Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Peace With God

The following is the second of four Lenten sermons I preached last week. This one is based on Romans 5:1-11


Not too long ago when I was filling my Jeep’s gas tank, a man on the opposite side of the pump greeted me with some pleasantry and I replied in kind. He then asked me what I did. I’m never sure quite what to say, so I said I was self-employed. He wanted to know of what sort, so I said “Christian ministry.” He asked, “What specifically do you do?” I went through some of the list that is on my Heart for God brochure — Bible teaching, retreat speaking and spiritual direction, and he responded by asking of my church affiliation. I said, “I’m Catholic.” He wanted to know if I did this full-time, and I answered by saying I did this as an early step of semi-retirement. (Now down South this might not have been so unusual, but I don’t think I’ve ever had such a protracted conversation at the gas pump north of the Mason-Dixon!) So he asked, “What did you retire from?” and I told him that I had been an Evangelical pastor for thirty-three years.

His response was first of all a facial expression; he looked as if I’d slapped his face. Then his voice caught up with his face and he said, “No way! You were an Evangelical pastor and went into the Catholic Church? I bet there’s story there!” I assured him he had understood me correctly, and yes, there was a story (and I’d like to remind us that anyone who belongs to Jesus Christ has a story to tell; it will always be a story grace, and only each one of us can fully tell our own story). I am presenting this part of Paul’s letter to the Romans in the context of my story.

Romans 5–8 is often seen as the “heart” of the letter. Much in this section of Romans is familiar territory to many evangelical Christians. This is the essence of what I preached for my thirty-three years. It’s about the salvation God has provided through his Son, and when (if?) we stop to think that someday we all will die and face God, there is nothing more important.

To establish context, here is a basic recap of the emphases found in the first four chapters. In most of the first three chapters we find everyone is a sinner, and God’s wrath is directed at all sin. Because of our helplessness to be anything other than a sinner and our own hopelessness — the text says powerless — to be able to do anything about it, God has done something to put everything right. This is the gospel — the good news — that transforms lives, so much so that it was Paul’s passion (1:1–17).

What is the good news? God has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. The awful offense of sin that separated us from God and made us his enemies — objects of divine wrath — has been resolved. God gave his Son as a sacrifice for sin. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2Cor 5:21). God is not our enemy.

How is a person to respond to this? What does God want? All of chapter four is an answer. God wants people to respond like Abraham — simply believe that what God has promised is true (understanding that what we believe will affect what we do). Those who believe enter into a right relationship with God because God has already done everything to make it possible.

Now this is where issues of interpretation in the broader Christian community begin to break down. Some people argue that God has let everyone off the hook regardless of whether they want it or not (unconditional, universal salvation). Some argue that God has not let everyone off the hook, but only the ones he chooses and then sovereignly manipulates to live with a recognition of his saving activity (conditional, limited election). Some see only an issue of forgiveness — that if a person will simply confess one time the right “formula” about Jesus’ death for sin, then that person receives blanket forgiveness and an irrevocable “pass” to get into heaven. The Catholic Church teaches that salvation is more than God doing something for us; salvation is fully understood as what God, through Jesus Christ, does in us. This is where Romans 5 begins to take us.

It is imperative to understand that what is said starting in chapter 5 is based totally on what God has already done through the death and resurrection of Jesus. What we need to do is respond to God, believing that what he has done in Jesus is true. When we do respond to God with that kind of faith, other things begin to happen. This part of Romans 5draws us to those things that can happen in us because of what Jesus has already done.

Before looking at the “theology” that is here, think about this analogy. Sometimes I watch local news and weather on an area TV station. The station I watch has a drawing each day for a viewer to win a free lunch. Let’s say that my name is selected one day, along with the standard instruction that I am to call the station within a certain time to verify my win. Let’s also say that I do that — I “believe” that I have won, I trust that the station has paid the price for the meal, and all I have to do is go to the restaurant named, present my name and get a free meal. Now, if I stop at that point, do I get fed? No — upon believing I have been selected and believing the integrity of the TV station to have paid the bill, I still need to go to the restaurant, order and eat to receive the benefit of my free meal.

There is a sense in which salvation is like that free meal, only it is a series of meals in which, unless we eat what is provided, we will starve because there are no other nutritious meals available. Jesus has paid for the meals. God invites us to come eat. That is the only way to get the nourishment we must have to live. But whether we actually come to the table — and keep coming to the table to maintain life — is our choice. Those who keep going to the table get the food necessary to live, and thus they are “saved.”

Some Protestants say this emphasis leads to “salvation by works” because it stresses something we need to do. This misses the foundational point: If God does not provide the meals, there are none. Because God does it, it is all the graciousness of his provision; our part is merely to respond — and yet our response is crucial. This is because of what God himself desires in our salvation, and that is where our attention is directed as chapter five begins.

Again, notice that the basis is what God has done: having been justified by faith. God is the one who saves. It was his decision and his provision. We are the ones who “activate” that salvation as we respond. The worst expression of Evangelicalism, although it is quite popular, teaches that a person only needs to respond once to have assurance of eternal salvation. The New Testament is clear that saving faith is an ongoing response, and that is what the Catholic Church provides with the Sacraments, particularly Reconciliation and the Eucharist. A good thing about the Evangelical emphasis is the focus on the foundation of what God has done through Jesus. I find it quite helpful when the two are juxtaposed.

There is a crucial balance about salvation in these verses (and throughout the New Testament, but the targeted focus is so clear here). What we find is:

1) past action — what God has done
(having been justified, v1a — our sins forgiven through Jesus’ death);
2) present action — what God is doing
(we have peace with God, v1b — God is now our friend);
3) future action — what God will do
(we shall be saved, v9 — the whole drama is not yet complete).

When the emphasis of these verses (both this section of Romans and the essence of salvation) is taken to be justification alone — the forgiveness of our sins — a great rupture occurs in the biblical teaching of salvation so that our legal standing with God gets removed from what God is doing in his whole act of saving us.

Let me attempt another illustration. Let’s say you are in a city that is soon about to be fire-bombed — it is infected with some horrible plague. You have been warned by the authorities to get out, but you yourself have been weakened by illness. The purging is now imminent. The only way out that is fast enough is a car, but yours has major engine trouble, won’t run and can’t be fixed. Not only that, only a few routes to safety are passable and you are not sure which ones they are. Now let’s say that a government agent — someone who has been telling you to get out (to the point that he has angered you because you didn’t think it was that bad) pulls into your drive in a nice new car, tells you that it’s yours — he is giving it to you — and you can drive to safety. Not only that, he offers to ride with you to show a safe route, having just driven in himself. Now, you “believe” the car can get you to safety. You even “believe” this person is genuinely offering you the car. Having that at your disposal, are you now saved? Not unless you get in the car and drive out of town according to his directions. You have to receive the gift that was offered (your salvation has begun); you have to drive out of town in communication with this person who has offered to be your guide (your salvation is then in process); you do that and finally get to a safe place (your salvation is complete). At what point did your salvation become “real?”

What I am saying — more importantly, what Paul has written under the inspiration of God’s Spirit — is that assenting to the availability of real forgiveness is, by itself, no salvation (yet this is so much the emphasis in the Evangelical teaching of salvation). God intends a life for his people, and getting rid of the guilt of sin is merely the first step. Forgiveness frees God to be our friend instead of our enemy, and once God is our friend there are good consequences.

The emphasis in these verses is the blissful consequences that fall to Christians because of what God has done. Three key words are peace, hope and joy. All of these things are ours because God is now our friend — instead of being our enemy because of our sins (which have been “paid for” by Jesus’ death on the cross).

I will say it yet again. The forgiveness of sins alone is not the main point of Christian faith. It is a foundational point. It is an inceptive point. It is a motivating point. It is a real and important point, but it is, in a sense, a sub-point. The big point is our relationship with the God who is Life — a relationship that God desires and is bought with the blood of his Son.

This is implicit in the phrase we have peace with God. To be crass — yet I think the point needs to be made: God did not forgive our sins in Jesus so we could merely ignore him, continue to live our own ways, and yet not have to worry about his coming wrath on sin. Peace with God means the old barrier is down. Peace with God means there is nothing to restrict God from being our loving Father and us being his delightful children.

This emphasis further comes into view as we are told that entry into God’s salvation — having our sins forgiven and being at peace with God — is our access into this grace in which we stand. In other words, a beginning or the start of the journey. Paul is just getting started in his presentation of what God is doing in those who choose to journey with him.

It is a journey with God — a God with whom we are at peace — because the destination is clearly expressed: in hope of the glory of God. Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s glory. The purpose of God’s salvation is to make us like Jesus — God’s design when he first created humanity in his image. Charles Wesley writes in one of his hymns, changed from glory into glory ‘till in heaven we take our place. The early Church Fathers said that Jesus became like us so we could become like him.

Peace with God gives us confidence that God is with us all the time, whether we “sense” it or not, working to accomplish this larger purpose of us being like Jesus. This “peace with God” is not the same thing as “the peace of God,” which Paul offers as part of the Christian life when he writes to the Philippians (4:4–6). The “peace of God” is a felt gift that can be ours because of the more basic relationship through Christ that establishes our “peace with God.”

This is something that finds expression in our daily lives in the here-and-now. One of the most amazing evidences of real faith is the phrase that’s here: we rejoice in our sufferings. This is Christian salvation at work, showing itself to be true, showing itself to be powerful in transforming our lives. The point is this: if being forgiven is not changing you, you have not yet entered into the effectual reality of God’s forgiveness and life.

There is a progression here, but I should make the stages more explicit — starting with the first one which is justification (our forgiveness through Christ’s substitution). So here are some facets of salvation starting with the foundation:

1) we are justified (forgiven) by Christ’s death for our sin;
2) we have peace with God — the enmity of guilt is gone;
3) we are introduced to a grace that begins to change us;
4) we have hope — a goal of becoming like Jesus;
5) hope enables us to have joy in the midst of suffering;
6) Christian suffering is a reminder that this world is not all there is, and so there is reason to persevere;
7) Perseverance produces character—strength to be different;
8) Character produces hope because we can see that God is changing us — salvation has real expression in this life.
And it all starts with the reality of forgiveness giving us peace with God so that we are free to receive the life of our heavenly Father through the Spirit he gives us (v5 is the first mention of the Holy Spirit in Romans).

There is more than one way to understand what is so popularly called “saved” in Evangelical circles. It is common to be asked, “Are you saved?” Evangelicals love to ask Catholics this question, and because the way Catholics talk about faith is so different, a common assumption among many Evangelicals and Fundamentalist Protestants is that Catholics are not true Christians. This was likely the reason for such shock from the guy at the gas pump. There are three biblically correct ways for a Christian to answer this question about being “saved.”

The first is, “yes, I have been saved.” This answer looks to the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross when everything that needed to be done for salvation was done, once for all.

The second is, “I am being saved.” This recognizes our individual need to enter into what Jesus has done for us in an ongoing way so salvation is being worked into us, so that we are being changed.

The third is, “I shall be saved.” This recognizes that God’s work of salvation is not complete in us until we are like Jesus, even to the point of having a resurrection body like his. This is where the Catholic doctrine of purgation comes in — all that is unlike Jesus in us needs to be cleansed so we are suitable for the full presence of God in heaven.

Now regarding being “saved,” all three of these facets are true, and we cannot have one without the others. Here is the great thing the Holy Spirit is saying through Paul:
— if you believe that Jesus died for sin,
— if you are responding to God’s work in your life,
— if you can stay with it when life gets hard, then...
— you are giving evidence to being at peace with God.

Does the average Christian do this perfectly? No! Does the enemy of our souls whisper (or shout!) accusations and point to our imperfections and failures? Yes! So what is the answer to this?

One of the most incredible promises from God is in Romans 5:10 — For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

You see, Jesus died so we could be forgiven. Please do not think I have intended to short-change forgiveness in this sermon. God’s forgiveness secures a complete salvation. Because Jesus has died for us, we follow him into his resurrection life in us. We have peace with God. Neither our stumblings nor our sufferings can stop the work of God when we respond to him. In fact, those things only work to drive us closer to him. We keep going back to his forgiveness because we have been given peace with God, and peace with God frees him to pull us into his highest purposes for us. That is why he made our forgiveness possible.

Helen Roseveare was a British medical doctor who worked for many years as a missionary in Zaire. During the revolution of the 1960s, she often faced brutal beatings and other forms of physical torture. On one occasion, when she was about to be executed, she feared God had forsaken her. In that moment, she sensed the Holy Spirit saying to her: “Twenty years ago you asked me for the privilege of being identified with me. This is it. Don’t you want it? This is what it means. These are not your sufferings; they are my sufferings. All I ask of you is the loan of your body.” The privilege of serving Christ through her sufferings overwhelmed Dr. Roseveare. After she was delivered, she wrote about her experience with God: “He didn’t stop the sufferings. He didn’t stop the wickedness, the cruelties, the humiliation or anything. It was all there. The pain was just as bad. The fear was just as bad. But it was altogether different. It was in Jesus, for him, with him.” (Philip Ryken, The Message of Salvation, Inter-Varsity Press, 2001). So many martyrs and saints have testified to this through the years of the Church.

I found other several quotes in this context. I am stringing them together so the force of what is here in Romans can break into our consciousness. God wants to come to us and for us to come to him, and he gives us forgiveness in order to make peace for an intimate relationship with him.

"Too often we try to use God to change our circumstances, while he is using our circumstances to change us." (Dr. David Osborn, director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Denver Seminary, quoted in Compass, a periodical of Quiet Waters Ministry, April 2003).

“Our trouble is we want the peace without the Prince” (Addison Leitch).

"Peace is not the absence of trouble, but the presence of God” (J. Oswald Sanders).

"The Son of God suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like his” (George MacDonald ).

Eugene H. Peterson writes: “Suffering is not evidence of God's absence, but of God's presence, and it is in our experience of being broken that God does his surest and most characteristic salvation work. There is a way to accept, embrace, and deal with suffering that results in a better life, not a worse one, and more of the experience of God, not less. God is working out his salvation in our lives the way he has always worked it out — at the place of brokenness, at the cross of Jesus, and at the very place where we take up our cross” (adapted from the Foreword of Alan E. Nelson, Embracing Brokenness: How God Refines Us Through Life's Disappointments (NavPress, 2002).

When we believe this, we have entered into God’s salvation. As we “see” this at work in our lives, we have incredible hope and joy. It is because, through Jesus, we have peace with God. That is our hope of full salvation. That is Christian Faith.

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