rescues - Romans 3:21-31
Of all the stories we human beings love to hear and love to tell each other, perhaps rescue stories are the ones which capture our imaginations the most. Whether it be Robin Hood or Star Wars, or even 999 Rescue with Michael Burke, rescue stories never fail to excite and intrigue us. A few weeks ago, though, I came across a rescue story which really takes the biscuit. The scene was Southern Australia, in a remote farming community called Tanjil South, about 93 miles east of Melbourne. It was there that Len Richards, a 52 year old emu farmer, was checking his property for storm damage when he was hit on the head by a falling branch and knocked unconscious. There was no doubt that his life was in danger, as his son later commented: 'We might not have found him for hours.' Indeed, it could have been a lot worse, had it not been for Mr Richard's pet kangaroo called Lulu who bounced to the rescue. To add to the difficulty of the rescue, Lulu was blind in one eye, after a chance encounter with a passing car some years before. But that did not deter her from bouncing all the way back to the farmhouse and knocking on the door. After attracting the farmer's wife's attention, Lulu then bounced back to the unconscious farmer and sat down next to him to show where he was until the paramedics arrived. Lulu's courageous actions have not gone unnoticed though, since the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals have said that they have short listed Lulu for their prestigious annual bravery awards. National president Hugh Wirth said: 'This award is given to animals who do something for humans of an exceptional nature and Lulu certainly has done that.' Move over Skippy!
I guess the attraction of such stories is that they tell of a terrible situation which is reversed; a person trapped is rescued, a person in danger is brought to safety. And the more dire the situation the more amazing the rescue. Now tonight we are thinking about another rescue story, but this is a rescue story with a difference. Because this story involves not just one farmer in the outback, but billions of people throughout history. People who need rescuing from the most terrible danger possible. They are facing an horrific fate, worse than we can possibly imagine, far worse than even death itself. But the wonderful thing with this rescue story is that there is a rescuer who will go to amazing lengths to rescue these people. He will willingly lay down his life in order to save these people and he will suffer the most awful things in order to get these people out of that terrifying situation.
So what is this rescue? Well the rescue I'm talking about took place 2000 years ago on a Roman cross in Jerusalem. And the rescuer was Jesus Christ of Nazareth. And who did he die for? He died for you and me. We're the ones who need rescuing. We're the ones in dire danger. And it's this rescue that Paul is explaining to us in this passage from Romans 3 which we're looking at tonight. You see whether you admit it or not, this rescue is relevant to every single one of us in this building, and it is the most important event to date in human history. Now it may well be that you are not a convinced Christian. In fact you might not even believe that God exists. But I would ask you tonight to listen to what this writer has to say, and to see what he is saying. Because the truths that he is teaching us get to the very heart of the Christian message. Quite literally we are at the very crux of Christian belief. And Jesus challenges you to think very seriously about what he has done for you. But if you are a Christian here tonight, then I want to invite you to come with me to that old rugged cross outside Jerusalem and to see again what your rescuer did for you. For as one writer once put it: 'Dead is the soul that has ceased to be amazed at the love of God as seen in the cross of Christ.' If you're weary, overwhelmed, under pressure, ensnared in temptation, or perhaps perfectly happy, however you're feeling, the key to perseverance in the Christian life is to keep trusting the cross. We need most of all to keep coming back to the cross to see the love of our Saviour and remember what it cost him to get us to heaven, to remember it's by grace we are saved, and by grace we continue. So let's turn to this most amazing rescue story under three headings:
1) The Need for the Rescue
And the first thing we must notice is the need for the rescue. All rescues happen because someone is in need, and that is most especially the case with this rescue. Let's look at the end of verse 22: 'There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall
short of the glory of God.' Paul is saying that all of humanity have a serious problem. He says we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Now Paul is here summarising what he has been arguing for three chapters. He's shown that to sin is to rebel against the loving God of the world who made us. We turn aside from him and instead worship other gods, perhaps even ourselves. And Paul tells us that we fall short of the glory of God. In other words, we fall short of God's perfect standards, and we continue to do that every day. We were made in his image, reflecting his glory, and yet that image is now ruined and all but destroyed. See how Paul puts it in chapter 3 vv 10-12: 'There is no-one righteous, not even one; there is no-one who understands, no-one who seeks God. All have turned away and they have together become worthless; there is no-one who does good not even one.'
And it's not as if our good deeds are any use. Time and again, I hear the comment along the lines of this: 'I've not done anyone any harm. I've been a good person all my life. I've followed the ten commandments. Surely God will let me into heaven?' The problem is that however good we have been is not good enough. For God is a perfect God, and to be in his heaven, we must be perfect. And any imperfections are deeply offensive to his holiness. The fact is however good you feel you might have been, you've not been good enough for God. In fact the Bible goes further and says that spiritually speaking we are dead. So how can good deeds, however hard we try, help a spiritual corpse which is what we are?
When the Chinese dictator Mao Zedong died in 1976, the Chinese government ordered that his body be preserved for posterity. Dr Li Zhisui was entrusted with the task, but he knew it was ultimately impossible. The body would eventually rot. However, he had his orders, so he pumped into the body 23 litres of formaldehyde to try and preserve it. It was a disaster. Mao's body simply swelled up with all the liquid and a team of embalmers had to work for five hours with towels and swabs to make the body presentable for the funeral. That sufficed for the funeral, but the powers that be wanted the body permanently preserved. So again he got to work, but a sensible government official also had a wax dummy made. So as the lines of people queued up to see Mao's body in Tiananmen Square, not even Dr. Li Zhisui knew whether it was the real thing or not.
You see, the fact is however hard you try you cannot make a corpse appear fresh and alive. And we are kidding ourselves if we think our good deeds can make any difference to our spiritually dead lives. Paul says that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But do you know the worse thing? It's bad enough that we rebelled against God and are spiritually dead. But far worse is God's reaction to such rebellion. For as a God of perfect justice and holiness he will not let us off the hook for such rebellion against him. He will bring us to account for such rebellion. And we're actually facing an eternity cut off from him, which is a fate far worse than death itself. It's what Jesus himself called hell.
And the first question this passage asks of us this evening is this: Are we aware of our need? Will we admit the desperate position we are in, living lives which are not lived for God's glory and they were meant, and lives which have turned away from the loving God who made us. We're heading for eternity without God, destined to suffer the consequences of our stubborn to resistance to God and his loving rule. We must see our peril. One of the most chilling truths about the story of the Titanic was some people's stubborn refusal to believe that the ship was going to sink to the bottom of the Atlantic. Even as the ship foundered the band played on. 'No danger, people were saying. No danger!' Well the apostle Paul is telling us this evening that there is great danger. And we're all facing it. And we can either sup on our champagne and plough on with our lives ignoring the warnings, or we can have our eyes opened to the reality. For we're in need but God has a rescue plan. Either way, whether we admit it or not, we need rescuing.
2) The Heart of the Rescue
But brilliantly that is precisely what God has done for us. He has not left us in this terrible state. He has provided a rescue of amazing proportions as Paul explains in verse 21-25, which is the heart of the rescue. And the first thing that strikes us as we look at the beginning of the passage in verse 21 is the first two words: 'But now'. Paul is saying that something dramatic has happened. We were in dire danger, but now, God has done something about it. There has been a turning point in the history of the world as God has provided his rescuer to save mankind from an eternity apart from God. In fact so significant is this turning point, that even our calendars remind us. For we live in AD 2003, not BC. We live after Christ has come. But now, God has done something. And it's something that God has been planning for ages. Notice that it is something to which the 'laws and the prophets testify'. Paul is speaking about the OT and he is saying that this rescue plan of God is something that the OT foretold. This rescue plan was no plan B after the OT failed. No the OT was the promise of the rescuer and the NT is the fulfilment of that promise.
So what is this rescue all about? Well Paul says in verse 21: '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.' The rescue plan is about the righteousness of God. What is that about? Well God's righteousness in Romans is God's just way of bringing sinful people like you and me back into friendship with God. It's his way of making unrighteous people, people who have rebelled against him, right with God. Righteousness is actually a law court term. Our translations also use the word justified. To be justified means to be acquitted in God's law court. It's as if God says to us before his bar of justice, you are free to go. You are justified.
Now how on earth can that be? How can I stand before the judge with my history and be told I'm a free man? I thought we're rebels against God? I thought there was a whole list of charges to be brought against us? I thought God was just? Well he is. And those charges must be paid. If I may put it like this, God has a problem. On the one hand God is a God of perfect justice. He hates any sort of injustice and evil. He must according to his character punish wrong doing. And of course, we would say that justice is a good thing. It is right that the guilty are punished. And we stand guilty as charged. But on the other hand God is a God of perfect love. He longs to forgive us. He longs for us to be reconciled to him again, to be right with again. But he cannot sweep sin under the carpet. So in one hand there is God's perfect justice against all wrongdoing. In the other hand there is God's generous love for his creation. How can the two be reconciled? Paul gives us the answer in verse 22: 'This righteousness from God, [this way of God declaring us right with him], comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.' And what is it that Jesus Christ has done? Verse 25: 'God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.' God wrath and God's love came together on the cross. And this is where we get to the very heart of the rescue.
And Paul explains it to us by saying that Jesus is a sacrifice of atonement, or as the older versions say, a sacrifice of propitiation. What does that mean? By way of illustration, imagine the following scene. A young husband is at the breakfast table and he has a lot on his mind. He's thinking about the day ahead, he's thinking about the big game in the evening, Cambridge United versus Peterborough United, he's worried about the economy and globalisation and the like. And all of a sudden his wife slams his cornflakes in front of him, saying: 'At least I don't forget to feed you.' And the young man, being from Mars, thinks to himself: 'Well she's a bit grumpy isn't she! Probably the hormones.' And he goes off to work. On the way he buys a paper, and the date catches his eye: 'May the 8th!' And then it dawns on him. The wife's birthday! Full of horror for the rest of the day, he buys a huge bunch of flowers, and books a table at the Garden Palace Chinese restaurant on Cottingham Road and whisks his wife away for a romantic evening. And thankfully her wrath is appeased. She has been propitiated. You see to atone for something, to propitiate someone is to appease their wrath, their righteous anger at being wronged.
Now of course God is far more than a jilted lover. His wrath has been aroused because of our terrible treatment of him. But the staggering thing is that it is on the cross God's wrath against human wrong doing was propitiated, it was appeased, it was dealt with. Not by a bunch of lowers and a meal out, but with the blood of his own Son. For on the cross Jesus steps into our place to take what we deserve. He bears God's wrath on himself. He bears the charges and the penalty we should be carrying. And the result? We can leave God's bar of justice as free people. That's why Paul can say in verse 24: 'We are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.' So it's on the cross that God's wrath and mercy come together. On the one hand, his wrath is seen against sin. The price is being paid. Jesus quite literally experiences hell in our place, because hell is being separated from God, receiving God's anger at sin. He's bearing that for you and me. And yet God's love is being seen because the cross is the way you and I can go free. It's God's way of satisfying his justice and showing his love. And it's not as if God has grabbed an innocent third party. Rather it's God himself on that cross in the person of his Son. He took on human flesh so that we could be right with God again. He loved us so much that he was willing to go through the agony and horror of the cross for you and me. Have you realised what it cost God to acquit you at his bar of justice. In order for God to say to you: 'You are justified. You right with me again. You are forgiven.' It cost the blood of his own Son. 'Because the sinless Saviour died, my sinful soul is counted free. For God the just was satisfied to look on Him and pardon me.'
Do you know what it means to be forgiven? Do you know what it means to stand before God and for him to say to you: 'The charges are paid for. Your debt has been wiped off. My Son has taken your place on that execution platform and died for you. You're justified, you're redeemed, you're set free, you're forgiven.' And it means that now we have been forgiven, then that no-one can bring any charges against us. Because once that price has been paid, it would be unjust to have to pay it again. No, once your tab has been paid for, you are free for eternity.
Recently I read the story of a young boy who was shooting rocks with this sling shot. He wasn't very good and could never hit is target. As he returned grumpily to his grandma's backyard, he spied her pet duck, and in impulse he let a rock fly from his sling shot. Of all the rocks Johnny had ever thrown, this was the one that hit. The duck was dead. Panicking, Johnny hid the duck in the wood shed only to look up and see his little sister Sally staring at him from the kitchen window. After lunch Grandma asked Sally to wash up, but she said: 'Oh Grandma, Johnny said he wanted to wash up this lunchtime, didn't you Johnny?' And just as the boy was about to complain, Sally whispered in his ear: 'Remember the duck.' Well the next few weeks for Johnny were spent largely at the sink, and every time he was about to complain, his little sister whispered: 'Remember the duck.' Well eventually Johnny got so fed up with washing up, that he decided to confess, and in a flood of tears the whole sorry story was told to Grandma. After he'd finished, she gave him a big hug and said: 'I know Johnny. I saw exactly what happened. I was looking out the window and saw the whole thing. But because I love you I forgave you. I just wanted to see how long Sally would make you a slave!' He'd been pardoned but he thought he was guilty. Why? Because he'd listened to the words of his accuser.
But the cross says: 'You are forgiven. You are forgiven for the sins of the past, the ones you're presently engaged in, and the sins of the future.' And whenever a little voice enters our ear and says to us: 'Remember that sin, remember what you did at that point in your life,' then remember that your sin is paid for on the cross. You're justified. You're forgiven. And it was achieved for you by a staggering rescue 2000 years ago, when God the Son gave his life in your place. What a rescue story!
3) The Response to the Rescue
But that's not quite the end of the story. Because as with any rescue, it's one thing for the rescuer to turn up and do everything possible to rescue you, but it's quite another for you to put your hand in his and accept the rescue. And that's our final point from Romans 3, the response to the rescue. Because Jesus' death on the cross does not automatically mean that we are all forgiven. No it's a rescue that must be received. And Paul calls that response faith. Verse 22: 'This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.' Verse 25: 'God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.' Verse 26: 'God 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.' Verse 28: 'For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.' In fact seven times, Paul refers to faith in this passage. Paul says that we receive this gift of forgiveness and justification by faith. Now faith is often misunderstood by people to mean something like belief. But faith is far more than belief. Imagine that I want to get from Hull to York on the bus. Now I can believe for all I'm worth that the bus will take me to York, but unless I act on that belief and get on the bus, trusting the bus driver to get me to York, then I do not have faith. I have belief, but not faith. Faith is believing and trusting. And so when it comes to God's rescue, Paul says that we need to have faith to receive this rescue. In other words, we need to believe and trust in Jesus as the one who died for us on the cross. It's not that our faith saves us. Rather the object of our faith saves us, Jesus. But the rescuer will only rescue us if we trust him; if we are willing to say to Jesus Christ: 'Yes I have mucked up badly. I have not followed you as I should. But I believe that you died for me in my place taking my debt, and I trust you to take away my sins.' Then we can receive that rescue personally. That's faith, and that's the only way you and I can be rescued, if we trust Jesus personally. There's no point getting the pearly gates and saying to God: 'Yes, but I was from a Christian home. I went to Mark 2, I went to the UCU, I attended all the meetings.' God will simply ask us: 'Did you trust my Son's death for you on the cross. Yes or no.' No buts, just answer the question. Yes or no.
Charles Simeon was a man who eventually said yes to God. Simeon was a pastor in Cambridge for many years during the eighteenth century. But he had not always been a Christian, and in fact when he came to Cambridge as a young man, he was a complete non believer. And yet gradually he began to see that God did exist and that there was a possibility of forgiveness for his many sins. It happened one Easter as he was reading a book on the Communion service. This is how Simeon tells his story. 'In [Easter] Week, as I was reading [a book] on the Lord's Supper, I met with an expression to this effect- 'That the Jews knew what they did when they transferred their sin to the head of their offering.' Then the thought came into my mind, 'What, may I transfer all my guilt to the head of another? Has God provided an Offering for me that I might lay my sins on his head? Then, God willing, I will not bear them on my own soul a moment longer.' Accordingly I sought to lay my sins upon the sacred head of Jesus; and on the Wednesday I began to have hope of mercy; on the Thursday that hope increased, on the Friday and the Saturday it became more strong; and on the Sunday morning, Easter day, April 14th 1779, I awoke early with those words upon my heart and lips: 'Jesus Christ is risen today. Hallelujah!'
So what would answer to God at the gates of heaven? You know, one day you and I will meet him. There is only one God, as Paul says in verse 30, and we will have to give an account to him. And he'll ask us that same question. What did you do with my Son? Did you trust his rescue or not? Yes or no. It may be you have never taken that step. You may have been coming to St. John's for years. You believe, and yet you have never trusted. You know deep in your heart that it is not real to you. Well why not make your peace with God tonight. He has done everything possible to offer you heaven. His Son died for you. Trust in Christ tonight and receive his forgiveness.
And Christian, are you still trusting? Or has the accuser got to you? Come again to the old rugged cross on which your Saviour died for you and ponder again the incredible love of God for you in the cross. For 'dead is the soul that has ceased to be amazed at the love of God as seen in the cross of Christ.'
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