The other day, a friend of mine said he was contemplating ‘pulling a sickie’. You may be surprised to know that my friend was another minister. (Not a local one!)
He wanted to go sick today. Why? Because today is Trinity Sunday, a notoriously difficult Sunday on which to preach. Preachers wonder how they are going to communicate a great and subtle doctrine, and congregations say they struggle with this belief – yet they don’t want difficult sermons. Nobody wins.
I have preached on the Trinity before, but I did it in a series of five sermons to make it manageable. I don’t think you can do it adequately in one sermon, and so I am going to take one of today’s Lectionary readings and expound its central theme.
I am taking Romans 5:1-11. You may have found the arguments in those verses demanding to cope with, but its appearance in the Lectionary today is timely for Methodists. Last Monday was the anniversary of what we call John Wesley’s conversion, and this passage was said to be Wesley’s favourite portion of Scripture.
The great theme of this passage is justification, a theme dear to Wesley and central to his life and preaching. So that is our subject for today: justification.
We ought then to ask, firstly, what is justification? Many people puzzle over this great biblical word. I once witnessed an oral examination of a Local Preacher (now a minister) who clearly didn’t even recognise the word. It often isn’t used in modern paraphrases, yet it is one of the great words of the New Testament, and denotes one of the great Christian doctrines.
When Paul uses it here, he does so in a much larger context. In expounding justification and the righteousness of God in Romans, he sets it in the great biblical story of God’s love in salvation. So more than once he returns to the story of Abraham, when God began his rescue work not just for individuals but for a broken creation when he chose Abraham and entered into a covenant with him. Everything God does from then on – including the coming of Jesus – builds on that foundation.
What does that mean? It means that God’s righteousness is his covenant faithfulness. He didn’t set out first of all to save people by them obeying the Law given at Sinai and then when that failed save people by faith in his Son. He has always been consistent, even if it meant bringing in a new covenant with Jesus after his people failed in the old one. He gave the Law at Sinai not that people might practise it in order to be saved, but that they might do it as a sign that he had saved them. In other words, keeping the Law of God was an act of gratitude.
What we are celebrating in justification by faith in Christ, then, is God bringing his historical purposes to a climax in his Son. This is where he was always headed. We are celebrating the work of a faithful God.
But there is another angle to consider about justification. We need to think of it as like a law court. You may have heard people describe being justified as ‘just if I’d never sinned’. There is some – er – justification – for this view. In both Hebrew and Roman courts, the person who received the favourable verdict of the judge was said to be ‘justified’. If you brought a complaint against someone and the court found in your favour, you were justified. If you were charged with a crime but acquitted, you were justified. To be justified was to be in the right with the judge.
The New Testament, though, takes this image from the law court and gives it a startling use. We read in this passage that ‘Christ died for the ungodly’ [my emphasis] (verse 6), and this is linked with being ‘justified by his blood’ (verse 9). How can the ungodly be justified? How can sinners be ‘in the right’ with the Great Judge? For the wonder of this doctrine is that in Christ God does indeed acquit the guilty.
It is not that a loving Jesus placates an angry Father. It is rather that a loving Father gives up his Son for us. As verse 8 says,
But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
As a human father myself, that idea sends shivers through me. What if I had to give up my daughter or son for the blessing of others? It would tear my heart apart. But God in his love had his own heart torn apart in giving up his Son to the Cross so that we might be acquitted, forgiven. Father and Son were at one in love to achieve this status for us, without which we would stand before the heavenly court irredeemably guilty.
Secondly, what are the benefits of justification? God has always wanted to bless his creation. In justification, we see that played out through his covenant faithfulness and his sacrificial love. We no longer stand under a sentence of condemnation. What does that mean?
One consequence is that we have been ‘reconciled’ with God (verse 10). It isn’t simply an absence of condemnation. It isn’t merely the cessation of hostilities. Justification heals a broken relationship. Through it, we are reconciled to God.
In other words, we used to be estranged from God. God might long to bless everyone and everything in his creation, but the rebellion of our sin put us outside the possibility of blessing, in a place where we were opposed to his plans for good. But in justification, God – the wronged party! – puts things right. Through Jesus Christ and his death on the Cross, God says, “Welcome home.”
Have you ever been at odds with someone for a protracted time? What is it like when the relationship is healed and you are friends again? That is what justification does. Perhaps the Parable of the Prodigal Son puts it well. The shock of that parable to Jesus’ hearers is that the father doesn’t wait in a huff and demand humiliation from his errant son. Rather, the father is scanning the horizon, actively looking out for his wayward younger son. And when he sees him, he runs to him and arranges a feast.
So it is with justification. God is not cold and clinical in acquitting us of our sins. He is warm and fatherly, thrilled to have us back in the family. So the Christian doesn’t need to stand at a distance from God. Justification welcomes us back into the fold, and even near the centre, by the heart of God.
I know some churchgoers are nervous of that kind of religion that merely treats God as some kind of cosmic mate, but there is still no reason to hang back at a distance from him – not if you believe that God has justified you by faith through the death of Christ. God invites us to move closer to him. Do we think he endured such pain in love and faithfulness, only for us to remain remote from him?
There is another benefit to justification in this passage, and it is mentioned right at the beginning: peace. The reading opened like this:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (verse 1)
‘Peace’ and ‘reconciliation’ are similar words. As I am sure you have heard preachers say before, in the Bible ‘peace’ is more than the absence of war. If we think peace breaks out the moment a truce is declared or one side surrenders, then we have a very truncated view of peace. To be sure, peace begins when hostilities end. But that is not the limit of peace.
For although the Greek New Testament word for peace is weaker than the Hebrew Old Testament word for it, I am sure Paul would have been drawing on his Old Testament roots when he said that a benefit of justification was peace with God. Peace in the Old Testament is not a negative word, merely about the absence of something (namely, war). It is a positive word. It is about the presence of something good. It is about the presence of flourishing, harmony and justice. When God’s peace breaks out, individuals are in harmony with God and with one another. When God gives his peace, there is healing. When the peace of God comes to a group or a society, there is justice. Indeed, it doesn’t even stop with human beings: the Old Testament envisions the whole of creation enjoying harmony and goodwill when the peace of God reigns.
So if God gives us peace when we are justified through Jesus Christ, not only do we receive the peace of sins forgiven, we receive so much more. Our relationship with God becomes warm. We seek to live in love and harmony with one another. We seek the good of society. We look for the healing of creation. In doing so, justification gives us a glimpse of God’s future – not only because it anticipates God’s gracious acquittal of us on Judgment Day, but also because the gift of his peace that comes with it begins to shape us into his new society, the people of his kingdom.
And that starts to merge into the third question I want to ask of this passage: what are the consequences of justification? Well, the moment Paul describes peace as a benefit, and given that – as I have just claimed – that peace starts to shape us into God’s future – it’s not surprising that he says that ‘we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God’ (verse 2). We have something to look forward to: a sure and certain hope that is the gift of God.
Now that hope does something in us. If our peace with God through justification enables us to anticipate God’s great future, and if that gives us hope for the future, it also does something for us in the present. Because the here and now is far from an image of God’s kingdom. Not only do we fail in our discipleship, we face disappointments and opposition. Justification might lead us out of guilt and estrangement from God, but it plunges us into a new situation of conflict with a sinful and broken creation.
But … God uses this for good. He forms character in the justified disciple. He uses the trials that we inevitably face as his justified people to shape our lives and to fortify that hope we have:
And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Verses 3-5)
Through justification, God may make his Church into a sign and foretaste of his kingdom, but the world doesn’t always like that. Nevertheless, we are the ones with the certain future. Because of hope, we have reason to hang on in there when the going gets tough. God shapes us and in forming our character through endurance, he uses the suffering inflicted on us to make us more ready for his coming kingdom. The justifying God even uses evil against itself to promote good. So if we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ, we have every reason to push on and discover that God is using the pressure to make us into diamonds.
So in conclusion, justification is a great and glorious theme in the Bible. It is the story of the God of sacrificial love and covenant faithfulness, who reconciles us to himself through his only Son, and grants us a peace that is a foretaste of his coming kingdom. This brings us into conflict with the world, but filled with hope we endure and God uses that to transform our characters.
This wonderful gift is received only one way. By faith. It is the gift of God to those who will trust in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, and who will turn from their selfish ways to partner God, by the power of his Spirit, in his kingdom project.
Today, then, let us rejoice again in the wonderful gift God gives us through faith in his Son, and let us recommit ourselves to his kingdom purposes.
Alternatively, if we have spent years in church thinking that something else would see us right for eternity, let us turn away from our folly, confessing our wrong and humbly receiving all that God has done for us in Christ.