Week Four – Romans 3:21-31
If someone says to you, “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news, which do you want to hear first?” What’s your choice? I always want the bad news first perhaps subconsciously I need to know that the conversation is going to end on a positive note. I would think most of us are like that. Nobody likes bad news but we all like good news. Have you ever had a conversation like this? “I’ve got good news and bad news. Which do you want to hear first?” “Let me have the bad news.” “The engine in your car is completely kaput and needs to be replaced. It’s going to cost a couple of thousands.” “Ugh. So what’s the good news?” “The windshield wipers still work.” It’s like you get hit with a whammy of bad news and you want good news that equals the bad news, but there’s no comparison between the two. It’s quite disappointing, isn’t it?
In Romans 3:1-20 that we discussed last week, Paul is reiterating the fact that while the Jews had originally been God’s chosen people, He now desires a relationship with all people, Jews and non-Jews. Paul discusses the fact that the Jews had been given the law by God many years earlier and while that gave them an advantage, it didn’t save them. And now, Jews and non-Jews stood on equal ground with God. All because of Jesus. Jesus had changed not only the rules of the game, but also changed how the game was played. Romans 3: 20b “…no one can be made right with God by following the law. The law only shows us our sin.” But also in those first 20 verses of Chapter 3, there was a succession of bad news. One thing after another.
I think it’s a good thing that Romans 3:1-20 was written in a letter rather than an actual conversation. Can you picture the Jews and Gentiles sitting still and quietly listen while Paul stands over them and says things like, “There is no one doing what is right, not even one.”, “There is no one who does good, not even one.”, “There is no one who is trying to be with God”? I would imagine that several of them would have furrowed brows and a few hands might go up to interject their opposition to these widespread accusations because not everyone would have agreed with what he was saying.
“It wasn’t me!”
“I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I’m not like the rest of them.”
It’s like having recess time in elementary school. We were often reminded that recess time was a privilege and not a right. That meant that if one or two kids misbehaved, we could all lose our recess time for the day. From time to time the teacher would have reached her limit and deny us all recess for the day. I remember wanting to raise my hand and say, “I didn’t do anything wrong. I was your helper and sharpened all of the pencils. Remember?” Or “I handed out the crayons and gave everyone the color they wanted.”
I can just picture Paul standing in the midst of these fellow believers making statements that none of them was doing what’s right and no one was doing good, and some of them wanting to say, “But what about me?” Paul is trying to get them to see the filthiness of sin to which they’ve been accustomed. He’s attempting to show them all (and us) that no one is deserving of God’s goodness and righteousness. That’s not something we want to hear over and over again, is it? We don’t like to be reminded of our shortcomings.
Much like the first readers of Paul’s letter to the Romans, we cling to verses such as Jeremiah 31:3. “The Lord says, ‘I love you people with a love that continues forever. That is why I have continued showing you kindness.’ “ We love the idea of God just loving us warts and all. Our thoughts and actions are carried out with the idea of agape or unconditional love. God’s going to love us forever regardless of what we do, think or say so we give ourselves carte blanche.
On the contrary, how many of us cling to and include in our prayers the words of David in Psalm 139:23-24“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.” We’re not so anxious to commit ourselves to God in this manner because each and every one of us has something that we do, think or say that we know is offensive to God. And we’re not quite so ready to give it up most of the time.
I used to do the new employee orientations and one of the things that I would recommend to the new hires was to ask their supervisor after about three months or so how the supervisor felt the new employee was doing. In other words, were they catching on quickly? Doing accurate work? Were they getting along with the other employees and following the office rules? I’d tell the supervisors to be honest. Not brutally honest, but in an encouraging and helpful manner. The point of this was to provide an opportunity to promote growth and learning as well as correct any wrongs before they became habits. I had a new employee come to me after a few months and she was crying. She asked if she could talk privately with me. She had gone to her supervisor and asked, “How am I doing?” Her supervisor had told her she was doing pretty well but that she did need to pick up the pace just a little. Her supervisor pointed out that there was a lot of chit-chat going on that needed to be reduced and as a result, the work production would likely increase. As the new employee relayed the conversation to me, I kept waiting for what had upset her. When she stopped talking and just sat there crying and staring at me, I had to ask. “So why are you so upset?” And she said, “When I asked my supervisor how I was doing, I didn’t expect her to have anything bad to say.”
Likewise, I can’t help but think that some of us don’t ask God to point out anything that offends Him in us because we just can’t imagine that there would be anything for Him to say. But for most of us, I think we don’t ask Him because we’re terrified to think of the long list of things that we do that offend Him.
One day God was looking down at Earth and saw all of the evil that was going on. He decided to send an angel down to Earth to check it out. So he called one of His best angels and sent the angel to Earth for a time. When she returned she told God, yes it is bad on Earth, 95% is bad and 5% is good.
Well, he thought for a moment and said, maybe I had better send down a second angel to get another point of view. So God called another angel and sent her to Earth for a time too. When the angel returned she went to God and told him yes, the Earth was in decline, 95% was bad and 5% was good.
God said this was not good. So He decided to E-mail the 5% that were good and He wanted to encourage them, give them a little something to help them keep going. And do you know what that E-mail said???? You didn’t get one either,…..huh?
Well, it’s likely that the majority of Paul’s readers at that time would have not gotten the email from God either if the concept of emails even existed at that time. Paul had used the first twenty verses of Romans 3 to deliver the bad news. Now, maybe it’s time for some good news. One of the best phrases in the Bible is ”but God”. That phrase is used when the story takes a different direction than what’s anticipated or when help comes or when there’s a transformation. It also means it’s not the end of the story.
Genesis 8:1 But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided;
Genesis 20:1-3 While residing in Gerar as an alien, 2 Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” And King Abimelech of Gerar sent and took Sarah. 3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, “You are about to die because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a married woman.”
Genesis 50:20 But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.
That’s three examples in the book of Genesis alone. There are so many more.
As Christians, we have our own “but God” moments. Sadly, we don’t always recognize them as such, but nevertheless, they exist. “They said his chances of survival were slim, but God….” “I never thought I’d be able to own my own home, but God…” “I never imagined I would have the opportunity to say I’m sorry, but God…” “I didn’t understand why it was taking so long, but God…” “I was feeling depressed and sorry for myself, but God…” “There didn’t seem to be any way I could escape, but God…”
There’s an unmistakable sense of relief and peace when we experience those “but God” moments in our life. When life gets overwhelming and we’ve had just about all we can take that’s when those two words change our perspective. But God. Psalm 73:26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
The readers of Paul’s letter are about to have their own “but God” moment. After twenty verses of discouraging and depressing declarations, Paul applies the healing salve to their wounds.
Romans 3:21 But God has a way to make people right, and it has nothing to do with the law. He has now shown us that new way, which the law and the prophets told us about. There were roughly 400 prophecies in the Old Testament scriptures that referred to Jesus. Even the Jews who had not been formally educated would have heard about the coming Messiah. The important thing not to overlook here is this fact: The idea of a new covenant or a new plan of redemption really wasn’t something new, at least it wasn’t a new concept for God. It’s not as if during those 400 years of silence from God between the Old Testament and the New Testament, God is figuring out that the old way just wasn’t working and He needed that time to come up with a new strategy. His plan all along included Jesus doing what Jesus did. Old Testament Scripture reinforces that from His birth (“But the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be pregnant. She will have a son, and she will name him Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:14) all the way to His death (“But he was wounded for the wrong things we did. He was rushed for the evil things we did. The punishment, which made us well, was given to him. And we are healed because of his wounds.” Isaiah 53:5) The arrival of Jesus, His teachings, His sacrificial death and His resurrection completed and fulfilled the law that had been given to the generations of Jews way back. But this is a bit confusing to them. Because the old law was complicated. Here’s just one example. This is found in Leviticus 2: 11 “You must not give any grain offering to the Lord that has yeast in it. You must not burn yeast or honey as a gift to the Lord. 12 You may bring yeast and honey to the Lord as an offering from the first harvest, but they must not be put on the altar to be burned as a sweet smell. 13 Also, you must put salt on every grain offering you bring. You must not forget to add salt, because it represents God’s agreement with you. Always put salt on these offerings.”
There were so many details, important details that were critical for an offering to be pleasing to God. The details were so specific. (If only IKEA would write their assembly instructions like this! Am I right?!) How many of us would be standing at the altar going, “Doggone it! I forgot the salt again!”?
For these Jews, these rituals, these step by step instructions would have been taught and passed down through the generations. They did it a certain way because they had always done it a certain way. Reminds me of the story of the young woman who had friends over for dinner and served a pot roast. One of the friends asked for the recipe and then questioned one of the steps that involved cutting off both ends of the pot roast. When she asked the young woman why that was important, she said she didn’t know. She just did what her mother had always done. When the mother was questioned, she too had no idea why but again, she was mimicking her own mother’s routine. When the grandmother was asked why it was necessary to cut off both ends of the pot roast, the grandmother had to think for a bit. And then it clicked. She told her granddaughter that the roasts had always been too big to fit in the pan she had at the time; therefore, she would cut off a little on both ends to make it fit.
I imagine it would be difficult to not cut off the ends of the pot roast even after hearing that because we tend to stick to what we know.
The Jews were no different. From the beginning of time since the fall of man, they were taught that in order to be acceptable to God they had to abide by numerous laws and rituals. Righteousness was attempted by the behavior of the people. The problem was that no one could do this perfectly. Try as they may, it simply couldn’t be done. But God. But God doesn’t want to leave us filthy and abandoned. You see, He had Someone Who was perfect. Someone Who was willing to stand in our place and make us right and acceptable to God.
“God makes people right with himself through their faith in Jesus Christ. This is true for all who believe in Christ, because all are the same.” Romans 3:22
Once Jesus came, righteousness could be obtained by anyone through believing and having faith in Christ Jesus. We use that term a lot, don’t we? Having faith in Jesus. What does having faith look like to you? What does it mean? When I was a child, we would often travel at night because the roads were less crowded. If we were going on vacation, we may leave at two or three in the morning so that we would avoid the morning traffic. I would get in the car and find a comfortable spot in the backseat and go right to sleep because I had complete faith in my daddy’s driving and his ability to get us there safely. I didn’t worry. I didn’t stay awake to stay alert simply because I had that faith in the one who was driving.
Our faith is only as good as the object in which our faith is invested. We place our faith every day in ordinary things and people without even thinking about them. The cars we drive, the chairs we sit in, the microwave we use to heat our food, the light switches in our homes and offices, our spouse, our parents, our siblings, friends. Things and people that may and usually do fail us at some point. But God. 1 Corinthians 1:9 “God never fails anyone.” Despite the reassurances we’ve been given, despite our history with Him, we will often fail to have that faith in Him. Hebrews 11:1 defines faith for us. “Faith means being sure of the things we hope for. And faith means knowing that something is real even if we do not see it.” I’m going to make a statement and I’m not trying to start an argument or a heated discussion. But I wonder if sometimes the belief in Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny contribute to our lack of faith. Please don’t misunderstand me. I grew up believing in all of them and I certainly applied those childlike fantasies to my own children so I’m certainly not suggesting that it’s wrong to do so. But if your parents were like mine, we were taken to see Santa at the department store so we actually saw him. We would listen to the Santa Tracker on the radio and would go to bed early. The cookies were eaten and the carrots were nibbled to leave traces of evidence that Santa and the reindeer had been in our home. If we had been good children, Santa left us gifts. And not just any gifts, but the things we actually hoped for out of the Sears & Roebuck Christmas Wish catalog. We always got a letter from Santa that specified things we had done well and things we needed to work on. It was all done so that we would wholly and completely believe in Santa. I used to assume that Santa and God kind of worked together; like they got together and compared behavior charts. I understood that God was greater, but I sort of thought that God and Santa, Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny were all in some kind of club or something. So imagine how rattled I was to find out that three of the four things I believed in were make-believe. I admit that as a child, I had a lot of questions that chipped away at my faith. In order for Santa and the Easter Bunny to come and leave me gifts, I had to be good. It was all dependent on my behavior. I had to actually lose a body part for the Tooth Fairy to pay me a visit! But God. But God wanted to love me just as I am. He simply wanted me to believe in Him, love Him and follow Him. Somehow, that seemed too good to be true.
Romans 3: 23 “All have sinned and are not good enough to share God’s divine greatness. 24 They are made right with God by his grace. This is a free gift. They are made right with God by being made free from sin through Jesus Christ. 25-26 God gave Jesus as a way to forgive people’s sins through their faith in him. God can forgive them because the blood sacrifice of Jesus pays for their sins. God gave Jesus to show that he always does what is right and fair. He was right in the past when he was patient and did not punish people for their sins. And in our own time he still does what is right. God worked all this out in a way that allows him to judge people fairly and still make right any person who has faith in Jesus.”
The key points from these scriptures are things we all know. In fact, all of this is stuff we already know. This is basic Christianity. We all sin. In order to rectify our sinfulness, God gave Jesus as a sacrifice to cover our sins. For those who have faith in Jesus, He judges us fairly and declares us righteous. But let me ask you this. Are we indeed righteous? I’ve got to be honest in that I have a hard time answering that definitively. Here’s how I see it.
If you get a speeding ticket, you’re given a choice. You can either admit your guilt and pay the fine and you don’t go to court. It’s like you are saying, “I did it. I was wrong. I’m accepting the punishment.” You can also go to court to plead your case and give reasons or excuses as to why you shouldn’t be punished. “I wasn’t the only one speeding.” “I didn’t see the speed limit sign.” “I was only going 17 miles over the speed limit.” What a lot of people don’t realize is that if, by some chance, the officer who issued the ticket doesn’t show up in court without prior approval from the judge, the judge may just dismiss the ticket all together. I’ve seen it happen countless times and there is such relief when the judge throws out the accusation. Was the person guilty of speeding? Oh yeah. Was the person worthy to be punished? Most definitely. But because their accuser isn’t there and doesn’t speak against them, the person is deemed “justified”, meaning they are made righteous or innocent of all of the charges.
“Justification is something God does, not man. No sinner can justify himself before God.”[i]Warren W. Wiersbe
Justification is often explained as “just as if I’d never sinned”. But are we really guilty? Oh yeah. Are we worthy to be punished? Most definitely. But by the precious blood of Jesus Christ, we are justified and declared righteous and innocent of all of the charges.
Romans 3:27 “So do we have any reason to boast about ourselves? No reason at all. And why not? Because we are depending on the way of faith, not on what we have done in following the law. 28 I mean we are made right with God through faith, not through what we have done to follow the law. This is what we believe. 29 God is not only the God of the Jews. He is also the God of those who are not Jews. 30 There is only one God. He will make Jews[b] right with him by their faith, and he will also make non-Jews[c] right with him through their faith. 31 So do we destroy the law by following the way of faith? Not at all! In fact, faith causes us to be what the law actually wants.”
Truly understanding God’s righteousness leads us to worship. Worship leads us to doing what is right in the sight of God. Doing what is right in the sight of God means obeying His Word. Obeying His Word makes us more like Jesus. Being more like Jesus is what we were designed to be.
The words faith, righteousness and justification are thrown about in Christian conversations. We’ve heard them so much, but we don’t make the connection.
Recognizing that we are justified by our faith in God keeps us from thinking that we can earn our way into heaven because it is only through Christ that we are made righteous. Faith leads to justification which results in righteousness. Without Him, we’re lost. Without Him, there’s nothing we can do to get into heaven. “Look at the proud! They trust in themselves, and their lives are crooked. But the righteous will live by their faithfulness to God.” Habakkuk 2:4
“The swimmer, when he is saved from drowning, does not brag because he trusted the lifeguard. What else could he do? When a believing sinner is justified by faith, he cannot boast of his faith, but he can boast in a wonderful Savior.”[ii]
[i] Be Right by Warren W. Wiersbe
[ii] Be Right by Warren W. Wiersbe
~We don’t have to agree with God in order to have faith in Him.
~Our sins are very much like rubbing salt in His wounds.
Podcast available at: https://anchor.fm/diane-simcox/episodes/Santa–Easter-Bunny–Tooth-Fairy-But-God-e17vl5e