Sermon at Methodist Chapel – Cheddington
19 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. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God's sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.
21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the "law" that requires faith. 28 For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from observing the law.
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner’.”
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”
Reading from Romans is so familiar to us, it has become something of a cliché. How does the preacher base a sermon on a cliché without saying the same things every other preacher has said before?
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
Good news! We don’t have to do anything. Although we have all sinned – fallen short like an arrow aimed at a target – yet we are justified freely by the grace of God that came by Jesus Christ. Easy. We can just sit back and accept the redemption offered to us. Is it really that simple? Is that really what Paul is telling us? Let’s looks a bit more closely.
Go back a bit to verse 19, and Paul says:
19 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.
That means regardless of what God offers us, we are still under the law. Because all are subject to the law, it follows all have sinned. All our lives, we are reminded of this. Every service in the Church starts with a Confession. It seems whatever we do, we cannot escape from this condemnation. We keep having to confess our failings. Why can we not break out of this dreadful cycle of wrongdoing?
Paul’s answer is that whatever we do, however good our intentions, regardless of how blameless a life we lead, we can never attain the righteousness of God. And that is the only measure that counts.
No one can reach God through his or her own merits. No one can meet God’s standard through their own conduct or good works. No one can reach God by their own efforts – it is God who reaches to us, not the other way round.
This is what it means to be under the law. There is nothing we can do. Even in our most beautiful moments, with our most deeply spiritual insights, at a time when we are most Christ-like – we cannot ever clear the bar because it is set at God’s only standard – perfection.
How depressing. Well, not really, because there is another way. Righteousness, we are told, comes through faith in Jesus Christ. But is this as comforting as it sounds? OK, salvation comes through faith and not works, but don’t we constantly feel our faith is weak? Isn’t faith just like a ‘work?’ Surely ‘believing’ is something we do. It’s tempting to conclude that whilst we have shed the burden of all the other ‘works’ and obedience to the Law, we have simply substituted something even harder – faith, and a strong belief in Jesus.
I would say, if faith sounds to you and me like something we have to do, if belief sounds to you and me like something that can be measured against some sort of standard, then we have missed the point and it has indeed become just another work.
Let me suggest to you another way of looking at it. The standard of righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. That’s what Paul says. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Freely by God’s grace – does that not mean nothing is required from us in return?
The faith Paul writes about here is the faith of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God’s righteousness. It is this righteousness – the person of Jesus – that creates and awakens faith in us. Faith is not something we have to struggle with – it is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Where and when the Spirit wills.
Take Zacchaeus, for example. He was a sinner. He did not have a strong faith – he was inquisitive, and wanted to know more, so he went and climbed a tree. He did not approach or engage Jesus like the Canaanite woman. He didn’t shout out ‘Lord have mercy on me!’ It was Jesus who noticed and approached him. After agreeing to provide hospitality to the Messiah, then Zacchaeus spontaneously offered to recompense fourfold everyone he had robbed, and to give half his wealth to the poor. These actions were clearly ‘works.’ Jesus accepted his works as evidence of repentance, but he would have entered Zacchaeus’s life regardless. All Zacchaeus had to do was accept the grace freely offered to him.
There is another trap waiting here for the unwary. That is the phrase sacrifice of atonement.
25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.
What are we to make of this? Listening to many Christians they seem to be saying that God is a parent who requires sacrifice. That God needs to be appeased by a violent and degrading sacrifice as a prior condition to offering salvation and reconciliation to his creation.
Surely this is not the God even of the Old Testament, let alone the New. God did not require sacrifice of Isaac. In Canaan human sacrifice was utterly condemned. In Psalm 51 it says:
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.
The Gospels are not about a God who is appeased by a sacrifice. They are not about a God who needs to be bargained with; many atonement theories, grounded in this idea of sacrifice, are simply guises for a ladder theology. It’s like saying ‘we can still DO something to get to God. Well, we can’t.
Christ sacrificed himself, but it was the evil of men that killed him. Execution is probably a more apt description for what happened than sacrifice. Sacrifice takes away our responsibility for his death. Execution doesn’t.
What Paul actually says is that God presented the death of Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement. That was the effect it had. Not that in some way his death was required. Jesus did what he did to show his righteousness.
God ‘s part in this was to make known to us how great is the righteousness that is now given to us (verses 21-22), that now becomes ours as faith.
This is the real metaphor for atonement. Christ takes everything that is ours and lays the burden on himself and gives us everything that is his. The gift of Christ is his faith. This gift imparts righteousness to us, makes of us believers, not through our works but through the promise that Christ has accomplished all for us. Amen