Truro Church Sermon— Sunday March 13

“Justice!”  the man shouted.  I demand justice.  It’s a frequent cry these days in a world of all sorts of injustice, and the temptation is to take the law into our own hands.   But the Bible tells us that will come to no good end.  Indeed the Bible says that God declares “vengeance is mine. I will repay.”  In other words the justice issues should be left by Christians in God’s hands.  But when we think of justice from a Biblical point of view,  we need to always think about it in light of these words from Romans—– “we have all sinned and fallen  short of the glory of God” . Every last one of us.   Justice, you see is when we get what we deserve,  and frankly if we have all sinned, we all deserve some measure of judgment.  Mercy on the other hand is when we don’t get what we deserve, and say “whew, thank you Jesus”.   But there is something even greater than mercy, and it is grace.  Grace is when you get some good thing, that you could never deserve, never earn,  never merit, never achieve.   Salvation is one of those things— it comes to us by the sheer grace of God.   So how do we talk about justice and righteousness not merely in light of the Gospel,  but as part of the Good News?    Paul begins to explain this to us in our text for this morning—- Romans 1.16-17.

The Greek word at the heart of this passage dikaiosune. The word itself can mean justice, it can mean righteousness.  It is also the word that later Christians rendered ‘justification’ which in terms of salvation language can refer to something God has done for us, but could it also refer to something God has done in us or to us?    These are the kinds of issues Martin Luther debated with his fellow Catholics at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, at the beginnings of Protestantism itself.   My own Anglican forebear,  John Wesley says that more than any other sermon he preached in England in the 18th century was the sermon  entitled ‘Justification by Faith’.  Obviously, this is something very important to the whole Protestant movement from the beginning until now.    And equally clearly, the epicenter of the debate about all this is Romans.

Our task for this morning is to look in detail at Paul’s thesis statement for his whole Romans discourse—- Romans 1.16-17.  And almost immediately we become involved in what the British call ‘a controversy’.   Our text for today in fact quotes another Biblical text— Habakkuk  2.4 which can be translated either ‘the righteous shall live by their faith’ or ‘the righteous shall live by their faithfulness’. In its original context, the discussion is not about salvation, but rather about how those who are already righteous should live their lives— by faith or faithfulness.  But Paul in fact, is using these words not just to talk about that, but also to talk about what happens when we are saved in the first place.

Let us hear the full context of this text by way of an amplified or clarified translation—- “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel (the good news), for it is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes, the Jew first, and also the Greek, because the righteousness of God has been revealed from the Faithful One (Jesus) unto (those who have) faith, just as it is written ‘the righteous from faith shall live’. “

Let us begin by saying what Paul is definitely not talking about here.  If ever a man went about to establish his own righteousness, it was our spiritual forebear John Wesley!’  There he was, a very brilliant man, doing well in his career in Oxford, and a fellow of his college. But even while he was there he was not satisfied. With his brother and others he formed the Holy Club. ‘Going about to establish their own righteousness’.

They gave alms to the prisoners in the prison. They spoke to them and preached to them. But even that was not enough. Wesley had to make himself righteous with God, so he gave up his fellowship, his brilliant prospects and opportunities, crossed the Atlantic – it was something to cross the Atlantic two hundred years ago! – and preached to natives in Georgia in America.

And what he was trying to do was to put himself right with God.  He believed that he had to make himself righteous. So he went back and forth to America trying to do it. What a perfect picture that is of this ‘going about’.  He thought he would ‘make God an offer he couldn’t refuse’.

The same thing had happened to Luther two hundred years earlier. He was there in his cell, fasting, sweating, praying, ‘going about to establish his own righteousness’. It is astounding to contemplate what people are prepared to do in order to work up this ‘righteousness’.  There have been notable examples of self-sacrifice. Men and women have given up great prospects and they are praised, they gain great adulation, and people say, ‘What fine Christians!’ But the whole time they are simply going about to establish their own righteousness.   But alas the problem is   that when it comes to deeds of righteousness, God doesn’t grade on a curve.   Though one person by their own efforts may be much more righteous than another, still all have fallen short of God’s absolute standard.  A fallen person can neither work nor worm their way into God’s good graces.   No it takes divine intervention, a work of God  to save a human being.  Indeed it takes the righteousness of God to do it.  (the above in bold is a modified quote from Martin Lloyd Jones).

In what way is God’s righteousness Good News to a fallen and sinful world?  What is this righteousness that Jesus has revealed in who he was, and what he did, especially on the cross?   Notice the parallel construction— righteousness of God is paralleled by the phrase the power of God.  Paul is talking about some kind of saving righteousness of God.    Some kind of action of God that not only does not  besmirch God’s righteous character, but actually reveals it.    And the result of this revelation if it is received and believed is salvation— nothing less than the radical rescue of fallen humanity out of the muck and mire of this sinful and sin-filled world.    And that my friends  is Good News indeed.  But of course to receive this gift, you have to have faith.  You have to believe in it in the first place.

The closer you study this whole thesis statement for Romans the more you discover it is about a whole series of things— God’s righteous character,  God’s setting right of fallen human beings  (sometimes called Justification),   God transformation of human beings so they live an upright or righteous life.    This righteousness of God, when it intervenes in a human life not merely puts a person back in a right and positive relationship with God, which can be called initial salvation,  it also begins the process of transforming us into holy or righteous persons which can be called the new birth or the beginning of sanctification.   And all of this comes through the Good News about Jesus.  It’s one stop shopping in Jesus— a new position in relationship to God, and a new condition given us by God such that we become new creatures in Christ.

Paul here clearly preaches an inclusive Gospel, in the sense that it is for any and all kinds of persons whether young or old, black or white, Jew or Gentile— whoever they may be.  As Mr. Wesley put it— ‘all persons need to be saved, all persons can be saved,  and indeed all persons can be completely saved— saved to the uttermost’.    God’s heart of love for the lost, extends to all the lost, not just an elect or select few.      Paul will go on in Romans 3 to emphasize that at the right or propitious moment,  Christ died for the ungodly,  indeed he even died for his enemies.   Salvation, if ‘all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory’ as Paul insists, is not a human self-help program not even a 12 step program of self-improvement.   It is a gift from God that one simply has to receive.

Perhaps here is a good juncture to talk about both the objective and subjective means of human salvation that Paul will go on to identify in this discourse.  The former is the death of Jesus on the cross that made possible reconciliation between God and his estranged human creation.  Without the death of Jesus on the cross, none of us could be saved, regardless of how much faith we may have in a general way in God.    The subjective means of our salvation is God’s grace working in us, which we receive through faith.    It is not right, properly speaking, to talk as if our faith, by itself saved us.   Faith is just the vehicle or vessel through which God’s saving grace works.    And often it works in miraculous ways.

Fred Craddock tells a story of when he taught at Emory in Atlanta.  He was a professor of NT and of preaching at the time, and one morning a young lady, a college student, walked into his office badly shaken up.    She proceeded to tell Fred she had had a life altering experience the previous night.  Despondent and depressed she had gone outside of Atlanta to a railroad tressel and was going to jump off into a shallow river, but right when she got up on the edge of the bridge she said she clearly heard the following words in her mind— “My life is not my own. I have been bought with a price”.    This pretty much freaked her out, and so she got back down from the abutment and came back to campus— all shaken up.    Dr. Craddock proceeded to ask her some questions— Are you a Christian?   No.   Have you ever gone to Church?   Again no.    Have you ever read the Bible?  Again, no.  Are you sure you have never read the Bible?  Yes she was sure, but then she remembered something.  “When I was a little girl, my grandmother took me to Vacation Bible School.”  ‘And what did you do when you were there?’  “We used little silver scissors and cut out strips of paper, and wrote words on them.” Dr. Craddock smilled and said “Those words were Bible verses.   And God stored up his Word in your heart, so that one day, it would save you.”    She was saved by a mere Gospel word, a word she believed, and backed away from the abyss.

What actually happens when a person believes the Good News?    As Paul says it is not merely words “full of sound and fury but signifying nothing”.  No God’s words do things.  Paul calls them the power of God, the power not merely to inform us that God has set us back in right relationship with him, but that he has begun to transform us into his Son’s image— the image of the Righteous and Faithful one.  It is something we only have to believe and receive, to start the ‘long obedience in the same direction’   to start the process of our reclamation, restoration, reformation, transformation.  And here is the beauty of it.

God doesn’t wait until we exhibit better character, or become more worthy of his love.  God forgives us from the outset of our Christian life.  He gives us right standing not on a probationary basis, but unconditionally from the outset of our Christian life, and then he sets to work within us through new birth and sanctification to renovate us from inside out by his holy love.  And frankly that whole process is ongoing until we die.  We are all Christians under construction.

I am from Charlotte North Carolina, and spent  a fair bit of my youth living not far from where Billy Graham grew up.    Recently, I was in Charlotte and went to the new Billy Graham museum.   On the grounds there, there is a monument to Billy’s wife, who has now passed away.   She is buried there.   The monument says  “Thanks for your patience. Construction completed”.    You see salvation is not just a gift you get at the beginning of your Christian life, it’s the gift which keeps on giving so that we can say “I have been saved, I am being saved, and I shall be saved”.  And until we get through all three stages of salvation, we are still Christians under construction.    So called justification by grace through faith is only the beginning of the salvation process.  It’s not an end in itself because what God wants from us is not merely that we be in right standing with Him.  He wants us to reflect his righteous character and behavior,  indeed he wants us to  reflect  his zeal for saving the world and there is no more righteous deed than that.

You can start this salvation journey right here and right now.   But you also need to go right on, working out your salvation with fear and trembling as God works in you to will and to do.   Because you see what God wants most is for us to become what we admire—- Christ himself,  in the sense that he wants us to fully model and reflect the character of Christ the righteous and faithful one.

This may sound like a very tall order to you, and of course it is.   Indeed, it is impossible for human beings apart from the grace of God to achieve such a thing.  Indeed, it is never an achievement it’s more like unwrapping a gift, and using it for what it was intended to be used.   John Wesley on occasion was fond of quoting St. Augustine.   And there was a famous saying of St. Augustine which applied in this case—- “Lord, give what you command of us, and command whatever you will”.     Righteousness is a gift from God, a gift that keeps on giving— not only setting us back in right relationship with God, but renovating us from the inside out through the work of the Holy Spirit.    Until we get there however, until the journey is completed,    just as with old father Abraham  our faith is reckoned as if we were already completely righteous.   God has made a deposit in us, he keeps investing in us, he keeps guiding, girding, goading us in the right direction, in the righteous direction.    And until we get to that full conformity to the image of Christ, our faith is reckoned as our righteousness, because Jesus has already paid the price for our sins.   Jesus has already given us forgiveness for sins past, present and future, Jesus has already reconciled us to God the Father!

No wonder then Paul can say— “I am not ashamed of this Gospel about the righteousness of God”.  It’s not about God condemning the world, and it’s not about God condoning a sinful world.   It’s about the righteousness of God paradoxically enough, saving the world—not by pointing the finger of judgment at us and saying ‘guilty as charged’   but rather by holding out his hand and saying— take my hand,  let us walk together down the right paths—- for as the Psalmist long ago said— “he leadeth me in paths of righteousness, for his own righteous name’s sake.”   So how should we respond to all this— we should believe it, we should receive it— right here, right now, and embrace it from now on.  Right On!

AMEN

  • James Isaac

    AMEN, Dr. Witherington! AMEN!

  • Scott

    God doesn’t wait until we exhibit better character, or become more worthy of his love. God forgives us from the outset of our Christian life. He gives us right standing not on a probationary basis, but unconditionally from the outset of our Christian life, and then he sets to work within us through new birth and sanctification to renovate us from inside out by his holy love.

    Ben I have so many questions about this statement, but I have to go to work Please check back later. I would love to believe it but have a hard time reconciling it with conditional security teaching.

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Scott:

    My response is that it is not God who loves and forgives conditionally, but it may be we who respond conditionally. We may well commit apostasy, but that is none of God’s doing and certainly not his intention when he unconditionally forgives us in the first place. In short the possible limit comes on our side of the equation.

    BW3

  • Scott

    That is the exactly the problem I have. My security is then based on me and not Jesus, and then in fact becomes probation. It seems like John Wesley referred to salvation as probation as well I’ll see if I can find the quote.

  • Scott

    John Wesley’s commentary on selected election passages.

    Moreover, it is. Cruel respect of persons; an unjust regard of one, and an unjustdisregard of another. It is mere creature partiality, and not infinite justice. It is not plain scripture doctrine, if true; but rather, inconsistentwith the express written word, that speaks of God’s universal offers of grace; his invitations, promises, threatenings, being all general. We are bid to choose life, and reprehended for not doing it.
    It is inconsistent with a state of probation in those that must besaved or must be lost.

    In this quote I believe he is saying that the Calvinist doctrine of election is inconsistent with the state of probation. I don’t want to take him out of context though please help.

  • Ben Witherington

    Scott I think your’s is a pretty fair reading of Wesley. The NT says nothing about ‘eternal security’. What it talks about is assurance. That is a different matter. The fact that God will in no wise cast us out, doesn’t rule out apostasy. When Romans 8 tells us there is no force outside of ourselves that can separate us from the love of God in Christ, that is a great assurance indeed.

    To say ‘my security is not based on Jesus, but on myself’ would be a caricature, like arguing that just because I have a subordinate role to play in my own salvation, therefore my own salvation mainly depends on me. This is simply false, especially when God’s grip on your life is far greater than whatever hold we may have on God. The point is that apostasy is possible, which in no way eliminates God’s assurances of our salvation so long as we don’t willfully, knowingly, throw away the gift of salvation. It remains a gift and it is a gift that keeps on working on and in us. While salvation is by grace, God has not chosen to save us without our own free response of faith, which embraces what God gives. Our faith alone could never save us, and does not deserve credit for our salvation. That is rather like Shakespeare’s quill pen bragging “I wrote all of Shakespeare’s play.” Faith is just the instrument or medium through which salvation comes, not the means of salvation.

    BW3

  • Scott

    Thanks Ben for the gracious responses. I am truly trying to understand. I read a blog post, by Chris Bounds, explaining John Wesley’s view of assurance.
    Finally, Wesley believed that the witness of the Spirit or assurance of salvation is a testimony of present salvation and not final salvation. Christians can know they are presently saved, but because final salvation is contingent upon continued faith and cooperation with divine grace, there can not be any confidence about final salvation. Wesley believed that people can experience progress in the way of salvation by cooperating with divine grace; likewise, people can regress in the way of salvation through refusing to cooperate with divine grace. Therefore, while people can know that they are presently Christians, if they do not continue to cooperate with divine grace, they may find themselves in a place where they no longer have faith and are no longer Christians. Generally this does not happen in a moment, but in an on-going, day by day refusal to cooperate with the grace God makes available. So people can know that presently they are in a right relationship with God, but may not be five years from now.

    I need confidence in final salvation to have assurance of present salvation. I am not really comfortable with once saved always saved, nor am I comfortable with the once saved barely saved position of Dan Corner and Jeff Paton. I am trying to find a position that does not do violence to the Word of God and that does not undermine my hope in the process. Even you have said something like salvation is tense (sorry the exact quote escapes me) Thanks again. In the future could you do a post on assurance?


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