The Loss and Restoration of God’s Indwelling Glory (Rom 3:23-24)

Perhaps the most catastrophic effects of the fall was that we lost the indwelling life and  glory of God, for Paul says that all have sinned and lack the glory of God (Rom 3:23).  It is not that we merely fall short of God’s glory, as if human beings by themselves could ever live up to such an impossibly divine standard, but that human beings lack the presence and life of God dwelling within them.  Without that life we are as good as dead (see Eph 2:1).  God had warned Adam that in the day he ate from the tree of knowledge he would surely die (Gen 2:17).  Now God was not primarily warning them about mere physical death, though the mortality of the body was certainly among the effects of Adam’s sin. No, the death that Adam and humanity experienced as a result of his sin was spiritual and eternal death, the curse of being cut off from the very life of God. It is God’s own glory dwelling in us which is eternal life, as the apostle John proclaims in his letter: “and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us” (see 5:20).  Life is a person, namely God Himself, and one can only experience spiritual and eternal life by having Jesus living within us, since He himself is eternal life.

But Jesus is also the glory of God manifested in human form, as John said: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt (or tabernacled) among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  Jesus manifests what Adam and all humanity were meant to be: He was the the visible image of the divine glory, the one in whom the divine glory dwelt, just as he dwelt in the tabernacle and the Holy of Holies in the temple in the old covenant.  Human beings were meant to be temples of the divine glory!  We cannot even being to imagine what we lost in the garden of Eden; we think the life we have is normal. We settle for the crumbs or earthly pleasure, not knowing the complete and perfect joy of God’s presence, as the psalmist writes: “You lead me in the path of life; I experience absolute joy in your presence; you always give me sheer delight” (Psa 16:11).  But Adam turned away from the one true joy – knowing and experiencing the divine glory within him, and we have all suffered the consequences. But not only Adam, but all humanity exchanged the glory of God for idols (Rom 1:23), whether ones made of wood, stone or precious metals, or more subtle idols such as pleasure, security and power.  We have lost the glory, as when the daughter of Phineas said when the ark was captured by the Philistines and named her son Ichabod: “the glory has departed from Israel (1 Sam 4:21). Later on, the glory of God would depart permanently from the earthly temple (Ezek 11:23), and would not return until Jesus came as the true and living tabernacle of God’s glorious presence.

But now that God has executed his righteous judgment against sin upon the body of Jesus through His obedient faithfulness unto death (3:21-22), a way is opened for the glory to be restored to us.  Now we have been set right with God or “justified” freely by His grace, that is as a free gift without any contribution from us.  Paul has already established that none of us has the works the set ourselves right with God, and also that it was beyond the capacity of the old covenant to restore even Israel (since the glory had departed from Israel as well as from humanity).  So everything depends upon God’s unilateral, one-sided action to restore and redeem us.  If we were going to be saved, then God and God alone had to take the initiative.  Sentenced to and imprisoned by death, we had nothing, no resources to draw upon by which we could possibly save ourselves.  The only thing we can do is to freely receive what has been freely given to us, and we can only receive by trusting the Giver.  Our redemption and the restoration of the divine glory within the tabernacle of human hearts could only come as a free gift, and only because Christ reversed by his obedience the catastrophic choice which Adam had made in the garden.

 

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The Revelation of God’s Righteousness in the Obedient Faithfulness of Christ: Rom 3:21-22

When I wrote on the righteousness of God awhile back (see The Gospel of God’s Righteousness), I stated that it is God acting in judgment to save His people from their enemies in faithfulness to the promises which He made to them.  In other words, God is executing a judgment in favor of the people He is saving, and against whatever is oppressing his people.  But there is a problem, namely, that what oppresses human beings is their own guiltiness before God.  We have all sinned. I don’t mean that we have merely made mistakes out of ignorance or misinformation.  No, we have all rebelled against God and are or have been hostile toward Him and His commands.  We have not wanted to do His will, but went our own way. As Paul says:

There is no one righteous, not even onethere is no one who understandsthere is no one who seeks GodAll have turned awaytogether they have become worthlessthere is no one who shows kindness, not even one. Their throats are open graves, they deceive with their tonguesthe poison of asps is under their lips  Their mouths are  full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed bloodruin and misery are in their pathsand the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

So the question remains: How can God justify guilty sinners?  How can He make right those who are clearly in the wrong, and at the same time remain a just and righteous God?  Clearly not through the law, because on the one hand, human beings have not kept the law (“All are under Sin’s Power”),and because the old covenant law itself has failed to make the Jews into a holy people of God, whether through circumcision and observance of the food laws, or through the sacrificial system of the temple (The Law’s Ineffectiveness).

The twin failures of humanity and the law mean that a solution apart from the law has to be found, a solution which will at once solve the problem of human guilt before God and deliver them from the sentence of eternal death that hangs over us, as well as preserve the holiness and justice of God’s character. There must be no doubt as to the rightness of His actions, whether in saving or in judging, not simply because He is God and who dare question Him, but because His actions truly are just and righteous and fair and altogether good.  God is totally Self-for-others, both within the Trinity, and for us, so He is the very embodiment of holy love and pure justice. So, whatever way that God acts to save humanity from the plight they have brought upon ourselves, He must at the same time be a just and righteous God. For if God does not act justly and righteously in saving us, then how can we trust him to be a safe God for us? But his character of holy love makes His justice safe to be trusted.

But how can God be just and at the same time justify ungodly sinners? How can God both judge sin and not destroy us sinners in the process of executing His righteous judgment? How is this paradox to be resolved? Paul’s answer is found in Romans 3:21-22: The righteousness of God, attested by the Law and the Prophets, is revealed through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe.  Now most translations have “through faith in Jesus Christ,” not “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”  But I think the second translation to be the better one.  Considered just as a phrase, the Greek pistis Christou can be translated either way and the Greek word pistis can mean either faith or faithfulness.  It all depends on the context.   If the word pistis is translated “faith,” then Jesus Christ is the object of our faith, but if it is translated “faithfulness,” then Jesus is the one who is expressing faithfulness (toward God).

So how do we decide who is the one who is believing or expressing faithfulness toward God?  The key is that the righteousness of God is revealed by means of this faith or faithfulness. But it is not our act of believing that reveals the righteousness of God – that would make our act of believing into some kind of righteous work that we perform. We are only the recipients of God’s righteousness, and faith is only the means of receiving it: “to all who believe.” Our faith does not reveal God’s righteousness; it only receives it, for faith is really receptivity to God.

Instead, it is the act of Christ, His faithful obedience to the Father unto death, which reveals God’s own righteousness. In Phil 2: 8, Paul says that Jesus “humbled himselfby becoming obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross!”  That God’s righteousness is revealed through the obedient faithfulness of Christ makes better sense because it is the cross which reveals God’s righteous judgment against sin, as well as His righteous judgment in favor of the sinners who put their trust in Him.  The faithful obedience of Christ is an essential component of our salvation, as Rom 5:19 makes clear: “For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.”  It is the obedient death of Christ which reveals God’s righteousness, both in condemning sin as well as saving us, not our believing.  Our faith only receives God’s righteousness, it does not reveal it.

So, returning to our original question: “But how can God be just and at the same time justify ungodly sinners?”  The answer is the faithful obedience of Jesus Christ unto death, even death on a cross.  Jesus was perfectly faithful to God, completely without sin (2Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15), fulfilling every demand of the law, not only the letter of the law, but its spirit or divine intention behind the law.  In every way He perfectly mirrored the character of God as His image and was the exact representation of his very being (Col 1:15, 2Cor 4:14, Heb 1:3).  By His obedient faithfulness, Jesus fulfilled what Adam failed to do in the Garden of Eden, and so He regains on behalf of humanity what Adam lost.  At the same time, because Jesus was not only perfect man, but God in the flesh, His perfect faithfulness and righteousness was a manifestation of the very righteousness of God Himself.  Paul says in 2 Corinthians that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.”  The obedience of Jesus to the Father was not just the action of a man, but the action of God the Son, submitting Himself wholly and perfectly to the will of the Father. And it is by this obedience that the many are made righteous.  Just as Adam’s sin was considered or reckoned as ours, so that all humanity fell when Adam sinned, so Christ’s obedience is reckoned as ours, so that all who believe are justified before God on the basis of Christ’s obedience.

Not only does Christ obey on our behalf, He also takes upon Himself bodily the consequence of our sin, namely the curse of the Fall, death itself. It was not enough that Jesus obeyed the Father perfectly, He had to be obedient unto death – He had to pay the penalty of our sin, the consequence of death. This is how God can be just – the penalty of sin is executed upon the body of Jesus dying on the cross on our behalf, and at the same time the justifier of ungodly sinners – another has assumed our place on the cross.  He has taken upon himself the curse of the law, whether the Mosaic law or curse from the law in the Garden of Eden (Gal 3:10-13).  This is called the penal substitutionary view of the atonement, because Jesus has been substituted for us in bearing the penalty or curse of death. The idea of penal substitution appears twice in the Old Testament: in one case God rejects someone’s offer of himself in the place of others, but in the other case God accepts the offer.  In Exodus 32, the people apostasize from the Lord and break the old covenant by committing idolatry by making and worshiping a golden calf.  Moses pleads with the Lord to forgive their sin and to blot him out of the book of life if it will atone for their sin:

Then Moses returned to the Lord, and said, “Alas, this people has committed a great sin, and they have made a god of gold for themselves. But now, if You will, forgive their sin-and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written!” The Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book.” (Exod 32:31-33).

But God rejects Moses’ offer of Himself as a substitute for Israel, though He does not give the reason. Perhaps it is because Moses is himself a sinner, or perhaps because he is only one person, but he cannot atone for the covenant-breaking high-handed rebellious sin of Israel. But there is another spoken of in the Old Testament, like Moses but far superior to Him, who can offer Himself for the sins of the people, and not only Israel, but for the sins of the whole world.  Isaiah prophesied of a person who would intercede for the people in way that Moses could not and who would bear the punishment due to them:

But He was wounded for our transgressions, 
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
And by His wounds we are healed.

All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all 
To fall on Him.

He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth.

By oppression and judgment He was taken away;
And as for His generation, who considered
That He was cut off out of the land of the living
because of the rebellion of his own people, he was wounded.

My Servant, will justify the many,
Since He will bear their iniquities.

He poured out Himself to death,
And was numbered with the transgressors;
Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, 
And interceded for the transgressors.  (Isa 53:6-8, 11-12).

The consequence of death for Adam’s (and our own) sins could not and cannot be avoided.  Either Jesus pays it on the cross, bearing the punishment upon His own body, or else we will bear it upon our bodies in death.  If we have not already done so, let us call upon the name of the Lord, upon Jesus, and receive the offering Jesus has made for us in our place. He has substituted Himself for us, and God has accepted his offering, and we need only to receive it through trusting in what God has done.  all that is required is the crucifixion of our pride, our ego, that refuses to depend helplessly on the grace of God expressed in the death of Christ. How can we refuse Him when so great a gift is offered?  Today, if you hear his voice calling you to Himself, harden not your hearts… (Heb 3:7-8).

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The Law’s Ineffectiveness: It makes no distinction (Rom 3:22-23; 2:12-3:20)

In Romans 1:18-20, Paul has demonstrated the utter weakness of human willpower: all flesh is under the power of sin (3:9) and therefore cannot be justified by their own works before God (3:20).  But Paul has a second concern in this section: to demonstrate the weakness of old covenant law.  Not only are we unable to earn our salvation by doing good works (something that the Old Testament never taught), but that the old covenant law is unable to set us right with God, and therefore unable to set us apart as the holy people of God.  Paul has in mind more than just the moral requirements of the old covenant, but also the ritual or ceremonial laws of circumcision, food laws, Sabbath and festival laws.  These laws were meant to mark out and set apart Israel as God’s holy people, to keep her distinct from the nations and their works, so that God could continue to dwell in the midst of them and so that Israel would be a sanctified holy vessel for God’s use.  This might not seem like an important issue for Christians today, but in the first century church it was a major controversy: did Gentiles have to become Jews and observe Jewish ritual law in order to be accepted as full members of God’s people or did they only have to receive the gospel through faith?

Paul makes clear, however, that Gentiles do not have to fulfill old covenant ritual requirements, because in fact they did not fulfill their intended function: They failed to distinguish Jews as God’s holy people from the Gentiles. So what is at issue here is not only human inability to do what the Law requires, but the Law’s inability to do what it was intended to do. In Romans 3:22-23, Paul makes a point that is rarely noted: “for there is no distinction, for all have sinned and lack the glory of God.”  Now this is one of the most commonly quoted passages of Scripture, and almost everyone focuses on verse 23 “all “have sinned” and skips over “there is no distinction” in verse 22.  But verse 23 only gives the reason why there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile.

Paul gets this word “distinction” from Leviticus, where it describes the distinction that the priests must make between the holy and the profane, the unclean and the unclean (Lev 10:10, 11:47).  In the same way, Israel was to be distinguished from the sinful, godless nations around them, and were to be sanctified as His holy people. In Exodus 8:19, the Lord makes a “distinction” between Israel and the Egyptians when he sends the swarm of flies to them but not to the Israelites. Ezra commands the people to separate or distinguish themselves from the people of the land and from their foreign wives (10:11), because in their faithlessness, the “holy seed” had mixed itself with the peoples of the land (9:2).  Israel was to be distinct from the nations in its separation from sin.

And the Law was to be means by which this separation was accomplished.  The purpose of this separation from sin was to ensure the presence of God’s glory in their midst.  When Israel made the golden calf and worshiped it, God threatened not to continue dwelling in the midst of them (Exod 33:3).  The entire history of Israel demonstrated that they failed to keep themselves separate from sin, as as a result, “God’s name is blasphemed among the nations because of you” (Rom 2:24).  But the problem is not only Israel’s failure to keep the law, or to keep themselves, but the law’s failure to keep Israel from sinning. The Law has failed to distinguish Israel from the nations: the people of Israel are, on the whole, sinful, like the nations, because they have repeatedly transgressed God’s covenant with them (2:17-3:20). Because the Jews had disobeyed the law and broke their covenant with God, the Law failed to create a boundary between the holy people of God and sinful world that it was intended to create.  Not just humans failed: the Law failed.

It was a belief of many Jews that circumcision and the food laws were meant to cut off the flesh and to restrain sinful passions.  But these laws, which were merely external and unable to effect real transformation in the human heart, proved unable to restrain people from sinning, and as a result the Law could not turn the Jews into the holy people of God.  Neither circumcision nor any other of the ritual laws could establish or maintain a boundary a boundary that would keep sin out the people.  The problem, as we shall see later in Romans 5-8, is that “sin” was already dwelling in the people, and the law was weakened by the fact that it cannot cast sin out of the flesh. What the old covenant could not do was circumcise the heart (Rom 2:25-29).  Mere circumcision in the flesh could only serve as a promise of God’s future salvation of Israel (3:1-4). As a result the Mosaic covenant is revealed to be a mere external letter written on stone (2:25-29), unable to transform the human heart, unable to create a boundary between the people of God and the world, unable to cast out sin.

So when Paul asserts that such works of the law do not “justify,” he is not primarily referring to human inability to do enough good works to earn salvation, but to the weakness or powerlessness of the law to accomplish its intended task of distinguishing Israel as God’s holy people from the nations. And if the Law could not make Israel into a holy nation, how would it justify the other nations of the earth?  Justification means to set people into a right relationship to God, and in light of the distinction between holy and sinful I have been writing about, justification refers to the means by which one crosses the boundary from the unholy sinful world to the holy community of the righteous.  And because the law has failed to set Israel apart as a holy nation in the midst of a sinful world, because the law has not set Israel right with God, so it cannot be the means by which the rest of us are set right with God. The righteousness of God must be revealed apart from old covenant laws and ritual requirements because they have proven to be ineffective (Rom 3:21-22).

This does not mean, however, that Paul condemns all ritual, or that faith is purely an interior matter of faith.  No, faith must be expressed, just as spirit is expressed through body.  The problem with old covenant ritual is that it could not get us “into” Christ, where all the blessings of salvation are found.  Instead it is through baptism in which we profess faith in Jesus Christ and identify with his death, burial and resurrection that we enter into and participate in Christ. As Paul later says in Romans: “do you not know that all of us who have been baptized (or immersed) into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection” (Rom 6:2-4).  Baptism was the means by which a person received Christ and was immersed into Christ and joined to Him in spirit in the early church (not the sinner’s prayer, which did not exist until the 19th century).  The expression of the inward faith of the heart in the bodily act of baptism made the decision of faith real to the person professing faith, and at the same time was a public commitment and oath of loyalty to Jesus as Lord.  In the same way, when people become citizens of a nation today, they engage int he public ritual of swearing an oath to uphold the constitution and obey the laws of the land.  The main difference is that believers being baptized are immersed into the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, so that the old Satanic spirit of Adam is cast out and the Spirit of the resurrected Jesus rises within them.  Because of this, baptism is not an ineffective ritual like circumcision: when we receive Jesus we can count on Him to accomplish what He has promised, that is to unite us to Himself in eternal spiritual union.

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All are under Sin’s Power: Romans 1:18-3:20

In Romans 1:18-3:20, Paul addresses the failure of all humanity to obey and glorify God due to our slavery to sin, that spirit of rebellion that has indwelt us ever since the fall. In 3:9-18, Paul concludes that all humanity, both Jews and Gentiles, are under sin’s power, that no one does good or seeks God, and that therefore all flesh will not be justified by their works before God. We cannot be saved by our own efforts, nor can we deliver ourselves from the power of sin. Unless God acts, our condition is hopeless, and in fact, apart from the drawing of the Holy Spirit we do not even desire to be saved from our condition.  Not only can we not do enough good works to earn or merit salvation, we cannot really do anything that is truly good in the eyes of God.  Of course we imagine that we do good things and we may even help others and even benefit them by our actions. but they are not truly good works, since God alone is good (Mark 10:18), and the moment we take any credit for our own goodness, the works are corrupted.  Our “good” works are only good if it is God doing the works through us, and only if God alone receives the glory for them.  So Jesus says: “So you too, when you have done everything you were commanded to do, should say, ‘We are slaves undeserving of special praise; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10). As Paul says in Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (2:8-9).  

In Romans 1:18-32 Paul describes the works of the nations. In fact, this passage is basically a conventional Jewish attack upon the idolatry and immorality of the nations.  But Paul does not say that he is only addressing Gentiles here, since Israel itself had “mingled with the nations and learned their works, and served their idols, which became a snare to them (Psalms 106:35-36). In this way, Israel rebelled against the Spirit and provoked God to anger (106:32-33), and as a result they became unclean in their practices, and played the whore in their deeds (106:39).  So Israel was not holy and distinct from the nations in her works, but falls under the same judgment as the nations: “Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things” (Rom 2:1).  So Paul tricks the Jew who believes himself to be superior to the Gentiles because they have the law, since he fails to keep it himself.

In Romans 2:12, Paul introduces the law into the discussion for the first time. The law was meant to distinguish Israel from the nations by making her a holy and righteous people.  Merely possessing the law will not be enough, one must do or keep the law in order to pass final judgment (2:13). God will judge those who have His law by that law and He will judge those who do not have the law by the inner law of conscience that He has given to all humanity (2:12, 14-15).  Paul says the requirements of God’s law are written on our hearts, with our consciences bearing witness as to the moral quality of our lives (2:15), showing that we inherently know the difference between right and wrong, even though we may be misinformed as to the exact nature of right and wrong. We fail to live up even to the standard of our conscience, let alone to God’s perfect law! Even though the conscience is not perfect and can be corrupted, nevertheless, all human beings know right and wrong and know when they have wronged another person and when others have wronged them. We are moral beings by our very nature, able to discern right and wrong and make moral choices, which is the essence of being persons and which distinguishes us from mere animals who act from instinct without moral consciousness. So a day is coming when all the innermost secrets of our hearts will be laid bare and we will answer to God for all the things we have done (2:16) and the standard He uses to judge us will be the level of knowledge which we possessed in this life. All know right and wrong at some level, so Gentiles who do not have the law are not at a disadvantage.

In verses 17 to 29, Paul turns to the specific case of the Jews, who were under the illusion that because they were God’s chosen people and because they possessed the embodiment of God’s will in the law, they would not be held to as high a standard as the rest of the world, since they were favored by God. But this is not so, according to Paul. If anything, they will be held to the highest standard of all, since even while possessing such knowledge, they still failed to keep the law. Amos says to the nation of Israel: “You alone have I chosen out of all the nations of the earth, therefore I will punish you for all your sins” (Amos 3:2). The more knowledge we possess, the more responsible we are before God to produce fruit. Thus, the Jews have no grounds to boast about having the law, since they break it (2:17-24), causing God’s name to be blasphemed or treated as worthless by the Gentiles. Why should the nations pay attention to a God that the Jews don’t think worthy of obeying (2:24)?  What counts is not an external circumcision of the flesh, a mere outward keeping of the law’s ritual requirements, but the inward keeping of the law’s inward spiritual intent, the result of having one’s heart circumcised (2:25-29). Circumcision was an outward symbol of having been separated from the world as a member of God’s people, so that unless one is also inwardly separated from the spirit of the world in one’s heart, the outward symbol is meaningless. What the Jew failed to understand was that it was necessary not only to possess the law and keep its external requirements, but to keep it in the most deepest inward spiritual sense. God does not show special favor because one is externally a member of Israel or the church: it is true inward obedience that matters.

If God does not show special favor to Israel at the final judgment, wouldn’t God be unfaithful to His promises, specifically to save Israel (3:1-8)? This question may not seem important to most of us, since most of us are not Jews, but the question of God’s faithfulness is of prime importance. If God cannot be trusted to keep His promises to the Jews, how can we trust Him to do anything for us Gentiles? If God is unfaithful, how can we trust Him to be out-poured love for us and to save us? So Paul says: “Let God be true and every man a liar” (3:4). God’s faithfulness and justice may never be questioned, for unless we can trust Him to be both completely just and merciful in His ruling of the universe, we have no hope. So God is showing His faithfulness to Israel when He judges her for her sins, because He promised that there would be certain consequences for disobedience. If God did not judge sin, He would be like the unreliable and unloving parent who refused to give his children consequences for their misbehavior. Ultimately those children will destroy their own lives because the parent refused to do the hard thing by laying down and carrying out consequences for disobedience. If God saved people despite their disobedience, where would His love and justice be? So God, to be faithful, loving and just, must carry out the consequence He laid down for sin, the sentence of death which He threatened as the wages of sin (see Rom 6:23).

So Paul concludes that Jew and Gentile alike are under a sentence of condemnation (3:9). No one is righteous, no one seeks or fears God, no one does good, but rather all have become useless vessels (3:10-18). But since it is true that everyone in the whole world has failed to keep God’s requirements, and since it is also true that God will judge everyone according to what they have done, how will anyone avoid eternal death? How will anyone be saved if judgment is according to works? One might expect that humanity would do better once they were given the explicit laying out of God’s requirements in the law, but such is not, in fact, the case. Even with explicit knowledge of God’s will, humanity has not done better, but worse! Through the law we become conscious of sin (3:19-20)! The law only reveals the rebellion that lurks in the depths of the human heart. It cannot save us from our sinful condition. Therefore, no one will be declared righteous at the final judgment on the basis of keeping the law, because an external law cannot change the condition of the human heart. If even with the help of the law the Jews are exposed as rebellious and sinful, how much more we Gentiles who were never under the law! So in giving the law to the Jews, God takes away our excuse that we never knew God’s will in order to keep it, for even when we have a knowledge of God’s will, we still fail to do it.

How will we escape such a hopeless situation? Paul has exposed our absolute powerlessness to save ourselves, a powerlessness that is universal and without exception: everyone is a slave to sin. Since God will judge us according to our deeds, how will anyone be saved? In Romans 3:21-8:39, Paul will give a two-fold answer to this dilemma. First he will show how God will deliver us from the consequences of our sin, namely the sentence of condemnation and death (3:21-5:21), and then he will show how that it is the Spirit of Christ who delivers us from the power of sin (6:1-8:39), so that we might confidence at the final judgment, since it is He who is living our lives through faith (Eph 3:17) and as He is, so also are we in this world (1 John 4:17).

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The Judgment Seat of Christ: Romans 2:1-2:16

In Romans 2:16, Paul states that a day is coming when God will judge the secrets of our hearts through Jesus Christ. The thought of standing before the judgment seat of Christ and having to offer an account of my life has always produced in me a sense of unease, anxiety, and fear of being destroyed because of my sinfulness.  Throughout the Old Testament, even those within the covenant feared death if they happened to glance upon a manifestation of God’s glory (Isaiah 6, for example).  Who is able to stand before the awesome holiness of God?

Given that all, Jew or Gentile, believer or unbeliever, will face God’s judgment, it is a perilous thing to stand in judgment of others: Paul says that we are without excuse, since we do the same things (2:1). How can this be? Just because we have not committed adultery or murdered someone does not mean we are more righteous than those who have. Neither we nor the Jews can claim to have attained God’s perfect law. James says that those who break God’s law at one point are guilty of breaking the whole law (James 2:10). The reason for this is that the same rebellious spirit is behind all manifestations of sin, no matter what form it takes, and therefore, any sin is equally offensive to God. Some sins may have more severe consequences for one’s self and others, but in intent all sins are rebellion against God’s absolute claim upon our lives. We think that some sins are worse than our own in order to justify our own behavior: what we did isn’t may that bad compared to what someone else did. This is really just an attempt to suppress the truth by our wickedness (1:18) and shows how our minds have been perverted by sin (1:21-22, 28). So whenever we pass judgment on another, and play this comparison game with an attitude of superiority, we are in fact condemning ourselves before God. This attitude of superiority is itself evidence of our sinfulness.

But even if we admit that we are just as sinful as everyone else, wouldn’t the Jew, or for that matter, the person born into a Christian family, have an advantage over others at the final judgment? The typical Jewish view of the time was that God would be more lenient toward Israel than towards the rest of the world, since He had chosen them to be His own people. After all, wouldn’t being exposed to God’s Word in the Bible and being a member of God’s people, the church, somehow give you an advantage? But Paul says that God does not show favoritism (2:11), since He is an impartial judge, who judges according to truth (2:2). That is, He judges according to the way things really are, and is not deceived by lies or illusions, but is faithful in adhering to a standard of strict and absolute justice. God cannot show special favor to a person or group of people at the final judgment, as if to hold some people accountable for their sins, but not hold others responsible. God has declared that death is the wages of sin (6:23), and therefore, He must always give this consequence to those who sin unless there is some kind of intervention on God’s part to prevent this inevitable consequence.

Now we might assume that because we are Christian believers that we will not go through judgment, since Jesus has already passed through judgment for us by dying on the cross for our sins.  But Scripture does not actually say this. In Romans 14:10, Paul says that we must all appear before the judgment seat of God, and that each of us will give an account of ourselves to God (14:12).  In 2 Cor 5:10, Paul says that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, where we will be paid back for what we have done while in the body, whether good or evil.  The context of Rom 14:10-12 and 2 Cor 5:10 clearly indicates it is believers who are being addressed. Finally, in 1 Cor 3:13-15, Paul says that fire will test whatever we build upon the foundation of Christ, and if what we have done survives, we will receive a reward, and if it it is burned up, we will be saved, but only as through fire.  So it is true that believers do not have to fear condemnation at final judgment, and that their salvation is assured. At the same time, however, the quality of our lives and the fruits we produced will be tested by God (Rom 2:16).

So Paul says “God will give to each according to what they have done” (2:6). At the final judgment, the lives of everyone will be examined by God, and those who have produced the fruit of the Spirit will enter into eternal life. Whether a person is a Jew or Gentile, believer or unbeliever, everyone must have the quality of life that pleases God. Everyone is judged by the same standard: whether or not we obeyed God’s will to the level that we understood it: “to those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, God will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger” (2:7-8). Obedience to God is an indispensable prerequisite to salvation at the final judgment. In other words, without obedience no one will be saved.

But Paul says later in Romans that there is none righteous, not even one, no one who seeks or obeys God, and no one who does good (Rom 3:10-12).  Obedience is always a requirement, but we are utterly unable to obey.  So there is no question of us earning or meriting our salvation independently of Christ, since we have already sinned enough to make that option impossible, as if we were ever in a position to earn something from God or to put God in our debt. If salvation were a matter of what we deserved or earned, we would all end up in hell. No, we can never put God under some kind of obligation to save us, but God can and does lay down conditions or requirements to receive His gift of eternal life.  Like the old covenant, the new covenant has a condition of obedience that must be fulfilled – the question is how it is fulfilled and who fulfills that condition.  Under the old covenant, the people themselves were required to obey God and fulfill the terms of the covenant which God gave them, regardless of whether they were in fact able to do so (which they were not).  In the new covenant, it is Christ who fulfills the condition and obeys God. Only Jesus Christ lived a sinless life (2 Cor 5:21), only Jesus persisted in doing good and sought the glory and honor of God, which means that only Jesus inherits eternal life.  The only way for us to obey God and inherit eternal life is to be in union with Him, and for Him to live His life through us.

So fulfilling the condition of obedience or persistence in doing good (2:7) does not mean that you earned or deserve salvation, only that God has promised in grace to give eternal life to those who fulfill the conditions. The key is to understand that it is not we ourselves who independently obey God and fulfill the covenant conditions: it is Christ Himself who fulfills the condition of obedience through us by living His life in us, through us, and as us.  So paradoxically it is not we ourselves who fulfill the requirements of God’s law, since we cannot (see Rom 7:14-25). Instead the God who makes an unrelenting demand for obedience at the same time perfectly supplies the means to keep it: He gives us His Spirit so that now Christ lives His life in us and as us (Rom 8:2; Gal. 2:20; Phil 2:13; Eph 3:17). Christ fulfills the condition of obedience not only for us by dying on the cross but by daily living His life through us.

The church has tended to water down God’s demands so that they do not have to trust God for the supply. By watering down God’s demands, they never become desperate enough to seek for God’s provision. Jeremiah promises that we will find God if we seek Him with our whole heart (Jer 29:13). But how will we find the motivation to seek God for the answer unless the impossible demands of the law force us to do so? Removing the demand destroys the one thing that drives us to find the answer. This would be the reverse of the good news. The demand remains, but God graciously provides the Spirit to produce His fruit in us.  The prophet Ezekiel promises that God will put His Spirit in us to cause us to walk in His ways (Ezek 36:27). What God demands, He provides. It is not some effort of our own, independently of God, that produces the fruit, but the result of Christ’s replacement of Satan in our spirit-center that causes the change. We have one single choice that we are continually making: whether or not to trust God to do exactly as He promised: to live His perfect life through us. So our lack is met by His infinite supply, our need by His provision.

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Martin Luther on the Scriptures

I came across this quotation of Martin Luther today:

“Therefore dismiss your own opinions and feelings and think of the Scriptures as the loftiest and noblest of holy things, as the richest of mines which can never be sufficiently explored, in order that you may find that divine wisdom which God here lays before you in such simple guise as to quench all pride. Here you will find the swaddling cloths and the manger in which Christ lies.”

Christ is the true meaning of the Scriptures, their center and heart, and the purpose of reading and studying them is to encounter and behold and know Him.

 

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Believers are no longer objects of God’s Wrath

Believers are no longer the objects of God’s wrath.  God is not waiting up in heaven to thrown lightning bolts on Christian believers when and if they sin.  Because of our sense of shame and sin-consciousness, however, we may find it very difficult to believe this.  Since many Christians believe that they sin many times a day every day, they experience no peace with God. Even though we believe that we are justified or made right with God by faith, experientially most Christians I have known live in shame and a consciousness of sin that far exceeds their consciousness of God.  Nevertheless, this image of God as writing to pounce on us for every sin is a Satanic lie. For Scripture clearly states that we “are not destined for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord, who died for us” (1Thess 5:9-10).  Instead, the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience (Col 3:6; Eph 5:6), upon those who live in selfish ambition and do not obey the truth (the gospel) but follow unrighteousness (Rom 2:8).   It is  upon those those who fail to trust in the Lord as their Messiah and Savior and who reject the Son that God’s wrath remains (John 3:36).  So the believer does not have to live in fear of judgment or punishment, but rather within the perfect love of God (1John 4:18).  

Why is this? Why do we not have to fear God’s anger?  The obvious answer is that Christ died for us, and his blood cleanses us from all sin (1John 1:7, 9).  But that would not be enough if we still related to God apart from and independently of Christ.  Instead, God has joined as one spirit to Christ (1Cor 6:17) so that His righteousness is our righteousness (2Cor 5:21), we are righteous as he is righteous, and His relationship with the Father becomes our relationship with the Father. We have no relationship with God apart from His relationship: we participate in the Son’s intimacy with the Father.  And so we are His sons in His Son.  God is no more wrathful toward us than He is toward His own Son enthroned at His right hand.

For that very reason sin cannot separate us from fellowship with God, as it could under the old covenant.  We participate in Christ’s relationship with the Father and any sin we commit cannot be more powerful than Christ Himself.  Sins cannot take us out of Christ, nor can they separate us from the love of God, for “who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ?”  Our sins do not break fellowship with God, though we may feel that they do so. This is also a Satanic deception, part of his design to keep us from walking in the truth of God about ourselves.  You are one spirit with Christ – there is no separation – only a feeling of separation. If we do sin, we ought to confess it to God – that is, we agree with Him that we have sinned, but confession is not some work we do to reestablish a relationship with God. We are utterly powerless to maintain our relationship with God.  It is the sacrificial atoning death of Christ which established our relationship with Christ, and the blood alone which maintains it – confession is just a way of recognizing and believing the truth of what God has already done for us. If you sin, put the sin under the blood as quickly as possible and do not let Satan draw you down into shame and sin-consciousness. If you do let Satan draw you down into his sin-consciousness, he will torment you with the whirling fire of his wrath within. But even then we are not separated from God, only from enjoying our relationship-union with Him.

There is only one conceivable way for us to fall back under God’s wrath is to deliberately and willfully cut ourselves off from Christ, as the Galatians were in danger of doing by being circumcised (Gal 5:3-4), and as the Hebrews were in going back to relying on temple sacrifices instead of Christ (Heb 10:26-31).  But this act must be a willful and deliberate choice to reject Christ (Heb 6:6; 10:26), and not mere yielding to a temptation in the flesh. It does not just happen to a person, so we need not live in fear.  Christ is our keeper, and He will keep us from falling away.  All we do is trust Him.

 

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