Romans 5:6-8 “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
When I first came to Alfred Place there was church notepaper, some of which was given to me, and a verse from our text today (in the Authorized Version) was inscribed across the top of the page. It said, “God commendeth his love towards us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” It was a splendid verse to choose to announce to everyone who received a letter from us what was the message of this congregation. Such verses as the one before us declare the very heart of Christianity. They are the reason why we gather together, and this is the theme we return to constantly and so are doing so today. Those who know this word best are hungering and thirsting to hear it again, freshly and powerfully telling them of God’s love for them, and the Saviour dying for them. Why do we need the love of God to be declared to us? Two things . . .
WE ARE IN A LOW CONDITION IN THE SIGHT OF GOD.
See how this is defined for us in our text, in three sharp phrases.
i] We are powerless (v.6). We are impotent even to do what our Creator and Judge demands from us. God’s will for us can be summed up in this way, that we love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and then the second command is like it, that we love our neighbour as ourselves. We have discovered that we can’t do that, and because of our spiritual helplessness we don’t do it. Our prime problem is our inability through our sinful natures. Here is this lovable God, who has made such a wonderful world for us to enjoy. He has heaped many blessings upon us. He gave us our parents – who sacrificed and scraped and saved that we might have a better life than they had. How kind they were, how wise and generous and loving! They were God’s gifts to us. We couldn’t have asked for any people more lovely. We are looking forward to seeing them again in heaven. God had personally given us that mother and father. Then we were married and we were loved again by a partner who knew all about us but still loved us and told us how he or she adored us – another remarkable gift of God! Then we probably had children and how they’ve blessed our lives. Then we’ve had health, and sound minds so that we’ve worked at our jobs. We’ve never sat in the street begging for money. We’ve had our daily bread and a roof over our heads. God has given things as basic as that. We are not fearful about retiring and wondering how the money is going to be there to support us. God will provide. He has loved us, and given us richly all things.
So isn’t it a terrible thing that we can’t and don’t love him in return? We’re the beneficiary of so much love from him and yet we can’t think about him, or worship him, or pray to him, or confess our sins to him. Towards God our hearts are as cold as stone and what does he think of that? I will tell you that they that are in the flesh cannot please him. They are powerless to do so. Their minds are not subject to God, nor can they be. They are god-less minds. They don’t want him; they will take all God gives but they’ll give him nothing back. There is no affection for God, in fact we are quite powerless to love the Almighty Lord.
Think of a criminal who has murdered someone, and he says by way of defence, that he couldn’t help it, that that was simply his nature, that he had to act like that and kill people. What would you think of that as a defence? You would be horrified. He was more of a monster than you ever realized. It was not that in a fit of anger he had struck a person and that person had fallen and hit his head and died. No. This murderer couldn’t help doing anything other than kill people. He was a serial killer by nature. That was no excuse for saying, “Oh well, if you couldn’t help it you can go free,” was it? He was an extremely dangerous and evil man. Now we are saying that the Bible tells us not only that we don’t love our wonderful kind and loving God, but that we are powerless to act in any other way than with a stone heart of unbelief. By nature we reject him from our lives entirely. It takes a new birth to change us.
We are little different in our helplessness in our attitude to our neighbours. We are too selfish to love our neighbours to the required degree – as we love ourselves. Of course we love in return them that love us. We are kind to them who are kind to us. That is where we draw the line. But the second commandment tells us that if we are brought into contact with someone – whether in a cordial way or by way of hostile anger towards us – then he or she becomes our neighbour and this is how we are to act towards them – we are to love them, steadily, faithfully, constantly loving them as we love ourselves. But we don’t do that either, because we can’t. What self-centred lives we live. We are powerless to change. So the sixth verse here tells us that we are powerless.
ii] We are ungodly (v.6). Consider God, how patient he is, and forgiving; he doesn’t keep a record of the way we Christians have offended him; he is a God at peace with himself and with the world; he is gentle, tender, utterly good in all he is and does, faithful in keeping his word, concerned for others and so on. Men and women are not like that so much of their time and in so many of their actions. People are not god-like; they are ungodly; they are anti-god.
God is sovereign, but men oppose his sovereignty. “We won’t have this God rule over us,” they say. Men want to be free to do as they please. “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice?” They ask. God is light; in him is no darkness at all. In other words he is holy and he hates sin. Men don’t accept such a God; they don’t accept his standards; they don’t want to be told that they are to give account to him for how they have lived. They don’t want their actions to be called into question by such a God. God is omniscient; he knows everything, and also they oppose that. They don’t want him to know every bad thing they’ve done, the details and actions that their parents don’t know or that their spouses are ignorant about. They are resentful that he knows them perfectly, that nothing at all is hidden from him. They don’t like to be told that the only way to him is through Jesus Christ, that no man comes to him except by the Lord. They want to come to a god whom they choose, in the way they lay down whenever they choose to do so. That god is really a projection of themselves, easy –going and affable, turning a blind eye to how people behave. Men are ungodly, anti-god, at enmity with him from their hearts. Men are rebels. We are even told in verse 10 that men are his enemies.
iii] We are sinners (v.8). Paul has told them in chapter 3 and verse 23 that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Imagine a gap 10 meters wide over a deep chasm, and all of us have to jump across it. Children and old folks and sick people try, and they jump two or three metres, but we have athletes in the congregation and they can jump 6 or 8, and one man even jumps 9, but all fall short of the ten metres that is the gap. All are destined to be falling and falling and falling, because they fall short of the high standard.
So many non-Christians live grand lives, lives we much admire and wish we could live as sensibly and lovingly as they do as individuals, and family members, and good neighbours. Very few whom we know are criminals and abusers and loud, proud, boasting men and women. They seem better than many Christians, but the best of them falls short of the standard God sets. His standard is his glory, his shining perfection, that he is full of grace and truth, that he totally lacks any meanness or impatience or narrowness or selfishness. He abounds in loving-kindness. That is his glory. He abounds in his moral perfection. That is his glory, and we fall short of his glory. We are sinners. The word means to miss the target. It is not that we have missed the bull’s eye, we have completely missed the target. We are tested one by one by the ten commandments, and though in some of them there may be an 80% obedience, still we have missed the target. No gods but Him. We’re not to bow before idols and serve them. We’re not to lace our speech by blasphemously misusing his name in our curses. Once such sick words would have been totally excluded from television but now it is commonplace except that they never take Mohamed’s name in vain on TV. We give a day a week to God and we gather with his people and hear his word and confess our sins and seek strength to serve him better. We honour our parents giving them loving service especially when they are old and feeble. We don’t get involved in violence, in sexual sins, in theft, in lying or in coveting what others have and angrily grieving that we don’t have what they’ve got. That is the target God has set up for all human lives, and we have missed it – whether by a mile or by inches, all have come short of the target that God has set for us. We are sinners, all of us.
So that is the human dilemma, and those are the three terms used in our text that show us what’s wrong with the human race and why men and women behave as they do. We are in a low condition in the sight of God and we can’t get out of that all by ourselves..
YET GOD HAS DEMONSTRATED HIS LOVE FOR US.
The Swanwick Reformation and Revival Conference meets near the Denby pottery works, and on our free afternoon of three hours we occasionally pay it a visit. They have a ‘seconds’ shop where you can get under-priced china-ware but then there is something else, there are cookery demonstrations that make cooking seem quick and easy, and you are encouraged to buy marvelous labour saving gadgets, and you get to taste the hot food that has just been cooked in little plastic pots with plastic forks. This is cooking! I’ve not been for some years because now that afternoon is increasingly full of pastoral visits to sick folk in Derbyshire.
God has given us a demonstration of ‘his own love’ not our love, but how he loves, and we sing “Oh dearly, dearly has he loved.” His love is costly – to himself. He has one Son, his only begotten Son, and he has loved him eternally. There never was a time when he began to love him. He always loved him, immeasurably, infinitely, full of the deepest affection and delight. There was never a more loving Father; there was never a more loved Son. They had the best Father-Son relationship that has ever existed or ever will exist. It is in that relationship that we first meet the love of God.
Then we go up a step, a huge step of astonishment, because we are told that with the identical love that the Father had for the Son – that very same love focuses on us, and homes in on us. Not a lesser love, not at all, not a love like it at all, but his own love that embraces the Lord Jesus reaches down and down and settles on us, for ever and ever. That love loves us with a love that will never let us go. It crosses all the mountains of our resistance and indifference and wickedness and grasps hold of us like the father of the prodigal son ran to him and wrapped his arms around him and held him tight and wept with joy at his return. So God loves us to the same infinite degree that he loves his Son. He loves us, his trusting people, his disciples, those who have repented of their sin and put their faith in Jesus Christ and asked him to save them, the newest of them, the weakest lamb in the flock, the most inconsistent and backsliding believer – he or she is loved with the same love that God has for his Son. He could not love us more because his love for us is everlasting and infinite. When we come to ourselves from spells of backsliding, and when we turn over a new leaf and we destroy that idol which we’ve been serving far too long, then he doesn’t love us more. He couldn’t love us more. Certainly he will strengthen and use us more, the more holy we are the greater will be our reward, but he won’t love us more. He cannot love us any more than he does now.
How can I say all of this? Am I making it up? Is this a simple and embarrassing attempt at oratory? No; these are the words of Jesus in a prayer to his Father. Listen to what he says. You find it John chapter 17 and verse 23; “let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” That is what I have done today. I have let the world in which I live, this town and all of you and all who will hear my words on line or read them on the world wide web my calling is to make them all understand this demonstration of love, to know that God loves all his people, all for whom the Saviour laid down his life, with the identical and magisterial love that he gives to his dear Son Jesus Christ, that he makes them sons and heirs, joint heirs with Christ, that they get in glory to share in the inheritance of the Son of God.
Now we’ve read that the words translated in the English by terms like God ‘commending’ his love, or ‘demonstrating’ his love would be better translated ‘proves’ his love. In other words, you ask me what is the proof that God loves his Son and loves us believing sinners in this way. The answer is not difficult and it is twofold; there is the costliness of the price God paid to save us, and there is our state of unworthiness when God saved us. So do you see it, that the more the gift costs the giver, and the more unworthy the beneficiary or recipient of that love is, then the greater is that love in action. So how costly was that love? Let us look at the two proofs of God’s love.
i] The costliness of God’s gift of love. God had given up prophets whom he loved, sending them to their deaths – death by stones and death by cold steel, and God looked in compassion and the deepest affection on those men who had laid down their lives in serving him. God had also sent angels to perform certain tasks or deliver certain messages. They had assumed manhood (and seemed to be only real men) with God’s message to a defiant nation, but to redeem us he didn’t send Michael or Gabriel. God did not send a pure and holy woman like the Virgin Mary to make atonement for our sin. He did not tie her to a stake and consume her in the flames of his majestic rectitude. She was but one woman, and her sacrifice would be that of a mortal not of the Immortal, of a finite creature not the sacrifice of the Infinite, of a child of time not the sacrifice of the Eternal one. All those would have been too mean to accomplish cosmic redemption. So there was but one option for God. God sent his only-begotten and beloved Son. Behold an infinite sacrifice, an eternal sacrifice, an immeasurably rich sacrifice of someone without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, who did not need to make atonement for his own sins for he had none.
Now, in giving his Son God was giving himself, for there is but one true and living God. God loved, and God sent the God he loved. God came. Behold the mystery of godliness. God was manifest in the flesh. The Word who was with God and was God was made flesh and dwelt among us, and died among us. What a costly gift! None ever greater, nor ever shall be!
But more than that, God gave him up to die, and his dying was the unspeakable death of the cross. God became man, a man in a humble condition, in a groaning world where they put men to death by nailing them to the tree and hanging them up to die for long tortuous hours. God gave his Son to die the death of the cross. “Cosmic child abuse!” is the foolish cry one heard protesting about this Bible teaching. It is a foolish objection for a number of reasons. For example, the word ‘cosmic’ is quite redundant here. It was not the cosmos but God the Father who was allegedly guilty of abuse. Again, the charge of ‘cosmic child abuse’ is totally inept because it isolates the story of the crucifixion from everything else in the witness of the New Testament to Jesus. What am I talking about? This, that for virtually all his life, for 33 years, Jesus enjoyed the love, protection and encouragement of his heavenly Father. He was able to live a life free from anxiety. He was confident that he was never alone, that his loving God was always within earshot. He said that it was his meat and drink to do the will of the one who had sent him. Was he abused? No. Was he neglected? No. Was he damaged? No.
Again, how is Golgotha cosmic child abuse? When he died the death of the cross, was he a child? Not at all. He was a mature adult. He was able to make free choices. He was a volunteer. He was able to take full responsibility for his decisions. He was able to turn his face steadfastly to Jerusalem though his friends didn’t want him to die he knew that that was what he had to do, and why he had come into the world. “The Son of Man must suffer” he said frequently. He freely chose the path to Golgotha. He resolved to lay down his life for his friends. He made no attempt to escape when the soldiers came to arrest him in Gethsemane. He had evaded his enemies before, but not now. “Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” he said.
But not merely was he a man and not a child, he was not merely a man. He was God the Son, the eternal Word, the Lord before whom one day every knee must bow. This is not a helpless victim being tortured by his Father. He is one with God, he is the one in whom the judgment of God explodes, which death he willingly accepts. He is the one in whom God condemns himself, one in whom God lets himself be abused. Yes, Scripture says that this is God the Father bruising him, but Scripture also says that this is also God the Son being abused. In other word, the alleged ‘abused child’ is very God of very God. It is divine blood that is shed on Calvary. God is surrendering himself to the worse that man can do to him, and he is bearing the whole cost of redeeming the world. Yet never for a mini-second is he man’s helpless victim. They could never do anything to him if he did not permit it. His humanity is filled with the Spirit. He is indomitable, and at the end of his sufferings his last confident word is “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” These are not the words of a man who has been abused by the hands of his Father. And then this God exalts him to the highest place in heaven and earth and orders the entire universe to confess him as Lord of all. So there is the costliness of God’s gift of love.
ii] The unworthiness of the recipients. The more the gift costs the giver the greater the love. For some poor people a little gift would be costly. For a millionaire it would be a very expensive gift that would cost him anything. Then think what would be the cost to God that would make his gift a sacrificial gift. So here is another criterion for measuring the love of God. The less the recipient deserves the gift, the greater is the love being displayed. So here, for example, are the next door neighbours whose pit bull terrier savaged your little girl. They had the dog put down, and were terribly distressed at what had happened but you have forgiven them and still love them, and never forget their birthdays and still give them sweet gifts. What love for those who hurt you! Now who benefits from the sacrifice of Christ? Is it the noble, the righteous, the obedient men and women? No. It is powerless, ungodly sinners. How are they described in the Bible? It is men who are persisting in their rebellion against him. How does Isaiah describe them? “Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted. From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness – only wounds and bruises and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil” (Isa. 1:6). They are the ones who are the recipients of God’s love! How does Jeremiah describe their hearts? “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9). God gave his Son to such a bunch of deceivers. Or think of Peter comparing men and women to a pack of dogs eating their own vomit, or some fat pigs wallowing in mud, or Isaiah comparing us to a flock of sheep who have got out through a badly closed gate, and now are all over roads and mountains and gardens going further and further astray, and it is the wearying work of days to bring them together again. So we are told that God gave his beloved Son up, and to die on Calvary, and to die for people as unworthy and as unattractive as beasts.
Human beings are very generous in being loving towards those whom they judge to be worthy of their love. In their wills they will leave them houses and lands and fortunes because they judge them people who are wise and responsible, but God gave his most precious gift to men who behave like wandering sheep or a pack of dogs or a herd of swine. For them Jesus endured the cross despising the shame. For them he laid down his life, the just one dying in the place of the unjust that he might bring them to God.
Hear Paul making this observation. “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die” (v.7). There is a man and he is cold, clinical and upright, as straight as a gun barrel and just as empty of warmth and graces. There are people who greatly admire this man’s principles, who say, “It’s more men like that that this world needs,” and they will speak up for him, and go on the hustings for him and encourage others to support him, and they will spread his message, and they will even die in the cause of this austere, upright individual. Thousands have died for the cold leaders of revolutions. But thousands more have dared to die for good men, whose lives are warm and generous and appealing. One thinks of the leaders of the American War of Independence and one believes one would have fought for American freedom and for General Washington rather than have fought for King George III. For good men we would dare to die. Let me tell you some incidents to help bring your emotions to the truth.
Two men were trapped in a mine explosion, and poisonous gas was escaping. One man had a wife and three children. He also had a gas mask, but his mask had been torn in the underground explosion and it let in the poison. There was no hope that he could survive without a complete gas-mask. But then the man who was trapped with him took off his own mask and pressed it upon the man who was to survive. He said, “You have Mary and the children; they need you. I’m a single man and I can go.” And so he gave his gas mask to his companion. When we hear of an act like that, we are deeply humbled. Would I do that? Would I lay down my life for a friend? For a good man? I would like to think I would.
The other story concerns a tough teenager with tons of street cred. His sister was seriously ill and she needed an operation. The operation was scheduled and took place, but after the operation things went wrong and the girl needed blood transfusions. Now this boy, her brother, was the same blood group and was asked would he give blood. “Yes,” he said straight away. He watched tight-lipped as a needle was inserted into his vein and blood destined for his sister was drained from him. When the transfusion was over, a doctor put his arm on the boy’s shoulder and told him that he’d been very brave. The teenager knew nothing about the nature of blood transfusions. But the doctor knew even less about the actual bravery of the boy, until the boy looked up at him and asked steadily, “Doc, how long have I got to live?” You understand that he’d got the idea that they’d taken all his blood, and now he was going to die having saved his sister. As he watched his blood filling the bag, he’d thought that he was dying, drop by drop. But he did it anyway! Because of his love for his sister. For a good friend or family member many are prepared to die. A mother would say, “I am old. I would willingly die that my daughter could live as long as I have.” For a good person many would dare to die. True stories like that sober us, of people prepared to lay down their lives for others. Jesus said that greater love has no man than that.
Yet here we are in a new dimension entirely. When we read of the love of God in Romans 5, we learn that it was not for those who were close to him or who loved him that Jesus died – but for those who were totally indifferent to him or who were quite hostile to him, who hated him and wanted him dead. He loved them with a vast love that would save them from destroying their lives, changing them for ever. What greater proof could there be of God’s love? So Paul is making his point, “While we were yet as beastly as sheep and dogs and swine, covered in putrefying weeping sores from head to foot, unlovely men with deceitful hearts, Christ laid down his life to deliver us.”
You say today, “What can Christ do for me? I have been such a sinner. What good is religion to me, I keep falling, I am so powerless.” Paul answers, “Much every way! Remember when Christ died. When we were still powerless, ungodly sinners. It was not when we had made ourselves better. It was not when we had somehow climbed out of the fearful pit and the miry clay all by ourselves, and washed all the mud off us and made new hearts for ourselves that then he loved us. No. I’ve fallen again; I’ve sinned again, when I’ve done bad things and think, “Surely, I shouldn’t have done that.” At such times, I need help. And my help at such times will come from remembering the basis upon which my salvation rests. Who was this Geoff Thomas for whom God sacrificed his Son to save him? I ruefully answer that question, and remember the kind of person I’ve been for whom Jesus died. Surely then I won’t continue to be discouraged or to think that he will abandon me now.
When I was totally a sinner, without strength and without one good thing to commend me to God, it was then that Jesus was loving me so much so that he gave his life for me. Who dies for some awful scoundrel? Christ does. Who dies for the enemy, those who cried out, “Away with him! Crucify Him! Release unto us Barabbas!”? Christ does. Well, who was the enemy? I was! I was the enemy of God. I was tramping through God’s universe, poisoning his streams, turning prairies into dust-bowls, shaking my fist in his face. I would have nothing to do with him, and always finding tons of excuses for not worshipping him, but he was loving me then.
It was at that time, what Paul calls the “right time” (v.6), the right time for your deliverance, when you were wrong in your attitude to God and also in your attitude to your neighbours, then, at the most suitable and proper time for you, the time of your helplessness and sinfulness, then at your extremity God sent his Son to the world, to the virgin’s womb and the carpenter’s shop and the cross of cruel shame he came seeking for you, dying for you, rising for you, reconciling God to you, saving you. What hope that gives me now! Now, even when I fall, the blood of Jesus is enough. He didn’t save me because I was strong; he saved me when I was helpless. He didn’t save me when I was a pretty thing; he saved me when I was vomit and mud. And on the basis of this reality, I can have comfort at the right time, even eternal consolation.
When we sin, we can react in one of three ways: one, we can become hardened to our sin; two, we can sink into utter despair and cry, “It’s all over.” There are people who have spent twenty years despairing over one fall. But neither of these reactions is right. The only right course of action for us is to become increasingly sensitive to our sin, yes, but ten times more aware of the vastness of God’s mercy and then increasingly to know the forgiveness that is ours on the basis of the blood of Christ. If he loved me like that, before he had saved and justified me, how much more now that he has clothed me in the righteousness of his Son will be keep me safe for ever! God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
16th November 2014 GEOFF THOMAS