Response of Grace
In the first chapters of his letter to the Romans Paul has explained that:
- God initially expressed His grace to man by creating the world and placing human beings at the head of it.
- Mankind, beginning with Adam, rejected this grace by disobeying God's commands.
- This disobedience sent him rushing headlong into a cycle of theological, philosophical and moral failure that would ultimately cause mankind to self-destruct if it were not for God's intervention from time to time throughout history.
- Paul writes that even though man is lost and unable to rescue himself, God has devised a plan that will not only save him from the ongoing cycle of sinful devolution in this life, but also from the punishment he will incur at the judgment to come.
In the last part of chapter 3 the Apostle introduces the next section of his letter which I refer to in this study as, "God's Response of Grace." Here Paul will describe how God answers sinful man's rejection of His initial offer of grace with yet a second offer of grace. In the first instance the Lord created the world and put man at the head of His creation. In the second offer of grace He re-creates man in order to put him into a spiritual kingdom, the church.
What is interesting here is that both of these offers of grace center on mankind and are made possible by Christ. In Colossians 1:16 Paul says that the world was created by and for Christ. In Romans Paul is going to explain that the re-creation of mankind will also be made possible by Christ.
For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him.
- Colossians 1:16
The image of Christ as first and last is completed in I Thessalonians 4:13-18 and II Peter 3:10-13.
13But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. 14For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. 15For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. 18Therefore comfort one another with these words.
10But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. 11Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, 12looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! 13But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.
In these verses the writers explain that at the end of the world it will again be Jesus Christ who will transform the saved from dead bodies to glorious ones, and replace the present physical universe with a completely spiritual kingdom for them to dwell in forever. The grace of God, therefore, was working: a) through Christ to transform us from nothingness to life at the beginning; b) from lost to saved during the cycle of destruction; c) from dead to eternal life at the end of the world.
The Results of Sin
Before we examine what Paul says about God's renewed offer of grace, I want to look at the effect that sin has on the individual. We have seen the overview (historical cycle) of mankind falling from grace. I now want us to see how sin affects our relationship with God at close range. I suppose the question to ask in this regard is, "Why is sin so destructive in our lives?" I'd like to mention two reasons:
1. Sin destroys our intimacy with God
Intimacy with God is the substance of spiritual and eternal life. It is what this experience is about.
This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.
- John 17:3
A broken fellowship/relationship with God does not simply mean that we are no longer welcome at church. It means that our ability to "see" and perceive the other side, the spiritual dimension, the other reality, the kingdom etc., is severely disabled or destroyed. Sinfulness blurs our vision and our sensitivity to the reality of spiritual things. This is why every sin is dangerous, because each contributes to the lowering of our spiritual vision.
Every bad habit we excuse in ourselves is like a growing cataract that limits our ability to perceive God clearly. Unrepented sins bring us to the point where we can only see this world and not realize that we can no longer see or appreciate the spiritual world. When this happens the preacher becomes a meddler and we resent others who try to point out our weakness and lack of spirituality. Much like elderly folks who sometimes get cranky if we suggest that they get better reading glasses or use hearing aids, everyone else is aware of the problem except them.
2. Sin deprives us of true freedom
For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.
- Romans 6:20
Living in ignorance of sin frees us from having to deal with the demands of God's laws or our own conscience (not the consequences resulting from disobeying either of these however). But living in sin, ignorant of Christ or in rejection of Christ does not mean that we live in absolute freedom. Freedom from Christ because of ignorance or rejection of Him usually means that we live in slavery to whatever passion or fear that is strongest within us.
This type of slavery works in the same way for the movie star who lives for fame, the homemaker who lives for the next re-modeling project, or the person who lives for the next moment that his or her addiction will be satisfied (caffeine, nicotine, illicit drugs, pornography etc.). We are all slaves. The only question to answer is to whom or what are we enslaved? We cannot always tell from outward appearances because most people create a front in order to hide their sins, but all of us struggle with our allegiances regardless of our gender, social position or intelligence.
Those who are not totally aligned or "enslaved" to Christ are subject to enslavement to something or someone else. The Bible says that at the end there will no longer be any secrets because all secrets will be revealed.
But if you will not do so, behold, you have sinned against the Lord, and be sure your sin will find you out.
- Numbers 32:23
Man's Reaction when Confronted with Sin
Another point I'd like to make concerning sin's effect is how people without faith in Christ deal with sin. Here are a few common tactics:
When confronted with sin, some people claim that this (whatever this is) is not really a sin or that there is no such thing as sin. Relativism (i.e. What is right or wrong/sinful depends on your point of view) is the most common method used to dispose of any negative feelings created by sin.
Even though people might not be able to describe the process of rationalization, the words they use to defend or justify their behavior clearly reveals this tactic in dealing with sin: "Everybody else does it. I am not so bad. I am not a bad person. This is not such a big deal. A loving God would not condemn me. It's (fill in the blank with favorite minor vice) my only pleasure. Just this once. One last time."
Human nature moves towards self-justification.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer
...and I add that ....rationalization is the vehicle that carries the justifier there.
The procrastinator says, "I will deal with this problem/sin when: I am older, stronger, wiser, tomorrow, after the new year, after the retreat, etc."
Procrastination gives this person the feeling that he has actually done something because he has made a decision (to do it later), but the decision never impacts his life because that is the only thing he does, makes a decision.
Delusion leads people to think that they are already perfect. These are individuals who think that their sins are so small that God does not even consider them. They believe that since they never committed adultery or murder or the other mortal sins, they are ok. These are usually the ones who are blind to their own selfishness, gluttony, greed, lack of ethics or compassion. The "invisible" kind of sins which are still able to damn them to hell like those of adultery or murder, but are somehow easy to hide from themselves or others. They are selective in their obedience and judgment of themselves and this delusion allows them to create a false image of moral superiority and spiritual maturity when in reality they are among the walking dead already condemned.
Selling Out/Giving Up/Diving In
Another tactic in dealing with personal sin is acknowledging that it exists but not caring. These are the ones who fully enjoy the pleasures and short term advantages of evil in this world with no regard for tomorrow. The greatest danger that they pose is the influence they have on others who admire their worldly confidence and open rejection of God, seemingly without consequences because their lives are often long, successful and satisfying. These are the ones David the psalmist spoke of when he wrote,
The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God."
These are some of the ways that people without faith deal with the very real presence of sin in their lives. For the Christian, however, these attitudes and tactics should be signals that one is losing his spiritual vision.
As I have already stated, sin works to lessen our spiritual vision to the point where we no longer perceive the things of God and instead become attached to the things of this world which have no power to transfer us to the spiritual dimension. In response to this spiritual blindness God sends Jesus, a historical and spiritual lightening bolt who gives sight to everyone who is willing to see and thus, be saved.
Righteousness by Faith — Romans 3:21-25a
The text in Romans 3:21-25 explains what God, motivated by grace, has done through Christ to solve the problem of universal sin and its consequences. It reveals how a condemned sinner can be transformed into a saint and live an eternal life in an intimate relationship with God. These four verses hold the core idea of the gospel and the solution to mankind's losing struggle with sin and death.
21But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed;
These verses become clearer if we understand some of the key words before we try to draw out the meaning of the whole passage:
- Law (verse 21): The revelation to Moses by God, the official title of the Old Testament (including the prophets, ten commandments, etc.) It also refers to the "principle of law" or the idea of a "standard" by which something can be judged.
- Righteousness (verse 21): The quality or state of being just, sound, without prejudice or guilt of any kind.
- Faith (verse 22): This word usually means the belief and trust that something is true, or someone is legitimate. In certain contexts it can also refer to a body of religious teaching (the faith). In this verse it means to believe as true.
- Glory (verse 23): Praise or acknowledgement.
- Justified (verse 24): The means or method by which one becomes righteous. The way one achieves this status. A person is considered innocent, saved or just. One can be justified because one is proven to actually be innocent and thus just or righteous, or one can be justified because the sins one commits are forgiven him.
- Grace (verse 24): A gift or an attitude of benevolence, compassion and generosity. The gift/grace that God gives us is embodied in His merciful attitude towards sinners and their sins.
- Redemption (verse 24): To purchase back, to free, to liberate or to redeem.
- Propitiation (verse 25): This word refers to an appeasement or a peace offering. For example, a man brings flowers home as a peace offering to smooth over a conflict with his wife that he has caused in some way. The flowers are a propitiation. They acknowledge his guilt, his regret and his request for peace between them. Note, however, that in the Bible, it is never man that decides what offering or appeasement is needed in order to be reconciled with God. This is the thinking used in the sacrificial systems for pagan religions (i.e. The people choose something precious that they possess, sometimes their own children, and offer it up to the gods in order to appease their anger or gain their favor). In the Bible it is always God who decides and provides the peace offering/appeasement/propitiation in order to reconcile man back to Himself (e.g. It is as if the wife purchased the flowers and gave them to the husband so that he could offer them back to her in order to smooth over the conflict that he was guilty of creating).
- In the Old Testament this word referred to the "mercy seat" or cover that was placed over the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies part of the temple. This was the inner chamber where only the high priest was allowed to enter once per year in order to offer sacrifice. The ark was placed in this room. It contained the stone tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were written. Each year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would enter and, according to God's command, would sprinkle the blood of a sacrificed animal over the mercy seat as a way of covering and thus cleansing the sins of the people. The priests, who represented the people, would lay their hands on the sacrificial animal symbolically transferring the sins of the people to the animal. The animal would then be killed and its blood offered as a way of removing the sins of the people thus cleansing their consciences of guilt. God's word taught that "life was in the blood" (Genesis 9:4), so through this sacrifice the animal's life/blood was offered to God (by sprinkling it on the mercy seat) as an appeasement/propitiation/peace offering. The idea behind this ceremony was that the mercy seat covered the tablets of the Law which was used to judge and condemn the people for their sins. The blood/life sprinkled over that mercy seat represented the peace offering required to fulfill the demands of the Law for sins committed by the people.
When Paul mentions the word "propitiation" to his readers it summarizes the entire process of offering up a sacrifice, the role of the mercy seat and the idea of a peace offering as a method of dealing with sin before God. It also establishes the basis for understanding the ultimate fulfillment of this ancient Jewish rite. Jesus is the true and final sacrifice, and His blood covers/satisfies the demands of God's Law for restitution/justice/payment due for the sins of all mankind throughout all of history, from Adam's disobedience to the last person standing at the end of time.
This passage, then, explains God's plan and its completion through Jesus Christ, who is the propitiation provided by God to reconcile all mankind back to Himself in peace, never to be separated again by sin.