Thursday, April 05, 2018

The Meaning of the Cross, Part 1 (Romans 3:25-26)

* The following is a sermon, the first in a series that I wrote as Lenten reflections. I don't usually post sermons here, because (at least in my practice) they work better as a spoken medium, and this blog is devoted to the written medium. But they do give a good look at the significance of Christ's death on the cross, so I offer them here as a fitting follow-up to our recent celebration of Holy Week.

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The Meaning of the Cross, Part 1 (Romans 3:25-26)

We’re currently now in the church season known as Lent, which leads us up to Easter. And traditionally, Lent is a time to meditate on Christ’s death on the cross. So for the next four weeks leading up to Easter, we’re going to look at the cross of Jesus Christ, and we’re going to ask, “What was it that Jesus accomplished there? What’s the meaning of the Cross?” Our topic today should be familiar to most of us—it’s one of the main themes of the gospel message—that the Cross means that Jesus took on himself the punishment for our sins. There are other aspects of the meaning of the Cross that the Bible also highlights—some of which might not be quite as familiar—and we’ll get to them in the next few weeks. But today we start with what theologians call the “penal substitution model of the atonement,” which means that Jesus’ death on the cross paid the punishment for our sins.
And as we think about the meaning of the Cross these next few weeks, the one theme that I want us to see, each and every time, is the love of God. The Bible has more than one way of talking about what Christ accomplished on the Cross, but the end goal of each view is the same—it’s because God wants to draw us into relationship with him. But we couldn’t get there on our own, so he took the initiative, out of his love for us, to open a way for that relationship—a relationship with the living God.
I want to start with a little illustration of the love of God, taken from the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Some of you may know that name—she was one of the best poets of the Victorian Age, and she wrote some beautiful, beautiful poems. If you’ve ever heard the one that starts, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”, that’s one of hers. Anyway, she started out as Elizabeth Barrett, and then she married another poet, Robert Browning. But her parents were dead-set against their marriage, and when she went through with it, they cut her off entirely. So for every day for ten years, she wrote a letter to her parents—a letter of love, a letter expressing her hope for reconciliation. Every day, for ten years. And then, after ten years, she received a box from her parents. And when she opened it, she found all of her letters inside, still sealed in their envelopes. They had never read them. But even after that, she still kept writing letters to them, hoping that someday they would return her love and be reconciled.
It’s a sad story, but I think it’s a wonderful picture of the heart of God. God desires to be in relationship with us, and he’s constantly drawing us towards that. Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, he has sent us his love letters—and nowhere do we see their message clearer than in what happened on the Cross. And no matter how many times we’ve ignored him, no matter how many times we’ve turned away, he’ll still keep showing us his love, beckoning us back, to be reconciled with him. So for those of you who already know the love of God, deep in your hearts, take the time this morning to savor with me the wonder of God’s love. And if you’ve never experienced that love, then listen to the message of the Cross this morning—it’s the message of God’s love for you.

1.) The Problem
Today we’re looking at a few verses from Romans chapter 3—25 and 26. This describes, in Paul’s words, what God accomplished through Jesus’ death. [Read text] There’s some interesting theological ideas here, and we’ll dig deeper into these verses in a minute, but right now I just want to point out the fact that they imply that sin is a crime against God—a crime which must be punished.
Well, what is sin? Most of us know it when we see it, because our consciences tell us. Sin is anything that goes against the holy, righteous character of God. In the Old Testament, the word for sin is the same word that we would use to describe “missing the mark” or “falling short” of something. We were created in the image of God—created to be holy and righteous, which we can only be in relationship with him. But when sin gets in the way—maybe selfishness, or gossip, or lust, or any number of things—when sin gets in the way, we miss the mark. We’re less than what God intended us to be, and our actions stand in defiance of his character.
Well, okay, you may say. But what’s the big deal? Isn’t God big enough and kind enough to shrug off sin? Why can’t he just let it slide?
The Bible gives us lots of reasons why sin is a big deal. One reason is simply that because God is the creator and sovereign of all things, everything is answerable to him. We’re not our own masters, as much as we’d like to be. We are citizens in the kingdom of God, and we are answerable to him. And the truth is that every sin is an act of rebellion against his kingship. In every sin, you are saying to God that you don’t want to do things his way, that you prefer your own kingship to his great and good rule. And as the sovereign, God will always deal with sin because it reflects on his kingship. He cannot be a good sovereign if he allows evil to fester and grow. But the biggest reason, I think, why God doesn’t shrug off sin, is because it’s for our good that sin is punished. Sin is one of our great enemies, because, as I said before, it keeps us from becoming what we were always meant to be. If God said that sin was no big deal, then none of us would have any incentive to develop holiness in our hearts. If sin was no big deal, then our own souls would be irreparably damaged, as would society as a whole. God judges sin in order to provide the moral compass that we humans so desperately need.
So, all that to say—sin is a big deal. It’s a crime against God. That’s not all it is, as we’ll see in the coming weeks, but it is at least partly a crime against God. And I don’t say that to make you feel guilty or condemned—I say that because that’s what Scripture says. And what doesn’t get said enough is that we’re all in the same boat on this one. We’re all sinners. That’s what v.23 says, just a few lines up from our passage. Everybody has sinned. Thanks to Adam and Eve’s decision to disobey God, the human race has become a race of rebels, programmed by our self-will to fight against God’s holy authority. So sin is a big deal, but we’re all caught in the same problem together.
With that in mind, now we have the difficulty. God desires to be in relationship with us, because he loves us. But because of our sin, we’re separated from God. Sinful people cannot exist in the presence of a holy God. And because of our sin, we stand under the judgment of God’s righteous punishment of sin. Paul talks about it as the wrath of God—because of our sin, we have divine punishment looming over our heads. And in that situation, we can’t have fellowship with God unless something is done about the problem of sin.
Which brings us to our second point. Unfortunately, too often we stop with what we’ve already said. Much of the world thinks that the church is only a place where sins are pointed out and people are made to feel guilty. They don’t listen any further than the hard news that we’re all sinners. But if we stop there, we end up with a warped view of God. You’ll end up with a picture of an angry, tyrannical God who is meticulously counting our sins and holding them against us. But that’s a false view of God! If you have that view of God, then you’ve only listened to half of the story. Now that we understand the problem, we have to take a look at the solution, and this is where the glorious love of God is demonstrated.

2.) The Solution: Christ’s Sacrifice

The word “gospel” means “good news”! And that’s what the story of the cross is. Unfortunately, we have to start with some bad news—the truth about sin—but that’s only because our society has forgotten what sin is. Once we understand our situation as sinners, though, the Gospel is entirely good news. It tells us that God took the initiative to solve our problem. The Gospel isn’t bad news about sin, it’s good news about the forgiveness of sins.
So what was God’s solution? Look at our text. “God presented him (that is, Jesus) as a sacrifice of atonement.” The NKJV translates it as “propitiation”—which is the better term, but the NIV went with “sacrifice of atonement” because no one knows what a propitiation is anymore. It’s not a word that gets used a lot. It’s a very technical theological term that refers to something that takes away wrath. If you propitiate your friend, that means that you do something to settle them down, so that they’re not angry with you anymore. So to say that Jesus was a propitiation for us means that Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross took away God’s anger against our sins. It means that Jesus completely paid the penalty for our sins.
And what was the penalty for sin? From other places in Scripture, we know that the penalty was death. If sin separates us from God, and God is the source of all life, physical and spiritual, then to be separated from him means death. We’re cut off from the Fount of Life itself. That’s why the whole sacrificial system of the Jews was based on the practice of killing animals. Whether it’s a sheep or a bull or a dove, the principle behind the sacrifice was that death is the penalty for sin, and so if we don’t want to die, we need to find a substitute. But the whole OT system was just a pointer that directed us toward Jesus. The blood of bulls and sheep has no power to take away sin—the book of Hebrews tells us that specifically. But they pointed the way towards Jesus, who is the final and ultimate sacrifice for sin. He took death on himself—the death that we should have died. And because of that sacrificial death on the Cross, taking our place, the penalty for our sins is paid. He was fully human—because only a human can pay the price for humanity’s sin—and fully God, because only God can cover and forgive sins. And his death on our behalf wipes away our sin.
That’s the wonderful message of the Gospel. We have nothing to fear from God! Because of Jesus, his wrath is gone. And all that remains toward us is an ocean of his love.
Now, some critics might say, “Hold on there! So a wrathful God decides to kill his son for our sake? Isn’t that like divine child abuse? How can God kill an innocent man for someone else’s crimes?”
Well, in response to that, we have to remember that the three persons of the Trinity are really one God. We may not entirely understand it, but it’s true. So it’s not that God the Father poured out his anger on his innocent Son—because at the heart of it, they are united as one God. Here’s the truth of the matter: God himself took our punishment on his own head. Because he loved us, he came to bear the penalty for our sins. His wrath is a wrath against sin, not against us, because his sacrifice on the cross wiped away his wrath against us. We stand now in the love of God.
Imagine that you commit a crime—let’s say that in a rage of fury, you murder your next-door neighbor. And they bring you into court. And everyone knows what you did—the evidence is indisputable, and you know that you’re guilty. They’re going to find you guilty, and lock you up for the rest of your life—maybe they’ll even give you the death sentence. And you go into the courtroom and hear the verdict read—guilty! But then the judge looks at you. And he says, “It’s okay. You can go free. I’ll take your punishment for you. I’ll take the death penalty in your place.”
It would never happen in our world. But God did exactly that. He didn’t have to. He could have held our sins against us. But instead, he treated us with unbelievable mercy.

3.) Acquitted!
The problem was that sin is a crime against God. And God’s solution was to take the penalty for that crime on himself, through Jesus’ death on the cross. And now, because of that, we stand acquitted. Because of Jesus, our sins are gone—as far as the east is from the west. Later in this book of Romans, Paul proclaims that there is no condemnation for those who are in Jesus! God is no longer angry with us! He delights in us, and our sins will never be held against us!
Now, there are two extreme points of view that I need to address. One of them takes the truth of the Gospel and twists it to say, “Oh, now that my sins are forgiven, I can go ahead and sin as much as I want!” And the other says, “Even though my sins are forgiven, I have to be careful not to ever sin again, or God might condemn me all over again!”
The fact that our sins are forgiven doesn’t mean that we can just go ahead and sin as much as we want. It’s true that God doesn’t hold our sins against us, but if we’ve actually been saved by his grace, then we have the Holy Spirit working inside of us, transforming us. We’re still going to struggle with sin in our lives, but if we’re truly a Christian, our desire for sin should be melting away in our heart of hearts. So if you think that it’s fine for you to go on sinning as much as you want, then you’ve missed the point of the gospel. It’s not about setting us free so that we can sin more, it’s about setting us free from the slavery of sin altogether.
And the opposite extreme is also wrong. There are Christians out there wringing their hands in anxiety, worrying that if they sin that they might be right back where they started. When I was serving in Africa, I was shocked to find out that a lot of pastors there believed that if you happened to die with an unconfessed sin in your life, then you would be sent to hell. So, for instance, if I thought a prideful thought and then stepped off the curb and was hit by a bus—too bad for me! I didn’t get a chance to repent, so now I’m going to be condemned! Some people actually think that, but it’s a lie. It’s a lie straight from the devil. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. Look at Hebrews 9:26. Here the author of Hebrews is talking about how Jesus is different from the OT priestly system, where sacrifices had to be offered every year. [Read text] What does this mean? It means that Jesus died “once for all.” His death covers all of our sins, past, present, and future. If we’re following Christ, not even the little sins that plague us can keep us from the love of God. All your sins—even sins you haven’t yet committed—are covered by the love of God in Jesus Christ, as long as you keep following him. We have nothing to fear! Sometimes people will ask you when you were saved. And they’re usually asking what age you were when you accepted Christ. But the correct answer to that question, according to the Bible, is this: When were you saved? I was saved 2000 years ago! Jesus’ death is what accomplishes my salvation; nothing that I do can earn God’s favor. Jesus death was once for all, and it covers all of our sins! That’s the wonderful message of the Gospel.

So what does this all mean? It means that we serve a God who loves us so much that he sacrificed himself to bring us to him. And if that’s true, he will not let us go easily. Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, he will keep on sending us messages of his love. We no longer have to fear God’s anger. God is on our side! We serve a God who is consumed with love for us.