This article began as a supplement to the Sunday School lesson from March 22, 2020 - the first Sunday we cancelled in-person events at our church building due to the coronavirus.
Let's Warm Up Our Brain
What's the easiest test you've ever taken? Have you ever dreamed of getting final exam questions like these in your hardest class?
My favorite quiz is something I first read about in Reader's Digest (yes, I read Reader's Digest when I was growing up; do you have a problem with that?). I've never had it given to me. If you're home with your family, I absolutely recommend messing with their heads by giving this quiz:
Isn't that diabolical? I love it, and I think it's a great way to start thinking about this week's Bible passage. What do you think most people's approach is to that quiz (and there are many like it; Google "can you follow directions trick quiz")? Of course, it's not to follow the directions but to try to do every task as you get to it. But then we get to the end and realize that we weren't supposed to do anything at all--just read the test and turn it in.
Kind of like salvation.
Human instinct is to believe that we have to "do" something in order to "pass" our end-of-life test. We look back at everything we've done and we hope that the good outweighed the bad. But that's not how we're supposed to approach our life because our good (no matter how good we think it is) will never outweigh our bad.
Obviously, when you talk about this introduction with your class members, they might all be in on the gag so you won't be able to fool them. (You might give it a try anyway--see who isn't checking the website.) But ask each other what your gut instinct was when they first saw that quiz. What does that help them learn about themselves?
Part 1: Through Faith - Romans 3:21-24
But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed, attested by the Law and the Prophets. The righteousness of God is through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe, since there is no distinction. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
In last week's passage (Romans 2:17-29), Paul shredded the Jews (and by extension Christians today) for being hypocrites. For acting high and mighty and the source of truth and wisdom, and yet violating the very rules they preached and thus making a mockery of God in the yes of the world. He goes on clarify that people, not just Jews, because of their unrighteousness are under the wrath of God and deserving of judgment. And here's his key phrase:
"No one is declared righteous before God by the works of the law." (3:20)
No one reading this letter from Paul can say that they have perfectly kept the entire law from day one of their life. Consequently, they cannot justify themselves before God. God, being perfect, has a standard that is perfection.
And thus we read one of the most famous "memorized for a gospel presentation" verses in the Bible - all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. You probably know that the word for "sin" means "to miss the mark" as per an archer. The "mark" is God's perfect righteousness, and none of us can achieve that. Think of God's righteousness as perfect justice - always making the proper decision or action based on God's standards. Think about, say, a coach or a teacher you couldn't immediately meet the standards of. You even worked hard, but you still couldn't do it. We will never pull ourselves up to God's standards, no matter how hard we try.
But then we find the marvelous truth that is the good news of Jesus: yes, we all fall short of God's perfect standard, but Jesus has not. And Jesus has chosen to give us His verdict that He earned for living life perfectly. This was a plan that God the Father and Jesus the Son had worked out in eternity past, that Jesus would choose to "exchange places" with us sinners, allowing us to become right with God (the new meaning of righteous). Jesus could do that without violating God's righteousness (perfect justice) because He freely took over the penalty we had earned from our sin. And He could do that because, as God in the flesh, He had an infinite capacity both for righteousness and for suffering.
Part 2: In Jesus - Romans 3:25-26
God presented him as an atoning sacrifice in his blood, received through faith, to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. God presented him to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so that he would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus.
In some of the most powerful words in the Bible, Paul clearly explains exactly what "happens" in salvation. All people have sinned and thus earned for themselves death as the punishment of a righteous Judge. Jesus, however, fully satisfied the demands of the Court by His life, and He chose freely to stand in our place and serve our sentence. In love and mercy, God the Judge accepted that offer. Thus, Jesus "switched places" with us--we were declared righteous, and Jesus was declared guilty. Jesus then fully served our sentence, suffering the wrath of God and the death that followed. (But we know what happened--Jesus didn't stay dead! How did that work? Well, being an infinite God, the moment Jesus died He paid an infinite price. Death tried to hold Him, but had no claim to. The perfect, infinite Man who paid the perfect, infinite price could not be kept in the grave. Jesus rightly and fairly conquered death, and thus we have the proof that the price He paid was satisfactory to God's perfect justice.)
These verses also answer the very important question, "What about the people who lived before Jesus?" (and by extension "the people who haven't heard of Jesus?"). God took out on Jesus the punishment that had been reserved for every sin every committed in history. Jesus paid the price for every sin (by the way, that means you don't have to wonder if God can forgive your sin; Jesus' righteousness is far greater than whatever bad thing you think you've done). But how could they "have faith in Jesus" is they didn't know who Jesus was? This goes back to what Paul said earlier: no one has an excuse. Every person has an innate sense of God and their own sin. Every person, deep down inside, knows there is more to life than "meets the eye", They also know they have messed up more than a few times in life. And if there is a god, they are going to have to pay the price for their failures. But more, they know they can't pay that price. And so they simply ask for God's mercy, believing that God can find a way to fix their problem.
That's essentially what it means to have faith in Jesus. You don't have to know His name to know that salvation can be found in Him. But all of the truths of the Bible - that salvation is found in no one else, that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone - those still apply. That's why we are to take the gospel to all peoples around the world, so that they can know the truth and not have to wonder "how did God fix my sin problem?"
Part 3: For All People - Romans 3:27-31
Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By one of works? No, on the contrary, by a law of faith. For we conclude that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then nullify the law through faith? Absolutely not! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
Paul teaches a very important truth here, but he comes at it from an unexpected angle. There is only one kind of salvation - through faith - and all people are saved the same way. This is how we are unified with all people everywhere. This is how every church is supposed to be unified. This is how Christians are supposed to have compassion for non-Christians. We are all the same. The only reason we are right with God is by God's grace and Jesus' sacrifice. We need to let everyone know that. But Paul comes at it by dissecting a problematic attitude he has found among some Jews and Christians: boasting. There are Jews and Christians who get hung up on their righteous behavior. And that's not good. We should all have a healthy dose of humility, constantly appreciated the great price that was paid on our behalf precisely because we are not righteous on our own.
This leads to a discussion that some find confusing. You see, Jews needed to know the purpose of the law. If the law wasn't there to justify us before God, then why have it? Essentially, the law pointed to faith. There was no perfectly keeping the law, and so the Jew should have responded to that by having faith in God's mercy and grace, just as the uncircumcised Gentile does now, having heard Paul's gospel. But here was the great concern: did this mean that God nullified His own law by this message of grace? No. Why? Because the law was never about self-justification but our need for grace. And then Paul goes on in the next few verses to explain that this conclusion should have been obvious to the Jews based on what the Old Testament clearly says about Abraham.
So there you go. Here are some things to think about getting ready for our Zoom Teleconference Sunday morning (or if you want to have this discussions with your family around the table, or friends by phone or chat):
When we've done something wrong, what is our instinct how to make up for it?
Why is salvation by faith alone through grace alone so hard to explain to others?
What is my attitude toward my own salvation?
Who in my life needs to hear about salvation? Maybe they're in more of a listening mood now?
I've said this before and I'll keep saying it - please be in touch with one another by phone, message, email, or letter. We need to make sure we have what we need, and we overcome feelings of loneliness by being connected.
My prayer for us all: "God, thank You for our salvation in Jesus, We do not deserve it. We could never have earned it. But the sacrifice that Jesus made for us proves just how much You love us and desire to have a relationship with us. We claim that love now. Calm our fears and still our hearts. We need You more than ever, and we ask the same on behalf of our friends and family. If there is someone in our life who does not know Jesus, give us the opportunity to share that good news and the wisdom to know how to approach them. We thank you for the hope that we have. In Jesus' name - amen."