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Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Saturday, July 23, 2005

God is Righteous and True

Romans 3:1-8
Preached Sunday morning, July 10, 2005
Lexington Church of Christ

In our study of Romans we now move into Chapter 3. In the first two chapters, Paul showed how both Jew and Gentile have no excuse for disobeying God. We also saw in Chapter 2 that God is more concerned with character than with ceremony[1]. Here at the beginning of Chapter 3, Paul begins an imaginary dialogue with a Jew, as if to answer objections that his fellow Israelites in Rome might have[2]. This section is a pivotal point in the letter, because here Paul begins moving from his teaching on God’s condemnation to God’s grace.

And isn’t it about time? This is the third week we’ve looked at God’s wrath on unrighteousness—isn’t it time to move on to a happier subject? Well, I think it’s worthwhile from time to time to really look deeply into our own sin and God’s wrath, because most of the world, most of the time has existed under that wrath. A thorough knowledge of the sinfulness of each one of us—of all humanity—is necessary for a full appreciation of the Christian message. A recognition of our own sin, unrighteousness, fallenness (the bad news, in other words) is necessary for a full appreciation of the good news. Once we know the depths of what God wants to save us from, we can begin to appreciate how wonderfully gracious God is in offering salvation in the church through his Son Jesus Christ.

Still, normal people don’t really want to hear bad news. What’s more, we simply don’t like someone telling us how bad we are. That’s part of the reason we need to hear it—over and over. Left to our own “druthers” we prefer to ignore or deny our own sinfulness, despite those pangs of conscience that God gives to bring us back around.

The lost, those who have not embraced the grace of God, have a special, urgent need to hear about the condemnation of God upon unrighteousness. If they don’t, they have no hope of salvation. It’s up to Christians to raise our voices in truth to tell them, because certain elements in the world are shouting loudly for people not to face up to our sinfulness. In America right now we have a whole culture of psychological excuses for not taking responsibility for our sin. I don’t need to give you a lot of examples; listen to the radio or watch television. Did I do something wrong? Well, it’s my parents’ fault, or my spouse’s fault, or my friend’s fault, or society’s fault. In the past few decades there’s been an epidemic of apparently mature men and women refusing to take responsibility for their own actions. The number of divorces and lawsuits have exploded. We would rather not admit we are wrong, and it’s not hard to listen to the people telling us we’re not. There’s only one problem. If we don’t admit we’re wrong, we simply cannot take the step of repentance that begins to put us right with God.

Christians need to remember the judgment of God, too. If we’re not careful we can forget why we’re really here. When we gather on Sunday morning we’re in our best clothes and on our best behavior. We’re clean and polite, we smile at one another. We’re friendly people and we probably really do have fewer problems than those outside Christ. Like the Jews, we have the benefit of God’s oracles—the Scriptures. And we have the blessing of the New Covenant, the full revelation of God’s love and nature. Like the Jews in Jesus’ day, we’re also tempted to coast. We’re tempted to think that simply belonging to a holy congregation of God’s people makes us godly in our hearts. We’re tempted to believe that we’re good people because we’re nice, not because God’s son died to make us holy.

Christians need to make sure we don’t live up to the world’s unfair, cartoon picture of what Christians are all about. Christianity Today ran an article a few years ago about what the world thinks about us. According to a survey, most non-Christians think they know exactly what Christianity is all about—but most of them really don’t. Many people outside the church think our faith is simply a set of rules we’re supposed to follow to be good people. When I worked at one of the federal plants in Oak Ridge, one of my co-workers, a non-Christian, challenged me at lunch one day: “You think that because you’re a Christian that makes you better than the rest of us?”

“No,” I said. “I’m just as bad as anyone else. It’s not what I do that makes me good; it’s what Jesus does that makes me good in God’s eyes.” I don’t know that my friend understood what the gospel is at that point, but I believe he was coming to understand what the gospel isn’t. Christians should never forget what we are without the grace, the free gift, of Jesus Christ: evil, lost sinners.

Even when we own up to our own sin, however, we face another challenge to our faith: Do we really believe God is just in condemning us for our sin? So far in Romans, Paul has talked about all of us being without excuse if we sin. In a few verses he will tell us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The obvious question is, how can God hold us accountable for something everybody does? If everybody sins, then how can we help it if we sin? Would a loving God really condemn us for something we can’t help but do? And there’s another problem. Even if we acknowledge that God is just in condemning sinners, why does he give some of us a second chance in hearing the Gospel, while thousands never have the opportunity to hear the good news of salvation? As Paul anticipated with the Jews of his day, we are tempted to call God unrighteous.

But no. God is righteous and holy. That’s the central message of the entire Old Testament: that God is holy and loving. We must never let our limited understanding of the infinite God make us think his actions are ever unrighteous. If we have faith in God we must accept his holiness and truth. Once we have accepted these qualities of his nature, we see what a great gift he has given us in the Gospel, and how urgent our calling is to tell the good news to every human being on earth.

Here in Chapter 3, Paul anticipates a more subtle challenge to the faith. If our sinning makes God look good, then isn’t our sinning a good thing? If our sins show God’s justice, the argument goes, then God would be wrong to punish us for sinning. Doesn’t that make sense? To paraphrase Paul’s answer to that question: Absolutely not! If God is not righteous, then he could not judge the world. As Paul told the Galatians, “God is not mocked.” He is holy and loving, and if we expect to be in communion with him, we must be holy too. God may overlook circumcision, but he will not overlook sin (Rom 2:26-29). God is faithful and good and true, and a realization of his nature is the foundation of a redeeming, transforming faith.

Here is the beginning of the good news—the God who is faithful and true. God is faithful to the promises he has made to his people. Two thousand years before Christ, God told Abram, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves" (Gen. 12:1-3). Although God’s people have not been faithful to him through the centuries, God has been faithful to his people. And now, through Jesus Christ, the blessings of Abraham have come not only to Israel, but to us Gentiles as well (Gal. 3:14). God’s promises for his people have expanded in Christ to include eternal life, the Holy Spirit, the Kingdom of God itself, and communion with the Father.

Why would God do such a thing? Why would he continue to offer us these great gifts when humanity has abused and neglected God’s gifts through the centuries? Why did God choose Abraham and his spiritual descendants to bless? Because Abraham and his children deserved it? No. God reached out because of his love. He seeks us out, and he wants to give us blessings—salvation, fellowship, peace, joy. Those are gifts and not wages because we don’t deserve them, we haven’t earned them. And how do we know that God loves us? Because he sent his son to earth to redeem us!

So God loves and blesses us. But let’s not forget that he may also condemn. Simply because we enjoy God’s blessings at the moment is not proof that we will escape punishment. In the wilderness with Moses and the Israelites, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram all ate manna and enjoyed all the other blessings from God to his people (Num. 16). But because they rebelled, they fell under God’s wrath. God wants to bless us, but he gives us the freedom to either accept or reject those blessings. Accepting God’s grace is eternal life; rejecting it is wrath and destruction.

God calls us to righteous living. To live righteously we must repent, turn away from our sin and accept righteousness through the grace of God in Jesus Christ. That’s why Paul writes on and on about sin. In the first century the Romans, like Americans in our day, lived in an amoral society in which the culture did not acknowledge an absolute standard of right and wrong. God, though, has offered us a standard, both in the law of Moses and the law of conscience. None of us have held perfectly to it—which is why we need God’s grace. The standard of God’s righteousness is nevertheless good, because it forces us to choose where we will align ourselves: with his righteousness or with our own sinfulness? With rebellion or grace? With death or life?

The good news is that the bad news is not the last news. God wants to impute righteousness upon us—that means to give us credit for righteousness even though we haven’t earned it ourselves. We can’t redeem ourselves from sin, because we can’t pay a high enough price. But Jesus can. He is the only one to live without sin, and so he did not owe his life to pay for his own sin. Instead he gave up his life willingly to pay for our sin. He died with our sins upon him, and he rose from death with our life upon him. It’s not up to us—it’s up to Jesus to save us. There’s a wonderful freedom in knowing that truth: that I don’t have to keep trying to make myself good, but that God has made me good through the blood of Jesus Christ. I have new life as a gift from God.

If we have joined ourselves with Christ in faith and baptism, then we have a new life, a new Spirit, a new Kingdom. God has been so good to us. How are we responding to his goodness?

1. Constable, Thomas L. Notes on Romans, 2004 ed. On-line commentary at, p. 29.
2. Stedman, Ray C. From Guilt to Glory, Vol. 1 (Rom. 1-8). Waco: Word, 1978, p.56.

Copyright 2005, A. Milton Stanley


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