But how?

Romans 3:21-26

But now.

That’s how today’s passage starts, and those powerful words signal that a major change has happened through Jesus Christ. (Bible scholars like Craddock and Achtemeier noticed this long before me.)

But now. We are sinful, but now. We have tried to solve sin on our own, but now. We have tried to avoid sin with ignorance, conquer sin with the law, and deflate sin with comparison… and none of it worked.

BUT NOW.

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed” (3:21, NRSV).
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known” (3:21, NIV).
But now God’s righteousness has been revealed apart from the law” (3:21, CEB).

Sin was an unsolvable problem. BUT NOW…

Jesus.

Let us breathe a sigh of eternal relief. Let us wipe the sweat of damnation from our foreheads. We are saved. Hallelujah! Amen.

Except, I have another question. I don’t want to be ungrateful – I am so thankful for this “but now” that my heart can hardly accept it. And maybe that’s the thing. It’s so unbelievably amazing, so mind-blowingly wonderful, that when I hear this “but now” I can’t help but wonder, “but how?”

But how does Jesus solve the seemingly un-solvable problem of sin? But how did this Son of God, this Messiah, this unconventional king make that possible? But how did Jesus save the mess of humanity – a mess that is obvious whether you’re considering all of us at once or one of us at a time?

But how does Jesus save us from sin?

Like this, Paul says:

“… since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (3:23-25, NRSV).

Let’s focus on one word, a word Paul likes to use to explain what Jesus has done:

Justified.

No, not like the TV show. Except… maybe a little like the TV show. “Justified” is a legal word, so I sought out a little pro-bono consultation from the attorneys connected with our church this week. One gave it to me short and simple: “Legitimized; made right or appropriate.” That’s what Jesus does for us: he makes us legitimate before God.

Another attorney pointed out that “justified” is a term that comes up in a defense – when someone is accused of a wrongdoing. This makes sense for us, because the reason we need justification is that we’ve done something wrong. Or many somethings wrong. We need justification because sin is a problem; we need justification because sin is our problem.

“Justified,” the attorney said, is “when something is done that would ordinarily be illegal in a criminal context, or negligent or actionable in a civil context, is excused (i.e., made not illegal or negligent or actionable) because of the circumstances surrounding the action.” In our case, the circumstance that justifies us is Jesus’ death on the cross. Because of that, our wrongs are excused.

So thank you, attorneys – that helps a lot.

But I’m still not 100% on this. I’m still wondering: “But how?” But how does Jesus’ death justify our sin?

Thankfully there’s more to Paul’s argument, and I think Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase helps highlight the next helpful point:

“All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus. Through his faithfulness, God displayed Jesus as the place of sacrifice where mercy is found by means of his blood” (3:23-25, The Message).

In those last dozen words he’s trying to communicate something that’s largely lost on us Christians. It’s lost on us because Paul is pointing back to Leviticus, and that’s not our favorite book of the Bible. But let’s bravely open up the third book of the Bible, let’s sift through all these laws about uncleanness and purification, and find for ourselves chapter 16.

IMG_0012

“Onement, I” by Barnett Newman (1948)

There we’ll read about how the high priest addressed the problem of sin for the people. On a particular day, the Day of Atonement, the high priest went in to the Ark of the Covenant. The top of that Ark was called the “mercy seat.” It was God’s seat. So we’re talking about the closest a human being could physically be to God: that was the mercy seat. The high priest made an offering for himself, and then for the people:

“He shall take some of the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat, and before the mercy seat he shall sprinkle the blood with his finger seven times. He shall slaughter the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the curtain, and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it upon the mercy seat and before the mercy seat” (16:13-15).

This seems gory and uncivilized to us, to sacrifice an animal and bring its blood into the equivalent of a sanctuary. Ew. But not “ew” to people in antiquity; it was totally normal, because this was the prescribed solution to the problem of sin. A payment was made in the form of a life given. This healed the wrongdoings and therefore healed the connection between people and God. Atonement – at-one-ment with God – was achieved.

This is why Peterson translates Romans 3:25 in this way: “Through his faithfulness, God displayed Jesus as the place of sacrifice where mercy is found by means of his blood.” This is what Jesus has done for us. He has healed our wrongdoings so that we can approach God. He has made the payment that allowed for us and God to be “at one.”

“But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed” (3:21, NRSV).

But how?

Through Jesus, who was the definitive legal action on our behalf, reconciling the fact that we’ve broken God’s laws.

Through Jesus, who was the perfect, once-and-for-all sacrifice that made it possible for us to approach God.

Sin is a universal, serious problem… and we have been given a universal, serious solution. It’s available to all people; it’s enough to cover all sins. It’s the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Before we remember Jesus’ death and resurrection in communion, we say these powerful words:

“In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”

Today, may you hear that phrase and know that it’s deeply, radically true. You are forgiven – not because of anything you’ve done, but because of all that Jesus Christ has done.

You are forgiven. You are made right with God.

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