Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why Did Christ Die?

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 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.
Romans 3:23-26

Late in the winter of 1992, Jeffrey Dahmer was found guilty of murdering 15 men and boys and was sentenced to 957 years in prison. The shocking nature of his crimes made Dahmer one of the most infamous serial killers of all time. It isn't appropriate to go into detail here, but it is sufficient to say that his crimes were unspeakably gruesome. As Dahmer served his time at Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage, Wisconsin, his father sent him Christian materials. In 1994 Jeffrey Dahmer accepted Christ as his personal Savior. He was baptized and met weekly with Reverend Roy Ratcliff until he was murdered by a fellow inmate later in that year.*

If a judge had chosen to proclaim Dahmer innocent because he had repented of his crimes, we would consider it a grave injustice. Yet, the Bible teaches that this is what God has done not only for Jeffrey but also for us. If he was sincere in his faith (and we have no reason to believe he wasn't), then God declared him innocent of sin and he was saved. But this creates a tension. If it would be unjust for a judge to do this, and God does it, then is God just?   

The surprising answer is yes, because in Christ God does not merely forgive sin willy nilly. Paul tells us that in Christ God provides mankind with a "sacrifice of atonement." This word in the original Greek, which can also be translated ‘propitiation,’ means an offering meant to appease the anger of God. But that sounds way more like Greek mythology than it does the God of the New Testament. Is Paul really saying that God was angry and required some sort of human sacrifice to satisfy His anger?

As odd as it sounds, again the answer is yes. Now before you start throwing stones at me, check it out. God is angry. In Romans 1:18-2:11 Paul lays out a thorough explanation of God’s wrath against mankind. He tells us that although God has made His existence and His glory plain to us, we have refused to give Him glory or thanks. God created us to worship Him and to reflect His glory but instead we have exchanged Him for earthly things. We worship the created order rather than the Creator! Even today, we choose to place our own interest above His. The indictment is clear. God is angry because of man’s sinfulness.

So, God is angry, but not like the gods of mythology. Our God has a holy and a righteous anger. It is just for God to be angry at mankind. Our sin has corrupted the whole of His creation and is an affront to His glory and to His name. The penalty for sin is laid out clearly in the Bible: “for in the day that you eat from [the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Yet, this penalty for sin was not fully carried out. Adam and Eve didn't die immediately. You and I have sinned and yet we still live. So, the penalty for sin has not been fully enforced. This is what Paul means when he says, “He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished” (Romans 3:25, above).

So, God left these sins unpunished, or at least not punished fully. Herein lies the dilemma. God cannot both allow these sins to go unpunished and be a just God. In the same way that a judge could not ignore Jeffrey Dahmer's sin, so God cannot ignore the sin of all mankind and still be just. But God hasn't ignored our sin. He sent Christ to pay the debt of our sin for us. That is what it means that “God put [Christ] forward as a propitiation.” The penalty for our sin had to be measured out. Someone had to drink the cup of God’s wrath. Someone had to be punished. In His infinite mercy God chose to take that wrath and punishment upon Himself. Christ's righteousness (or innocence) was credited to us and our sinfulness (or guilt) was credited to Him when He took the punishment for our sin upon Himself. That is why we can be forgiven, and that is why we praise God without ceasing!

For further reading this week…

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Righteousness from God!

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
Romans 3:21-24

When I was a child I periodically received what I call ‘tickle spankings.’ These occurred at times when I had done something wrong. I deserved to be spanked, and I had waited all day for my father to get home so he could spank me. Dad would call me into my parents' bedroom and with a stern face he would tell me to turn around and lift up my arms. And just as I was anticipating the first swat, he would reach out and tickle my armpits. He would tickle me until I turned blue. Afterward he would talk to me about what I had done wrong and would make sure that I wouldn't do it again. There were plenty of times that I received actual spankings, which I deserved, but those times when I received a tickle spanking instead were special to me. They were lessons on grace and mercy for me as a young boy. I deserved my father's hand in punishment, but instead he reached out and blessed me, drawing me closer into relationship with him in the process.

I think that this is similar to what Paul is saying God has done for us. In the chapters leading up to this passage, Paul has argued that we are neither righteous nor capable of earning righteousness by keeping the law. We are all sinful and deserve God's hand in punishment, but now Paul breaks in with good news. At the cross we find a new source of righteousness for the people of God- a righteousness that is not earned by observing the law but one that "comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe."

Theologians sometimes call this "imputation" which sounds fancy but is really rather easy to understand. John Piper explains it this way: “When a teacher cancels from the record an exam that got an F, it’s not the same as declaring it an A. If the bank were to forgive me the debts on my account, that would not be the same as declaring me rich…Christ fulfilled all righteousness perfectly; and then that righteousness was reckoned to be mine, when I trusted in him. I was counted righteous. God looked on Christ’s perfect righteousness, and he declared me to be righteous with the righteousness of Christ.”*

What does this mean for you and me? You and I have sinned against God, and we ought to have been utterly destroyed. Instead, God not only forgave us our sins and withheld His wrath but He also gave us righteousness so that we might enter into His presence and know Him. This ought to affect us very deeply. Many of us ran with the devil for years before coming to Christ. Some ran with the devil for years after coming to faith. Listen to the word of God! God has not simply forgiven you; He has made you completely righteous. He does not simply forgive and forget, He has changed you into a new creation- one that will never be defiled and that is no longer enslaved to the sin that so ensnared us all. You stand before God holy and blameless, clothed in the righteousness of Christ!

Therefore, I urge you if you are still living after the manner of this world to put away sin and seek God. You have been blessed to enter into relationship with Him. Don't take it for granted. And for those of you who deal with the shame and guilt of your past…know that you have been made new. You are completely forgiven. You have no need to hold onto your shame or your guilt any longer. If you have accepted Christ as your Savior and repented of your sins, then you have been washed in His blood and are as pure as Jesus.

For further reading this week…

* Many of the concepts in this post came from The Passion of Jesus Christ by John Piper (chapter 11). This book is now published under the title Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die. I highly recommend it. It is well suited for devotional material or light reading.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The 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.
Romans 3:19-20

If I were to go to the streets of any major city in America and ask the question "How does a person get to heaven?" the majority of people would answer: good works. In fact, according to a 2009 Barna Group study, 72% of Americans believe that a person can earn salvation through good works. But what is really astonishing is that (according to the same study) more than 50% of Christians think the same.

The idea that you can work your way to God isn't a modern invention. It's been around as long as sin. In fact, the Apostle Paul constantly fought against this error. Many first century Jews were convinced that by keeping the law (e.g. the Ten Commandments) they could be righteous enough to enter the kingdom of God, and they tried hard to convince Christians of the same. Paul defends the gospel against this wrong thinking in the above passage.

Paul says, "No one will be declared righteous in [God's] sight by observing the law." It's hard to get any clearer than that. God didn't give us the law so we could earn salvation by being good, and no one will prove their righteousness by keeping the law. You know why? Because no one can obey the law perfectly. We all sin. We all fall short of the perfect standard that God requires. James 2:10 says that “…whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” You are either a sinner or a saint. There's no in between. You are a law keeper or a law breaker. And Paul tells us that we are all law breakers.

Nowadays, we don't talk about the law as much as the Jews did. Instead, we compare ourselves to other people. We act like God is going to grade on a curve. The best 40% of people get into heaven. But that simply isn't true. A person must be completely sinless to enter heaven. And far from helping us get into heaven, God's law actually proves that we aren't worthy of it. It shows us for who we really are, not saints deserving of heaven but sinners deserving hell.   

It turns out that this was the point all along. "Through the law we become conscious of sin." The purpose of the law is to reveal our sinfulness. God gave it to us to show us how badly we need His badly we need Jesus. As Paul says above, when we see how far short of God's perfection we are, our mouths are silenced before Him. We dare not claim that we deserve anything from a God as righteous as this.

Today I want to encourage you to take a long look at how sinful you are. I know that sounds morbid, but bear with me. For those of you who do not claim Christ, this will help you understand why we Christians get so excited about God’s grace and His love. For those of us who do claim Christ, this will help us to better appreciate the grace and love that we have received.

Brennan Manning, in his book entitled The Ragamuffin Gospel, says, “The men and women who are truly filled with light are those who have gazed deeply into the darkness of their imperfect existence.” Similarly John Piper, in his book entitled The Passion of Jesus Christ, says that “We will never stand in awe of being loved by God until we reckon with the seriousness of our sin and the justice of his wrath against us. But when by grace we awaken to our unworthiness, then we may look at the suffering and death of Christ and say, ‘In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.’ (I John 4:10).” So take 3 minutes right now to truly consider how sinful you are and be awed at God’s amazing grace for you.

For further reading this week…
   - Romans 5:6-21: Especially vs. 20- "The law was added so that the
     trespass might increase."
   - Galatians 2:15-3:29: "If righteousness could be gained through the
     law, Christ died for nothing!" (Gal. 2:21) Feel free to read the entire
     book of Galatians. It is only 6 chapters and it has a lot to say about the
     law and how it relates to grace.
   - Colossians 2:13-23: Come out from under the law and live by grace.
     (Be careful interpreting verses 20-23 they can be hard to understand.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Nobody's Perfect

What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one’
Romans 3:9-10

Years ago almost every circus had a knife throwing act. The point of course was to miss...but only by very little. If you got too close you ended up hitting the beautiful assistant, and then you no longer had an act. But if you stayed too far away, it wasn't death defying enough to draw a crowd. So you had to try to land your knives as close to your assistant as possible without actually hitting her. It was an art of missing the mark by acceptable amounts. Why anybody would take this kind of risk is beyond me, but many of us take a similar approach to our walk with God.

In the above passage, Paul quotes from Psalm 14:1-3 saying "There is no one righteous; not even one." This is an indictment against all mankind. We have all sinned against God and deserve His wrath. None of us have the right to look down our noses at those who grew up outside of the church or those who appear to have participated in more sin and think that we are somehow better. We all stand guilty before God of the same charge: rebelling against His authority and living in sin. But I have often heard Christians reflect on a passage like Romans 3:10 by saying, “I’m not perfect and I’m never gonna be perfect.” This is a true statement, but most of the time what they really mean is, “I’m not perfect and I’m never gonna be perfect. So why try? It’s okay if I sin a little here and there. God will forgive me.”

A few weeks ago I mentioned Leviticus 11:44-45 to you which says, “Be holy because I am holy.” To be holy means to be set apart for God and untainted by sin. Ephesians 4:22-24 says that we are “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” Ephesians 5:1 commands us to be imitators of God. In I Thessalonians 2:12, Paul urges us to live a life “worthy of God.” I’m sure that you get the point, so I won’t beat a dead horse. Here’s the deal: Scripture calls us to be holy, set apart for God’s use. Yet, many of us consciously decide to aim just below this mark. Instead of aiming to be like God, we give ourselves a little leeway. We aim to get close. We aim to be better than most, or maybe to be equally as good as everyone else. Like the knife thrower, our goal is to miss by an “acceptable amount.” But this is not honoring to God and it isn't the Christian life that we have been called to.

I implore you; don’t play this game, because it is as dangerous as the real knife throwing act. Sin is as deadly as a sharp blade. No matter how "small" the sins you choose to indulge in, they too will lead to death (Romans 6:23) and they are not God's best for you. Will we attain perfection in this world? No. We will all continue to fall short of that mark, but please do not use this truth as an excuse to test God's patience. Instead marvel at God 's wonderful grace. How awesome that he would chose to love wretched sinners like you and me.

For further reading this week…
   - I Peter 1:13-25- Be holy because you were redeemed by the precious
     blood of Christ.
   - Ephesians 4:22-24 and 5:1-21- Living in the light.
   - Romans 6:1-14 and 12:1-2- Dead to sin but alive to God.
   - Colossians 3:1-17- Set your hearts on things above.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

But What About the Inside?

A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God.
Romans 2:25-29

God has always had a special relationship with his people. In the Old Testament when He gave Israel his commands for how they should live, He audibly spoke to them from atop a mountain ablaze with His glory and then He gave them stone tablets into which He had carved those commands with His very own finger. He even gave them a special mark that symbolized that they were his people, circumcision. Getting circumcised was a commitment to obey his commands. But by the time Paul writes his letter to the Romans, it is clear that the Jews have confused the significance of circumcision. They got so comfortable thinking of it as the distinguishing mark of God's chosen people that they began to think that circumcision had the power to make them God's people. They forgot that it merely symbolized what God had done for them.

In this passage Paul is reminding them and us that being a child of God isn't about what happens on the outside. It has always been about about what God does for us on the inside. That is what Paul means by “circumcision of the heart.” If a man is circumcised but lives in rebellion against God is he right before the Lord? If a man is uncircumcised and yet keeps God's law does he incur God's wrath?

Paul is redefining the people of God from those who are born ethnically Jewish to those who have been circumcised not in the flesh but in the Spirit (i.e. circumcision of the heart). He is saying that if you want to be a member of the true people of God it takes more than the right knowledge and the right parents, it takes more than acting, looking, or sounding a certain way. It takes a change deep down inside of you. It means that God has changed your heart. A circumcised heart is one that has had the filthiness of sin cut away from it and has committed to obey God. That's what matters.

What we have to remember is that we are sinful deep down in our bones and that our sin separates us from God. We can't change our sinfulness on our own. But just like the Jews we often get mixed up about this. We think that being a Christian is about something we do or don't do. We think that being a Christian is about acting a certain way or talking a certain way. We even think that we can change ourselves and make ourselves Christians. When we do this I like to think that we are like a man dressed in a duck costume quacking and splashing around in water desperately trying to convince everyone that he is a duck. His humanity is deep down inside of him in his DNA and in his genetics. He can’t change that by putting on a costume and acting like a duck, but that doesn't stop him.

In the same way, we put on our Christian costume and try to convince everyone that we are Christians. We know how to look like Christians and talk like Christians and act like Christians. But we can’t change what we are deep down inside. Inside that Christian costume we're still just as lost as we can be. We are sinful deep down inside, and we can't change that, only God can. So if you are tired of pretending, stop! Becoming a Christian isn't about doing it's about believing. Confess Jesus as Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9), and He will give you a new heart. He will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh that you may obey him (Ezekiel 36:26-28).

And for those of us who are Christians, rejoice in that you are truly a changed person. You are no longer sinful deep down. You no longer have to carry the weight of your past sin, the shame and the guilt. You have been changed. What is more, you no longer have to be enslaved to sin. Sin no longer controls you and rules over you in the way that it once did. You are a child of God. Now, in a way, sinning is like dressing up in a costume and playing pretend for you. The old has gone the new has come (II Corinthians 5:17). Now that you have tasted of the Lord and have seen that He is good and that you have been set free from sin, I implore you do not turn back to your sin again. Trust in the Lord’s renewing power to change you forever and to set you free from the power that sin had over you.

For further reading this week…
   - Colossians 2:11-3:11 The circumcision of Christ.
   - Philippians 3:1-11 Mutilator's of the flesh.
   - Ephesians 2 No longer strangers and aliens.
   - Ezekiel 36:24-28 From a heart of stone to a heart of flesh!