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I. There Is No Difference – All Fall Short
Ten people are trapped on the roof of a 20 story high burning building, and you’re one of them. The only way to safety is to jump across a 25’ chasm onto the roof of the adjacent building. One person jumps ten feet and falls to his death. Another jumps 12 feet and falls to his death. One jumps 15 feet and falls to his death. One jumps 20 feet and falls to his death. “There is no distinction. All fall short…”
It does no good to compare one person to another. One may have jumped twice as far as another. One may have tried a lot harder than another. One may have been much more sincere than another. One may have worked all his life getting ready for this jump while another never gave it a thought until the very last minute. “There is no distinction. All fall short…”
And do you want to know the really crazy thing about all of this. It’s not that we all fall short. The crazy thing is, we keep trying to make the jump. We are all optimists when it comes to estimating the human potential to save ourselves. We think that if we just do this or do that, if we try harder, if we really, really mean it, if we are more sincere, if we use this program, if we develop this science, then we’ll be able to make it. But “there is no distinction. All fall short…”
There are basically two ways that we try to make the jump. The first way is by a strong self-righteousness. We’re convinced that there is a God and that He will judge us on the basis of our ‘goodness,’ or at least on our sincere efforts.
The second way we try to make the jump is by denial. “We say that we have no sin.” We say that “sin” is just a social invention to keep the masses in their place. The only “REAL” sin is to call something a “sin.” Avoid that one, and you can say that “you have no sin,” and God’s got no hold on you.
More realistically however, its not ‘either / or’ with us. We hedge our bets and do both. We work hard to strengthen our ‘self-righteous’ just in case God does judge us according to His law. And with those ‘sins’ that we really don’t want to do without because we like them too much, we say that they’re not really sins, the times are changing, God will have to adjust. But “there is no distinction. All fall short…”
St. Paul shuts off every escape route we try to take to save ourselves. “All have sinned and therefore all fall short.” And so in our desperation we cry, “What must I do to be saved?” Which is the first smart thing we’ve said so far.
This was Luther’s question and Luther asked it like a man on the roof of a burning building. Not like we do, I’m afraid. We’ve pretty well dismissed the whole question of ‘Divine Judgment.’ Our modern minds have done away with the existence of hell which renders God’s judgment pretty harmless. What right has God to judge us according to His divine expectations if we ‘evolved’ on our own according to chance? We have lost the “fear of God.”
But for Luther, the fear of facing a God who demanded holiness, “You shall be holy as I the Lord your God am holy,” kept him awake at night and in the confessional most of the day.
In Luther’s day, the Church was telling everyone that they needed to “Jump!” And it provided a way for people to jump safely. But none of this gave Luther any assurance or peace. No matter what he did or how hard he tried, he always felt that it was never ENOUGH, he could have done MORE. Luther said, “I was more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created.”
II. A Righteousness of God.
And then Luther heard a voice from the abyss. Not the abyss from below but the abyss from above. The voice of the Holy Spirit spoke to him through the Apostle Paul. “But now the righteous of God, has been made known APART FROM THE LAW… the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”
“But now…” With those two words, the ground that we stand on is shaken and the foundation we have built our life before God upon is collapsing. God is breaking into this world with a new and completely different remedy for the human dilemma. He is taking the universe by the corners and shaking it out like a sheet in the wind. A new wine is bursting the old wine skins.
The voice from above says, “Don’t jump!” “Stop trying to jump!” “I will rescue you.” “I will deliver you.” “I will lift you up as on eagle’s wings.”
When Israel was hemmed in by Pharaoh and all his chariots bearing down on them on the one side, and the Red Sea blocking every way of escape on the other, it deadly fear they cried out ‘what shall we do?’ But Moses answered, “Don’t jump!” “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today… You need only stand still.” (Exodus 14:13).
God is doing a NEW THING. “New,” not as in ‘improved’ or as in, a ‘better way’ for you to save yourself, but “new” as in ‘unheard of.’ ‘New’ as in, unlike anything you could have ever imagined. “New” as in, there is NO OTHER WAY.
God rescues you and judges you “apart from the law.” “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight.” It’s not about what you must do. It doesn’t matter what you have done. It doesn’t depend upon how hard you’ve tried or your circumstances or on what society says.
“You are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” In the midst of all of our anxiety and work to PLEASE GOD, the heavens open and the voice from above declares – “This is my Son WITH WHOM I AM WELL PLEASED.”
So it turns out there is a distinction. All have not sinned. There is One who has not. “There is only one who is good.” And it’s not you. It’s Jesus Christ. It’s not about what you must do or have done. It’s ALL about what He came to do and has done FOR YOU.
He is the One and only One who has made the jump. He jumped down from heaven to earth to bear our sin and be our savior. He took all of your sins upon Himself and was judged by the Father for them. And the judgment was death. But He made the jump from death and the grave to life and the right hand of the Father. Even today, He makes the jump from the glory of the Father to this bread and this wine and to your lips and your mouth.
So, “we hold that one is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” (vs.28) This is radical. It changes everything. It makes all your good works and good deeds count for nothing toward your salvation.
Lot’s of folks don’t like this. Folks who have put a lot of work and energy into making the jump don’t’ like this. You mean it all counts for nothing? “Then what becomes of our boasting?”
Can you see why, when you waive your good works in God’s face you’re really making things worse, not better, for yourself? It sure sounds like you don’t really need Jesus, who suffered and died for you. Or that you only need Him for some coaching and advice on how to be a better jumper.
What fools we are. Repent. “Let every mouth be stopped.” For once in your life, shut up and just ‘stand still.’ Just ‘listen.’
There is no need to “put forward” your good works to God. Because He has “put forward Christ Jesus, as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
“Propitiation” is one of those $100 theological words that deserves a bit of explanation. “Propitiation” has to do with justice. ‘DIVINE JUSTICE’ is done for you by the blood of Jesus Christ shed for you. The price is paid IN FULL, no balance due, no I.O.U.’s, no time in Purgatory yet to be paid. “In full” means, “It is finished.”
But just because justice is done, doesn’t necessarily mean that the relationship is restored. If someone commits a crime against you, even though justice has been done and they paid the price of their crime, even though you’ve ‘forgiven them,’ that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re friends. There may still be some hard feelings between you and them.
But a “propitiatory” sacrifice means that all animosity is gone. The relationship is completely restored. “It is ‘very good.’ “God is pleased with you.” “I call you my friends.” This is the righteousness that God has established in Jesus Christ “whom He put forward as a PROPITIATION by His blood.”
So, when the Holy Spirit opens our eyes and turns our hearts so that we do the unheard of thing, and dangerously risky thing of GIVING UP ON OURSELVES and putting our trust and confidence in Jesus Christ, we have ‘peace with God.’ We are “set free.” The Son, by His ‘God-pleasing’ sacrifice on the cross, “has set you free,” “and you are free indeed.”
Not only has He set you free from your fear of God, but He has also set you free to love your neighbor.
As long as you were doing all of your ‘good works’ in order to be saved, you were doing them all ‘for you,’ ‘for me.’ They are all done in selfishness. And there is no ‘love’ in ‘selfishness.’
But now that Christ Jesus has set you free from all of that, you are free to see your neighbor and his need and do you good works for his good or her good. And there is real ‘love’ in that.
So then, what does it mean to live ‘by faith’? For one thing, it means that we stop trying to be saved because we know that already have been? It means that we put our trust in Christ and Him crucified and not at all in ourselves. But it also simultaneously means that we work hard at doing good for our neighbor because we have been ‘set free’ to love on another as we have been loved by God.
To live ‘by faith,’ means that we live with a sense of hope and confidence and a strange joy, IN THE PRESENT TIME. In the ‘present time,’ when it feels as though the world is crumbling under our feet, and the challenges of life are increasing faster than we can keep up with them, and even as illness or disease or age begins to overtake us. “Though hordes of devils fill the land all threatening to devour us, we tremble not, unmoved, we stand.” We don’t jump.
Because God has shown us “his righteousness at the PRESENT TIME…” And there is no time like the present to believe it.