I don't know if you enjoy rescue stories as much as I do but here's one I came across the other day. In a remote farming community in southern Australia, a 50-year-old farmer was checking his property for storm damage when he was knocked unconscious. His life was in serious danger, as it could have taken hours to find him. Indeed, it could have been much worse, had it not been for the farmer's pet kangaroo called Lulu who bounced to the rescue. To add to the difficulty of the rescue, Lulu was blind in one eye. But that did not deter her from bouncing all the way back to the farmhouse and knocking on the door. After attracting the farmer's wife's attention, Lulu then bounced back to the farmer to show where he was until the paramedics arrived. Lulu was subsequently short listed for an animal bravery award – an award given to animals who do something for humans of an exceptional nature.
The attraction of such stories is that they tell of a terrible situation which is reversed. And the more dire the situation, the more amazing the rescue. This evening we're thinking about the most amazing true rescue story. It involves people who need rescuing from the most terrible danger possible. They are facing a horrific fate, far worse than we can possibly imagine and far worse than even death itself. But the wonderful thing with this rescue story is that there is a rescuer who has gone to incredible lengths to rescue these people. He willingly suffered the most awful things and willingly laid down his life in order to get these people out of that terrifying situation.
So what is this rescue? The rescue I'm talking about took place in about 33A.D. on a Roman cross in Jerusalem. And the rescuer was Jesus Christ. Who did he die for? He died for you and me. Whoever you are and whatever you've done, we're the ones who need rescuing and we're the ones in dire danger. It's this rescue that is explained to us in this passage from Romans 3. This rescue is relevant to all of us here this evening, and it's the most important event to date in human history. Some of you may not be convinced Christians, and some of you might not even believe that God exists, but can I ask you tonight to listen to what these verses have to say? It is because the truths here in this passage get to the very heart of the Christian message. Quite literally we are at the very crux of Christian belief. And Jesus challenges you to think very seriously about what he has done for you. If you are a Christian, then come with me to that cross outside Jerusalem to see again what your rescuer did for you. For as it has been said, 'Dead is the soul that has ceased to be amazed at the love of God as seen in the cross of Christ.' But first,
First, OUR NEED OF RESCUE
Let me ask you – what is your greatest need? Is it to reduce your carbon footprint? Is it to pass your exams or dissertations? According to the Bible our greatest need is to be accepted by and put right with God or to use the Bible word 'justified'(verse 24) – to be declared righteous or 'in the right with God'. But some of you say why?
The problem is that our sin – our rebellion against God and our living without reference to God – separates us from God and there is nothing we can do by ourselves to be put right with God. You see God is righteous and we are not. In Romans 3.10 and 23, the Apostle Paul writes that:
"… 'There is no-one righteous, not even one… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,"
And sin is serious with serious consequences, the most serious of which is separation from a holy God. In Romans 6.23, Paul writes:
"The wages of sin is death [meaning eternal death, eternal separation from God, and eternal punishment in hell. That's why we're in such dire need of rescue]…"
Now there are some who don't believe they've ever sinned. Sophia Loren, the famous film star of the 60's, apparently believes she hasn't and therefore believes she is right with God and so doesn't see the need to be justified. In Romans 3 the Jews fall into the trap of being self-righteous, especially in their attitude to the Gentiles, a trap that we can all fall into.
However the truth about us, about sin and its consequences, which the Apostle Paul has been outlining from Romans 1.18, is this. It is that all human beings, all of us here this evening, of every race and rank, of every creed and culture, Jews and Gentiles, the immoral and the moralising, the religious and the irreligious, are without exception sinful, guilty, inexcusable and speechless before God. Look back at verses 9 to 18 of chapter 3. Paul writes:
"What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written:
'There is no-one righteous, not even one;
there is no-one who understands, no-one who seeks God.
All have turned away, they have together become worthless;
there is no-one who does good, not even one.'
'Their throats are open graves; their tongues practise deceit.'
'The poison of vipers is on their lips.'
'Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.'
'Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know.'
'There is no fear of God before their eyes.' "
According to verse 11 and 18, sin is 'I at the centre' (sIn): I on the throne, which belongs to God alone. Sin is the revolt of the self against God, the dethronement of God and the enthronement of oneself. And according to verses 13 to 17, sin affects every part of us. Our limbs and organs were created and given us so that we might serve people and glorify God. Instead they are used to harm people and in rebellion against God. Every part of us has been twisted and tainted by sin. And while no-one is as bad as he or she might be, on the other hand no action of ours is as good as it should be.
So, verses 10 to 12, we have all gone our own way and not even one of us is righteous or in the right in relation to God. You see to be righteous is to live in absolute conformity to God's law and none of us have. Who here tonight can truly say that they have obeyed the Great Commandment and loved God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength? I can't. And who has always obeyed the second – 'Love your neighbour as yourself'? I haven't. Currently my immediate neighbours on both sides are students. Now can I say that I was a student here once upon a time and I have nothing against students, except at 3 o'clock in the morning when the party is still going on in the back yard. Which brings me on to murder. We may never have murdered anyone but Jesus says in Matthew 5.21-22:
" 'You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, "Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement." But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement…"
In fact I have broken, whether in thought word or deed, every single one of the Ten Commandments. As Paul says in verses 22 to 23 of Romans 3:
"… There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…"
We all fail to live up to God's standards. We have all sinned and fall short of his glory. Yes there are degrees of sinning but none of us even approaches God's perfect standard.
Now imagine we're all in a court of law. Who is in the dock in this passage having been found guilty without excuse, speechless because of the weight of the evidence which has been brought against them? It is you and I. In fact, verse 19, all the inhabitants of the whole world, without any exception, both Jews and Gentiles, are inexcusable before God. As Romans chapters 1 to 3 makes plain, the reason is that all have known something of God and of morality whether through Scripture or nature but have gone their own way. So all are guilty and stand condemned before God, the righteous Judge. Romans 5.12 also reminds us that 'sin entered the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned...' We do not start life with even the possibility of living it sinlessly; we begin it with a sinful nature.
I don't know if you've seen the film Matrix Reloaded. One character in the movie says, "Imperfection is inherent in every human being." We have an inbuilt bias to sin rather like supermarket shopping trolleys which seem to always go off to the left or right and never straight ahead.
"Therefore", writes Paul in verse 20, "no-one will be declared righteous in his [God's] sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin."
The law brings knowledge of sin not forgiveness of sin. No-one will be declared righteous in God's sight by observing the law. There is no possibility of being rescued by good works. Yet salvation by good works is still a commonly held belief. Muhammad Ali, the famous ex-boxer and a Muslim, said in an interview recently:
"One day we're all going to die, and God is going to judge us – our good deeds and bad deeds. If the bad outweighs the good, you go to hell. If the good outweighs the bad, you go to heaven."
But the truth is that no-one will be declared righteous in God's sight by observing the law, rather through the law we become conscious of sin.
So is there any hope? Is there any possibility of rescue? Is there any good news which might mean forgiveness and freedom? Is there a 'but' somewhere in these verses which will come to our aid so that we won't have to stand before God waiting to hear the words of judgement pronounced? Yes, there is! Verse 21:
"But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify."
Which brings us to my next heading:
Second, THE RESCUE ON OFFER
You see God himself has intervened. '… a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known', which refers to the death of Christ and its abiding consequences. In verse 22 Paul tells us that this righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. Not by observing the law. And it's offered to all because it's needed by all, for all have sinned, verse 23, and fall short of the glory of God.
And 'a righteousness from God' is now in verse 24 identified with justification. '… and are justified freely by his grace', writes Paul. So the righteousness from God is a combination of his righteous character, his saving initiative and his gift of a righteous standing before him. It is his just justification of the unjust, his righteous way of 'righteoussing' the unrighteous.
So what does the term 'justification' mean? It's been said that nobody has understood Christianity who does not understand this word. The word justification is a legal term. Its opposite is condemnation. To condemn is to declare the accused guilty or worthy of punishment. To justify is to declare or pronounce righteous. In the Bible justification refers to God's act of unmerited favour by which he puts a sinner right with himself, not only pardoning or acquitting him but accepting him and treating him as righteous. 'Just as if I'd never sinned' is how some remember what the word 'justified' means. Verse 24: We…
"… are justified freely by his grace…"
The initiative for our rescue did not come from us but from God. 'Grace is God loving, God stooping, God coming to the rescue, God giving himself generously in and through Jesus Christ.' Grace, to use the mnemonic, is God's Riches at Christ's Expense.
But if God justifies sinners freely by his grace, on what ground does he do so? How is it possible for the righteous God to declare the unrighteous to be righteous without either compromising his righteousness or condoning our unrighteousness? His answer is the cross of Christ.
Without the cross of Christ our justification would be impossible. The only reason God justifies the wicked, i.e. you and me, is that Christ died for the wicked (Romans 5.6). Because Jesus shed his blood (verse 25) in a sacrificial death for us sinners, God is able justly to justify the unjust.
Paul explains what God did through the death of his Son in our place on the cross once for all in verses 24 to 26. Have a look at those verses: We…
"… are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus."
So first, we're told that God justifies us, 'through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus'. What does that mean? In the Old Testament the term redemption was used of slaves who were purchased in order to be set free. We too, if we're Christians, were slaves, in bondage to our sin and guilt and utterly unable to release ourselves. But Jesus Christ redeemed us, he bought us out of captivity, shedding his blood as the ransom price.
Secondly Paul says that 'God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood'. What does this mean? We cannot placate the righteous anger of God because we have no means by which to do so. But God in his undeserved love has done for us which we could never do by ourselves. Verse 25 says that God presented him [Christ] as a sacrifice for atonement. God gave his own Son to die in our place on the cross, and in giving his Son he gave himself.
Let's return to the court of law. A man appears before the judge. He had committed a crime for which he was declared guilty. The judge had to pass a just sentence and imposed a fine. The man couldn't pay the fine. The judge came down from his seat and wrote a cheque for the amount of the fine. The man went free. Now that is a rather poor illustration of what God has done for us. In his justice he judges us because we are guilty but then in his love he came down in the person of Jesus Christ and paid the penalty for us. In this way he is both just and the one who justifies (verse 26).
Now when I first heard about this rescue on offer I had lots of questions. Maybe you do too. If that's you can I encourage you to go to Christianity Explored where you can ask those questions and hear the rescue explained clearly.
Will you accept what the rescuer, Jesus Christ, has done for you? Will you accept the rescue on offer? You see you've still got to get into the lifeboat so to speak. You've still got to accept the rope to pull you out. Will you accept that he's paid for you, for your sin on the cross and trust in him for forgiveness and eternal life; or are you going to face the judgment of God?
So how do you receive what God has done for you? Answer: through faith in Jesus Christ. Look at verses 22, 25 and 26:
"This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe… through faith in his blood… [God] justifies those who have faith in Jesus."
Justification is by grace alone, in Christ alone, through faith alone.
Who this evening needs to accept what grace offers by believing and trusting in Christ? Whoever you are, whatever you've done – whether it's setting California alight or blackmailing the Royal family, to name but two items from the news today – whatever your attitude has been to Jesus Christ in the past – even if you've only ever used him as a swear word, if you put your faith in him then you can be justified, have peace with God and eternal life.
But maybe you're feeling that God could not possibly forgive you. Jesus said in Mark 2.17:
" 'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.' "
Please understand there are no good people in heaven, only forgiven people. Jesus has nothing to offer the self righteous and self satisfied.
Let me show you although I'm going to need some congregational participation. Who'd like this £20 note? It's genuine. It's the latest version – a crisp new £20 note. Put up your hand if you'd like this £20 note. I want to give this £20 to one of you, but first let me do this. (Crumple up the note.) Now who wants it? What if I drop it on the ground and start to grind it into the floor with my foot? Now who still wants it? You have learned a valuable lesson. No matter what I did to the money, you still wanted it because it did not decrease in value. It was still worth £20. Many times in our lives, we are dropped, crumpled, and ground into the dirt by the decisions we make. We sin and are sinned against. As a result we may feel as though we are worthless. But no matter what has happened or will happen in this life, you will never lose your value in God's eyes. Dirty or clean, crumpled or finely creased, you are priceless to him. God loves you and gave his Son to die in your place and mine. And if you're broken, worn or torn, he can make you whole.