All Fall Short?
(Romans 3: 21-31)
Back when I was making a living as an attorney in private practice, 90 percent of my practice was criminal defense and probably 90 percent of that was court-appointed. It was my experience that the vast majority of people who broke the law usually didn’t have the funds to hire an attorney and others just felt they were entitled to free legal services and fudged when asked by the court if they were indigent. Their freedom was priceless, and they were reluctant to spend their own hard-earned money to keep it. If you agreed to accept court-appointments it was understood that you would take whatever case the judge assigned. You couldn’t pick and choose. Some lawyers wouldn’t take court-appointed cases because they didn’t want to represent murderers, rapists or child molesters. They’d tell me they couldn’t represent “those kind of people” because they didn’t like them. Admittedly, there were a few murderers I represented that I liked, but as far as rapists and child molesters, I’d have to agree, nobody likes them, however, they are entitled to a competent defense. Sometimes, they’d accept responsibility for what they did, plead guilty and throw themselves on the mercy of the court which, in Texas, was limited. Every once in a while, I’d be talking to a client in jail and they would give me their personal testimony telling me that they had found Jesus is jail and had been forgiven. I told my mother this once and she scoffed and said they all say they find Jesus in jail. If that’s the case, maybe we ought to move our services next door to the county jail.
When I read our scripture reading for this morning it struck me how similar my experiences representing indigent defendants was to what Paul was saying in his letter to the church in Rome. One of the conflicts experienced in the early church was the tension between the Law of God as they knew it before the crucifixion and the new covenant they had because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. You still had some Jews who believed that it was a strict adherence to the Law that got you into heaven and then you had the others, Jews and Gentile converts, who believed it was their newfound faith that got them eternal life with the Creator.
Paul starts out by explaining that God’s righteousness has been revealed apart from the Law. He says that God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him. There is no distinction, no either or. Many religions, even back then, prescribe specific duties that must be performed to make a person acceptable to a god. However, Christianity is unique in teaching that the good deeds we do will not make us right with God. No amount of human achievement or progress in personal development will close the gap between God’s moral perfection and our imperfect daily performance. Good deeds are important, but they will not earn us eternal life. We are saved only by trusting in what God has done for us.
I imagine that when the Christians of the Roman church read the next part of Paul’s letter it raised a few eyebrows and sparked some interesting conversations. Paul bluntly tells them that, All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus. Wait! What? You mean that somebody like me who has only committed some relatively minor sins is treated as an equal with a murderer, a rapist, or even a child molester? No way! Surely, there is some consideration for living a life where only minor, no-harm, no-foul, sins are committed. Well, I guess not, because, according to Paul, through God’s faithfulness, he displayed Jesus as the place of sacrifice where mercy is found by means of his blood. Paul says that God did this to demonstrate his righteousness in passing over sins that happened before, during the time of God’s patient tolerance. He did this also to demonstrate that he is righteous in the present time, and to treat the one who has faith in Jesus as righteous. Paul is talking about justification. By being justified, God has declared we are not guilty of our sins. We have been redeemed which means that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins by dying on the cross. His sacrifice was an atonement for sin on our behalf.
Paul anticipated that this statement would be shocking and cause confusion, so he asks, What happens to our bragging? It’s thrown out. With which law? With what we have accomplished under the Law? I’m sure they wondered what was the point of living a life as best as they could doing their best to obey all of God’s laws if living a law-abiding life didn’t count for anything? We might just as well do as we please and just say we have faith like the law-breaker. Paul responds to his rhetorical question by saying, No, not at all, but through the law of faith. We consider that a person is treated righteous by faith, apart from what is accomplished under the Law. He’s reinforcing the Law of God and telling them and us that we must obey the Laws of God, but that God treats us as righteous according to our faith in Him.
I imagine that this concept was as difficult for them to get their heads around then as it is for many of us today. I mean, to justify ourselves, we love to compare ourselves to the other guy and rationalize that at least we aren’t as bad as him or her. It’s not relative. Committing lesser sins, or sins not as bad as others, doesn’t qualify us for eternal life or move us closer to the front of the line. All sin makes us sinners, all sin cuts us off from God. We would be well-advised to not minimize “little” sins or overrate “big” sin. They all separate us from God, but they can be forgiven. There is a way to be declared “not guilty”, by trusting Jesus to take away our sins. That’s not to say there aren’t consequences for our sins though. I am reminded of a scene in one of my favorite movies, O Brother Where Art Thou? Slow-witted Delmar had just gone down to the river to be baptized with Pete who also had escaped from the prison farm with George Clooney’s character. He came up out of the water and proclaimed to Clooney’s character that all his sins had been forgiven, including that Piggly Wiggly robbery down in Yazoo City. Sorry Delmar, the State of Mississippi is not as forgiving. God’s solution is available to all of us regardless of our background or past behavior but there are consequences here.
Chapter three closes out with Paul explaining that there is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have fallen short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. This tells me that there is no difference between those of us who grew up in the church and those of us who might be new converts. What’s in the past is in the past and we are equal in God’s eyes.
So why faith? Why not follow the law and be done with it? Well, faith eliminates the pride of human effort, because faith is not a deed that we do. Faith exults what God has done, not what people do. Faith admits that we can’t keep the law or measure up to God’s standards. We need help. Faith is based on our relationship with God, not on our performance for God.
We can’t possibly obey God’s laws all the time, so we are still sinners. Fortunately for us sinners we are justified by our faith apart from the works of the law, and it’s all for the asking. That’s the only requirement. We don’t have to do anything we can brag about. We can’t do anything to earn it or purchase it. We live by faith, living lives pleasing to God that honor him and lead others to him. We live lives of faith and do the best we can to do justice to His laws knowing that, when we fail Him, we will again be forgiven if only we ask for His forgiveness, no matter how bad we’ve sinned.
Please pray with me.
Most gracious and loving Father, how often have we asked ourselves what we have ever done to deserve even one of the pleasures we’ve known? How often have we asked what we ever did that was worth loving you or to receive the kindness you’ve shown us? Help us Lord, for wasting what you’ve given us through our weakness and flawed lives. We realize who we are and what we are, but we know now how much we need you and we cry out to you for help, because our souls are in your hands. Guide us through the Holy Spirit to show someone else what we’ve been through ourselves on our way back to you so that they too can enjoy your tender mercies and live in the love of your son, our brother, Jesus Christ, Amen.