What do you want first? The good news or the bad news? Whenever I am asked that question, the answer is very easy. I want the bad news first. There are a number of reasons why. Sometimes the good news is the solution to the problem of the bad news. Sometimes the good news is much greater than the bad news. Even if it is not, it may at least take the edge of the bad news. Finally, that which you hear last is what will stay most powerfully in your mind. As we have been going through Paul’s letter to the Romans, we see that he indeed does start with the bad news. The bad news is that humanity is sinful. Jewish, Gentile, we are all lost in sin. We may not feel particularly evil, but sin has touched every part of us and as a result we find ourselves separated from the holy and righteous God. This is a big problem and it most definitely is bad news. The good news is that justification is possible. Justification? That is a word that we do not often use. You probably do not ask in casual conversation with your neighbour if they have been justified. What is justification? Justification basically means being declared innocent. Imagine this situation. You have been receiving a monthly cheque from the government ever since you were young. Then you get a letter now that you are older that they were not supposed to give you that money. All the past payments plus the interest come out to about a million dollars. You do not have the money to pay off this debt. Even if you got another job, you could not pay off this debt. The government is demanding immediate payment and is threatening jail time. What are you going to do? Thankfully, a government official hears about your case and takes pity on you. They arrange to have the debt forgiven and your record cleared. You go in one moment from being in debt to being completely debt free. That is the idea of justification. When we are justified, we go from having to pay for our sins by ourselves, to having our sins forgiven and free from punishment. That is good news. But that is good news only if it is actually possible to receive. This is what Paul begins to explain in this section and it is just as important for us to know today.
Human intuition would say that we can please God either by doing enough good deeds or performing the correct religious rituals. But that is not the case at all. “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (Romans 3:22 NIV) Faith has always been what God was looking for. This is true in both the Old and New Testaments. Read through Hebrews 11 and the hall of faith that goes through many of the Old Testament saints and their life of faith. Look at the life of David and Solomon. Both were successful kings from a purely political and military perspective. And yet David is described as a man after God’s own heart while Solomon’s reign is summarized from a spiritual perspective quite negatively. Ironically, we are of told of David’s adultery and the murder of the husband of his mistress, while we are not told that Solomon committed many drastic sins. So why does David get a better reputation? Faith. When you read through the stories of David and Solomon, you will find two people very gifted, but you will also find David much more than Solomon living a life of faith. There is a sense of devotion and loyalty toward God on David’s part that you just do not see in Solomon’s life. Faith continues to be very important in the New Testament. One of the most famous verses is: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 NIV) This gift of eternal life is not for everyone, but for those who believe. But what does it mean to believe or to have faith? Is it enough to believe in God or to believe that Jesus existed? Can we just believe that Jesus died on the cross? Can we even have a completely orthodox statement of faith? All of those things are important. But it is much more than that. James reminds us: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (James 2:19 NIV) What we need is trust and reliance. Faith is only faith if you absolutely need that person to come through. If I ask you to put away your bulletins after the service, that is not faith. If you don’t do it, it is not really a big deal and it will not really affect me. But if I am expecting you to call 911 if I have a heart attack, that is faith. If you don’t come through on that, if you break the trust, I would be in big trouble. So we may begin with believing the facts about Jesus. But we need to put our full trust in him. This means acknowledging that we cannot be right with God on our own power and trusting that what Jesus did on the cross will reconcile us to God. If Jesus does not come through, we are lost. So when we trust that he will save, that is real faith.
What we are expected to do is to put our faith in God, trusting in what Jesus did on the cross. Faith is the role that we have to play. But what if God does not come through? What if he sees our faith and laughs? If we are going to receive the justification that we so desperately need, we need some sort of response by God. That response is grace. “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 3:22–24 NIV) This is very important for us to understand. It is not that God is obligated to save us because of our faith. Faith is not a good work that earns our salvation. Sometimes we act as if we are a priest and we are offering our faith as a sacrifice and that God must then respond with the gift of eternal life. It is interesting that the one who operates as a priest here is actually God. This sacrifice was performed before anyone had offered enough faith to receive it. Paul says later in this letter: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 NIV) The sacrifice of Jesus was a free gift. The same is true with justification. We reach out to God and he saves us. But it is not because our faith is a good enough deed to merit that salvation. God’s response to us is not an evaluation of our quality of faith but rather grace. Salvation is still a free gift. If one of my children ask me for something that they need, my granting it is not dependent on how well they have behaved. Even if they have been pretty good, I can find enough bad behaviors to justify my refusal. Nor do I decide based on the quality of their request. If there is something that they truly need and it is something that I can give them, I will give it as a free unearned gift. On a much greater level, the giving of salvation is grace. The best thing we can do is to give up on any hope for earning our way into God’s family.
Let us assume that both of these things have happened. We have reached out in faith and God has reached back with grace. We have salvation, eternal life, justification. What are the practical implications? Does this exalt us over people who have not experienced this? Are Christians better people? Can we look down on non-Christians? There certainly has been enough of this attitude in the history of the church. The question is: How does God expect us to respond? “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded.” (Romans 3:27 NIV) If salvation is by grace, it robs us of every excuse to boast of our greatness. Elsewhere, Paul says: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8–9 NIV) This really summarizes what we have been looking at. And notice that again, this should result with a lack of boasting. How are we to live? If boasting is the negative command, then the positive command would be to live in humble reliance upon God. What non-Christians should see in us is not a smug and self-righteous attitude but rather a deep humility and realization that our reconciliation with God did not come by any hard work on our part. We need to be fully reliant on God and completely aware of our dependence on God’s grace. Boastfulness makes Christianity look ugly. Humility makes Christianity look attractive, not as a marketing technique, but because it looks more like Christ. Relying on grace is no more embarrassing than riding inside an airplane rather than on the outside. It is an acknowledgment of our real limitations. Let us humbly cling to that truth.
There is bad news. Sin has entered into humanity and has corrupted us. In this sinful state, we have been separated from God. If something is not done, that separation will last into eternity. Something has been done. The Father allowed the Son to be an atonement for our sin. This is the opportunity for our justification, the declaration that we are debt free and reconciled to God. But how do we receive this justification? From our perspective, we begin by putting our faith in God and what he has done through Christ. This is not just a simple belief in facts but a trusting reliance on God in which we need him to respond. The response that we need is grace. For even after putting our faith in God, we are still sinful and still not good enough. Even our faith is not a good enough work to save us. We need grace. We need God to give to us his life freely, unearned. Once we have received this, there is no room for boasting. There is only room for humility. We live in the knowledge that we are fully relying on God’s grace. That humility is far from our weakness, it is in fact our strength.