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What's the solution? - Romans 3:21-26

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the evening service on 5th November 2006.

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A number of years ago in the country of Honduras a team of international specialists was working with indigenous people in the rainforest. At the beginning of their partnership the local community felt their greatest need was for education and so, as you would expect, they passionately begged the development agency to teach their people the skills they thought they needed. However, the development agency knew something the local community did not. They knew the forest was being progressively cleared by a logging company. And if nothing was done both the land and the livelihood of the local people would be threatened. But here was the big problem: The local people knew nothing of the danger they were in. They were oblivious to reality. They had no idea of the true situation. And so from a position of ignorance they came to the wrong conclusion about their greatest need. So this is what the development agency decided to do. They gathered the local population and took them upstream to show them exactly what was happening. It was such a simple thing to do and yet it dramatically altered the ambitions of the these people. From now on they were focused on a different goal. They still valued education but now with a correct appreciation of the danger they were facing they realised their greatest need was not for more education, as good as that would be, but for a way to stop the loggers destroying the forest. So, from that moment onwards, the local community and the development agency worked in partnership to stop the total destruction of the forest.

What do you think is the greatest need we have today? Some people would say it is to be protected from a terrorist bomb in a public space. Others would suggest protection from a nuclear missile launched by North Korea. Or what about a solution to the problem of cataclysmic climate change? Or a cure for cancer orÖwell, the list goes on and on, doesnít it? The human race is afflicted by many pressing concerns. 

But if we are to understand our greatest need then we need to listen to what God says. Otherwise we will repeatedly get it wrong, again and again. We will be like the indigenous people who sincerely believed their greatest need was for education. But it wasnít! Like them we need someone with an awareness of the bigger picture to tell us what we really need. And this is what God does in the Bible. He gives us a reality check. From his position of perfect knowledge he reveals the truth about our human condition. But what he says is difficult to hear.

Last week we heard the bad news. We heard that because of our rebellion against God, because we have pushed him off the throne and decided to rule our lives as we see fit, we are facing his righteous judgement. It is a hard truth to hear, isnít it? No one likes to be given bad news. The student never likes to hear they have failed their exam. The patient is never thrilled when the doctor cannot tell them the results over the phone. The unsuccessful applicant does not throw a party when they discover the job has been given to someone else.  No one likes to hear bad news. And yet last week we also discovered that the existence of hell is good news. In our better moments we want justice to be done. We want the wicked to face justice and we are enraged when they seem to escape the punishment they deserve. And so often they do in their brief human existence. But they will not escape the justice of God. They will face his judgement and God will give them what they truly deserve. Now I know what Iím about to say may sound perverse but I say it because itís true. If we have a biblical awareness of the human condition then the existence of hell is good news. And the reason is simple. It means justice will be done.

But here is where our problem lies. The Bible reveals we are included in the category of the wicked. Now, admittedly, we have not all demonstrated our rebellion against God in the same way but each one of us is a rebel. And without a solution we are destined to face Godís judgement for the way we have behaved in his world.

Let us be clear about this. The vast majority of the human race is heading for hell. That is our greatest problem. And so our greatest need is to be rescued from this eternal danger.

Tim Chester is a Christian writer who is passionately committed to social action. And yet listen to what he writes in this wonderful book called Good News to the Poor: ďWe need to say without embarrassment that it is better if someone is converted but remains poor than if they become healthy and wealthy but remain unconverted. John Hooper, a protestant during the reign of Mary Tudor, was facing martyrdom when he was urged by a friend to renounce his faith. ďLife is sweet, death is bitterí, his friend told him. To which Hooper replied, ďEternal life is more sweet, eternal death is more bitter.Ē

What then is the answer to our greatest problem? Listen to what weíre told in verse 21. ďBut now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it.Ē If you want to become quickly depressed about the human condition then let me encourage you to read Romans chapter 1 to 3:20. I guarantee you will find it grim reading. It is not pleasant material. In verse after verse we are confronted with an accurate diagnosis of what we are really like. Godless, wicked and destined to face the wrath of God. It is a very depressing picture. And then we reach 3:21, where we come across two words which are like a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day. Did you see them? But now. ďDonít deny the problem,Ē says Paul. Donít do a John McEnroe. Donít throw a tantrum in front of your creator and say ďYou cannot be serious.Ē Acknowledge your condition. Acknowledge the problem. Acknowledge the seriousness of the future danger. But make sure you donít stop at this. Make sure you donít stop at 3:20. It would be a disaster if you closed the book at this point. Instead, read on and discover how God will meet our greatest need. Itís there in verse 21. The righteousness of God has been manifested. 

Itís a rather strange phrase, isnít it? The righteousness of God. Itís not something we talk about every day. Itís not the common phrase down my street. Iím sure itís not the common phrase down your street. And itís not immediately obvious what it means. So how are we to understand it? What is the righteousness of God? Well, at the end of verse 21, Paul says that whatever the righteousness of God is, it is witnessed to by the Law and the Prophets. The Law and the Prophets is another way of talking about what we call the Old Testament, the section of the Bible written before Jesus was alive. And, according to Paul, this is where we will references to the righteousness of God. So if we want to understand what this phrase means then we need to start flicking through our Old Testament.

Now we donít have time this evening to focus on all the references to the righteousness of God in the Old Testament, there are far to many, but let me show you two examples from the book of Isaiah. This is what read in Isaiah 46:12-13 (and remember this is God speaking to the Jewish people who are living as exiles in the country of Babylon): ďListen to me, you stubborn-hearted, you who are far from righteousness. I am bringing my righteousness near, it is not far away; and my salvation will not be delayed. I will grant salvation to Zion, my splendour to Israel.Ē Now do you see the link between salvation and righteousness? They are used interchangeable in this section of the Bible. And the same is true in Isaiah 51:4-6. God is addressing the same people and this is what he says: ďListen to me, my people; hear me, my nation: The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations.  5 My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations. The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm.  6 Lift up your eyes to the heavens, look at the earth beneath; the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies. But my salvation will last forever, my righteousness will never fail.Ē

So again the two words are used interchangeably. Godís righteousness refers to Godís salvation. And, in particular, it is used in the book of Isaiah to speak of the time when God will intervene dramatically to save his people from the consequences of their rebellion against him. But here is the promise from the book of Isaiah: When he does he will do it in the right way. Some of you may be wondering why the Bible uses the word righteousness instead of simply speaking about Godís salvation. Why add confusion when a different word seems perfectly clear? But just think about the benefits of speaking about Godís salvation as Godís righteousness. What type of salvation is it? Will God save his people in the right way? Will he be a dodgy saviour? Will he be one who bends the rules and commits acts of wickedness in order to rescue people from danger? We hope not. But how can we be sure? Well, because the Bible equates Godís salvation with Godís righteousness. By using the words interchangeably we are being told that when God intervenes to save his people he will do it in the right way.

Now with these thoughts in mind look again at what Paul says in verse 21. ďBut now the righteousness of God has been manifested.Ē Itís already happened, Paul says. That major event you were all looking forward to in the Old Testament, that intervention of God when he would come and do something that would result in the salvation of his people, well, Paul says, itís already taken place. It has been manifested. And, interestingly, the word he uses for manifested is one of those Greek words which refers to an event which takes place once but which continues to have an effect after it has taken place. Now weíll discover in just a few moments that Paul is talking about the death of Jesus Christ but before we explore in more detail why it is that Jesusí death on the cross is Godís right solution to our greatest problem let me show you something significant from verse 22. Weíre told that the righteousness of God is through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

Or in other words, it is not automatic. Jesusí death continues to have profound implications for people living at the beginning of the 21st century. It continues to have profound implications for you and me. But its saving effects are not automatically distributed to everyone. To benefit from the salvation of God we must have faith in Jesus Christ.

Now I think many people easily misunderstand what faith is all about so let me offer a very simple illustration to explain what I mean. Just imagine we all decided to take a holiday on one of those cross channel ferries that leave from the port at the other end of town. Now to begin with everything seems to be going well. There is enough food to eat, there are plenty of people to talk to and the entertainment is brilliant - who would have believed so many people could sing karaoke so badly! But then we hear a loud bang and a rather disturbing scraping noise. The ship has hit a rock and is going to sink. Now at this point our greatest need is to get off the boat. There might be all sorts of other needs: people with colds, people with shoe laces undone people with nothing to do, people who are lonely, the list could go on and on. But our greatest need is to be rescued from the danger of death and once the captain has informed us of this danger we would be foolish to make anything else a priority.  So off we go out to the deck and are shown the life boat we need to get into. Now at this point one of the passengers asks why he canít get into one of the other life boats attached to the side of the ship and is politely told by the captain that they are not sea worthy and will not save him from death. The only way to be saved from drowning is to get into the life boat straight ahead. There is enough room for everyone but in order to benefit from the boat we need to step inside. Faith is stepping into the boat. Faith is not believing that the boat exists. Simply believing that the boat exists will not save you. Subscribing to life boat monthly will not save you. It is important to find out if the life boat is sea worthy. But once we have looked at the evidence we need to step inside. Faith is stepping into the boat.

Paul says that the righteousness of God is through faith in Jesus Christ and it is for all who believe. Do you not love that last statement? First of all, he tells us we benefit from Godís salvation by faith but then he declares that this salvation is open to everyone, if only they would put their trust in Jesus. Now for some people this simply involves a straight transfer from the sinking ship to the life boat which is Jesus Christ. But for other people it requires that they leave a false life boat and turn to Christ. It may be the false life boat of good works, it may be the false life boat of Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism or even Church of England piety. But what we must all recognize is that there is only one sea worthy vessel and that is Jesus Christ.

Now so far Iíve been slightly vague on what this salvation actually entails so let me now highlight three particular benefits that become ours when we put our trust in Jesus. We are justified, we are redeemed and we are protected.

First of all, we are justified. Thatís what Paul says in verse 24. In the previous verse heís just acknowledged that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Or as one Christian put it: ďThe harlot, the liar, the murderer are short of it; but so are you. Perhaps they stand at the bottom of a mine, and you are on the crest of an Alp; but you are as little able to touch the stars as they.Ē But then in verse 24 Paul turns to the topic of justification and affirms confidently that those who have faith in Jesus Christ are justified. Justification is a word taken from the law courts and it refers to a positive verdict in our favour at the end of a trial. So we are to imagine ourselves on trial before the true and living God.  And we are standing in the dock accused of treason. We have rebelled against the judge, we have broken his good commandments and we plead guilty because we know this is the case. But at the end of the trial, as we nervously stand up to hear the verdict, as we nervously contemplate the punishment that rightly awaits us, we are shocked, in fact, we are staggered to be told that although we are guilty we are not to be punished. 

We have received a pardon from the judge. And so we are to be set free. Or more accurately, we are to be welcomed into the very presence of the judge we have offended.

A number of years ago a homeless criminal called William Callahan came to trust Jesus Christ for himself at a Christian meeting. He tried to live down his pre-conversion reputation, but found it hard. The police kept him under constant surveillance, refusing to believe that someone like him could be reformed. After five years of this he went to Chicago and, through the aid of a  Christian lawyer, retrieved his photos from the police. He did not want to be known as a crook any longer. Then he tried the prison authorities. The reply from them was short and to the point: ďYou may have got the records from the police, but you canít get them away from the State of Illinois.Ē He was devastated. Some years later, in ill health, he found himself giving a testimony of his conversion at a meeting attended by no fewer than three state governors (including the Governor of Illinois, John Argeld). By the end Argeld was wiping tears from his eyes and said to Callahan, ďIíll see what I can do.Ē A month later William Callahan received a letter from the governor. ďMr dear Callahan, it gives me great pleasure to enclose your photo from the Penitentiary of Joliet, and to tell you that your records there have all been destroyed. There is no record, except in your memory, that you were ever there. You have the gratitude and best wishes of your friend, John P. Argeld.Ē

While this story may seem legally implausible these days, it perfectly illustrates what it means to be justified before God. When we have faith in Jesus Christ the records of our sins are destroyed. And I mean past, present and future sins. They are cleared from our spiritual profile and we will never suffer the punishment they deserve.

Now just imagine coming out of that court room to be greeted by the press. You step into the day light and a vast sea of reporters is ready to hear your comments. A microphone is stuck under your nose and someone shouts out: ďWhy did they pardon you? You even pleaded guilty as charged. Why have they let you go?Ē

The people of Iraq heard today what will happen to Saddam Hussein. He will receive the death sentence for his crimes against humanity. But what outrage there would have been if he had been declared guilty and then had been set free without punishment. What a travesty of justice that would be! And surely only a corrupt judge would do such a thing. And yet is this not exactly what God does for those who have faith in Jesus? We are guilty. We deserve punishment. And yet when we hand over our lives to Jesus we receive a pardon from God. We are justified. Instantly! Just like that! We are declared to be okay in Godís sight.

So this leaves us with a question: How is this possible? The answer is in verse 24. We are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Next year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. In 1807 the tireless efforts of William Wilberforce were rewarded when on the 25th March the Abolition of the Slave Trade bill was made law. Now Iím sure no one in this congregation would like to see a return to the conditions of slavery but if we are to understand how we can be justified before God then to the slave market we must go. You see the word redemption comes from the ancient market place where slaves were bought and sold. A slave was a personís property and a price had to be paid if the slave was to serve a different master.

Now the Bible says that outside of a relationship with Jesus Christ we are in slavery. We find ourselves in a condition which we cannot alter by ourselves. We are facing Godís future punishment for our sinful behaviour and we can do nothing about it.

But here is the good news: For those who trust in Jesus there is redemption. Although we can do nothing about our spiritual condition, Jesus can. He has paid the price to release his followers from their slavery to the wrath of God. Now before we look in more detail at how the death of Jesus rescues us from the anger of God let me apply this truth of redemption to our present situations.

I donít know how much value you would place on a human life. How much to you think you are worth? In Stephen Spiedlbergís successful film about the Normandy landings, Saving Private Ryan, a squad of American GIs is sent into enemy territory to rescue Private James Ryan after all three of his older brothers have been killed. It is a very moving story but although the mission is a success and Private James Ryan is rescued, the mission itself costs the lives of nearly all the rescuers. And so as the film ends the impossible question is posed: Was it worth it?

How valuable to you think you are? Unfortunately, for many people their sense of worth and value either comes from the friends they have, the job they do, the family they care for or even the sport they play. But what a disaster to base our estimation of how much we are worth on such flimsy and changeable pursuits. If you are a Christian here tonight then how much are you worth? Well, remember the redemption price. What did it cost God to rescue us from our slavery? His only Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. We have not been redeemed with gold or silver but the precious, indeed the priceless, blood of Jesus. So next time we are feeling down, next time we feel like we are worth nothing at all, that we should just be thrown out on the scarp heap, then letís remember the cost of our redemption.

Liberation lies at the heart of redemption but a true understanding of biblical redemption also involves ownership. Christians have not been set free to live for themselves but to live in obedience to Jesus.

In the old slave markets slaves would be bought and sold but once the price was paid the slave would become the property of the new owner. They would not simply walk away to their personal freedom. And the same is true in biblical redemption.

When the price is paid we become the property of the new owner. Now wonderfully this new slavery to Jesus Christ is also the perfect way to be free. It is the freedom of the fish that would rather thrive in the confines of the pond than be given the chance to enjoy the freedom of the grassy bank. What a privilege to be a Christian. We are now free to live in the way we were created. Under the perfect Lordship of Jesus we can truly live as we were intended.

Iím not sure how you would define a Christian. Perhaps someone who follows Jesus? Someone who has prayed a prayer? Someone who has made a decision at a Billy Graham rally? But how about someone who is a happy slave of King Jesus? Are you a happy slave? Do you willingly submit to what the boss tells you? Or are you still trying to live freely on the grassy bank?

When we have faith in Jesus Christ we are justified, we are redeemed and finally we are protected. Have a look at verse 25. God put forward Jesus ďas a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.Ē Weíve already seen that Jesus paid the price to rescue us from our slavery to the anger of God but now Paul takes us away from the market-place to temple to explain how it is that Jesusí death rescues us from the anger of God. He says God presented a propitiation by his blood. Now the word propitiation is not a popular word these days but it is fairly simple to understand. It means to placate or take away someoneís anger.

Now various ancient religions have a very twisted form of propitiation so let me explain what makes biblical propitiation unique.

First of all, why is it necessary? The simple reason is because sin arouses the anger of God. This does not mean he is likely to fly off the handle at any point or that he loses his temper for the most trivial provocation. But that God rightly is provoked by the wickedness he sees.

Secondly, who made the propitiation? In non-Christian versions of propitiation human beings would seek to avert the divine anger either by the meticulous performance of rituals or by the offering of sacrifices (vegetable, animal or even human). Such practices were thought to placate the offended deity. However, biblical propitiation is very different. There is no possibility that we can persuade or bride God to divert his anger by anything we do. We deserve nothing but his judgement. But look at verse 25 again. Who made the propitiation? It was God the Father who took the initiative. It was his plan all along.

Thirdly, what was offered to turn away Godís anger? It was a neither an animal, nor a vegetable, indeed it was not a thing at all - it was a person. In fact, it was Godís own Son, the eternal Son of the eternal Father, the very one we have offended alongside the Father. He bore the Fatherís anger instead of us. As a lighting rod absorbs the strike so Jesus absorbed the punishment of his followers so that we will never have to face it.

Across the London skyline there is a terrific view of the Old Bailey. The Old Bailey is the home of British Justice and on the top of the building there is a magnificent golden statue of the Roman Goddess of justice. She is blindfolded, so unable to show partiality, and the message is clear: if we are found to be guilty, then the sword of wrath must fall. But just across the skyline, on the top of St Paulís Cathedral, is another golden symbol. It is a cross and itís a powerful reminder that the sword of Godís wrath did fall: it fell on Jesus Christ.

How can God save people from their greatest problem? He could do it in the wrong way. He could simply forget about sin. He could sweep it under the divine carpet and hope nobody would notice. But that would not qualify as the righteousness of God. It would be a wrong way of saving people. But listen to how Paul talks about the death of Jesus. Verse 26. Why did the Father send the Son to die? ďIt was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.Ē

So do you see how it all fits together? It is truly amazing! We are destined to appear in the divine court room at the end of history but when we trust Christ we know now what will be our verdict then. We will be given the all-clear. And why? Because we have been redeemed. A price has been paid to rescue us from the slavery of our spiritual condition. Jesus has died, in our place, and taken the anger of God upon himself. Which means that we can be pardoned and simultaneous Godís justice is upheld. The death of Jesus is the righteousness of God.

Charles Simeon was a Cambridge minister at the end of the 18th century. When he arrived as an undergraduate in Cambridge in 1779, he understood little of the Christian religion. However, three weeks later he received a note requiring his attendance at a college Communion service and this filled him with horror. He wrote, ďSatan himself was as fit to attend as I,Ē and immediately he went out to buy some books explaining Communion. He spend three months trying to make sense of it. A particular mystery for him was what relevance the cross could have to his sense of guilt, but there was no one on hand who could answer his question. Then he suddenly came upon this phrase: ďThe Jews knew what they did when they transferred their sin to the head of another.Ē In a flash it came to him: ďI can transfer all my guilty to another. I will not bear it on my soul one minute longer.Ē He later wrote, ďAccordingly, I sought to lay my sins upon the head of Christ. On the Wednesday, I had a hope of mercy. On the Thursday that hope grew. On the Friday and Saturday, it became more strong.

And on the Sunday morning, Easter Day, April 4th, I woke with these words on my lips: ďJesus Christ is risen today. Halleluia! Halleluia!Ē From that hour peace flowed in rich abundance into my soul, and at the Lordís Table in our chapel I had the sweetest access to God, through my Saviour.Ē

How much do you understand about the Christian religion? True Christianity is not about rules or rituals. It is about enjoying the benefits of a relationship with Jesus Christ. And so I want to encourage you if you are someone who knows something of religion but nothing of the reality of what I have been speaking about tonight to put your faith in Jesus. Step into the lifeboat and begin a new life with him.

And for those of us who have joined ourselves to Jesus will we contemplate again the amazing benefits of faith in Christ. I never tire of Nathan quoting the phrase: ďDead is the soul that has ceased to be amazed at the love of God as seen in the cross of Christ.Ē So for the benefit of our souls letís remember that because of Jesusí death on the cross we are justified, we are redeemed and we are protected. Letís pray.

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