About seven years ago Dr. Rod Rosenbladt gave a series of talks at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama. It is not an understatement to say that the following two quotes from that event literally changed my life. I felt like I was given a clear picture of the Gospel for the very first time, and looking back, I realize that the long, bumpy road to seminary (and a mid-stream career change) began that day. These are both from the first part of his Saturday morning lecture. He spent about an hour doing some theology with us from Romans 3, 4 and 5. Please forgive me if these aren’t exact quotes! I have transcribed them from a very worn-out CD of the lecture.
First, the diagnosis:
Now, look specifically at Romans 3, verses 19-20. I want to specifically focus on what it says about purpose of the law: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.”
This is the point to which the apostle has been relentlessly grinding forward. The idolatrous and immoral Gentiles are ‘without excuse’. The Jews equally ‘have no excuse’. The special status of the Jews does not exonerate them.
In fact, all the inhabitants of the whole world, without any exception, are inexcusable before God, because all have known something of God and of morality, but all have disregarded and even stifled their knowledge in order to go their own way. All are guilty and condemned before God and without excuse.
Paul states in Verse 19 the purpose of the law is that “every mouth be silenced”. The purpose of the law is to shut our mouths, stop us in mid-excuse and hold us accountable to God. When confronted with the law we will shut our mouths. All of the excuses we learned to use so early in life will immediately fail us. We won’t say a word. As the verse goes on to say, the whole world will be held accountable to God.
In the end, God will assign one of two grades, 0 or 100, he does not grade on the curve and he will not hear our excuses. Those who have perfectly lived the law in thought, word and deed will be counted as righteous. Others like myself will be utterly doomed, check mate. Of course, Paul said earlier that “there is no one righteous, not even one”. None of us can place our hope in the law.
Now what does it all mean?
You and I as Adam’s children not only are ungodly, not only infected from top to bottom with sin—we can’t fix ourselves. Now this is difficult to say in our postmodern American society. It’s counter-cultural. We believe we can fix anything, even ourselves: Positive thinking, a couple of self-help courses, and all will be fine. But the Bible, especially Romans 3 says we’re wrong. I stand guilty before God and there’s nothing I can do to change that. My sentence is a just one and it is death.
Heavy stuff, no doubt. Now here’s the cure:
Now God could have erased this world and no one could have accused him of injustice if he had done that, but he did not. While under no obligation at all to us rebels he instead put in motion a plan in which he freely, graciously, and at tremendous cost to himself satisfied his own justice in our place. Into my hopeless situation Paul speaks of God acting to rescue me anyway.
Let’s look at Chapter 5, verses 6 and 7: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
The language of Christianity is the language of substitution. It is not primarily the language of morals. God is not presented as a mother saying “eat all your vegetables”. Instead, Christianity is about a one-sided rescue, that we didn’t want and certainly didn’t deserve, and he did it anyway. At the cross, Paul says God made Jesus to be sin, who himself knew no sin. Peter says he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.
Now how can this be just? How can God reckon like this? The answer is in Romans 3:24: gratuitously, or by his grace, through the ransoming that is in connection with Christ Jesus. It is not arbitrary, it’s not capricious, it’s not unjust for God to do this. If God died for us in Christ, God has every right having satisfied his own justice, by taking it all in our stead, to give us whatever he wants to give us.
In other words, God has his right to save us for free! He’s the one who allowed himself in Christ to be crucified for our sin. He has the right to give us eternal life. Having died in our place, he has a right to reckon to us a righteousness that isn’t really ours. And he does!