Romans 3:21-31 (NLT)
But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.
For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.
Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law.
After all, is God the God of the Jews only? Isn’t he also the God of the Gentiles? Of course he is. There is only one God, and he makes people right with himself only by faith, whether they are Jews or Gentiles. Well then, if we emphasize faith, does this mean that we can forget about the law? Of course not! In fact, only when we have faith do we truly fulfill the law.
Yes, Paul emphasizes the fact we all have sinned. But what should be a sad or even terrifying message becomes instead Good News that brings great joy to all people, to borrow a phrase from the Gospel of Luke.
This is core gospel, folks. People sometimes ask, “Why doesn’t God just fix everything?” He did; he continues to do so. The work done on the cross fixes broken creation in ways we can barely begin to imagine.
There is one particular assertion in Paul’s words today I find astonishing. When I read them, I get the sense that the final work of the cross may permeate creation far more deeply than the human mind can grasp.
Jesus once said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough” (Matthew 13:33). But what if we were to discover the woman’s yeast also managed to permeate all the unleavened bread that had existed for thousands of years before she was born?
It’s a strange idea, I know, but not any stranger than Paul’s when he writes, “This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time.”
The translation we are using for this series brings the matter forward a little more plainly than others, but the assertion has always been there in Paul’s original Greek, which uses a long, complex sentence to express the thought. More traditional English translations talk about God’s “forbearance,” a word that can slip by us. The point is, the cross is effective for the cancellation of all sins in all times.
When I try to grasp the fullness of the cross, I think of a now-closed attraction in Atlanta called the Cyclorama. It featured a 42-foot-high, 358-foot-long 19th-century painting of the Battle of Atlanta on the inside of what was essentially a huge cylinder. Audiences viewed it from the inside, of course, and three-dimensional dioramas at the foot of the painting supplemented the image.
Imagine if all of history, every event from beginning to end, could be captured on such a painting. (The painting of the battle of Atlanta would be a mere thread in such a larger work.) Christ’s death on the cross would not be on the painting itself—it instead would be in the center of the room, the gracious light of the moment touching and changing everything on the canvas.
The Christ light touches Adam and Eve as they bite into the fruit and tremble with fear.
The Christ light touches Cain as he attacks and kills Abel.
The Christ light touches the wicked as they drown before the closed doors of Noah’s ark.
The Christ light touches the people of Israel as they dance before a golden calf of their own making, defying the God leading them toward holiness.
The Christ light touches the 10 spies who have seen the goodness of Canaan but place fear in the hearts of the Israelites, condemning a generation to desert wandering.
The Christ light touches Korah and his followers as the earth swallows them for rebelling against Moses.
The Christ light touches the leaders of the Kingdom of Israel as they turn from God repeatedly: as Saul resorts to witchcraft, as the priests extort the people, as David lusts for a woman not his, as Solomon’s many wives cause him to seek the favor of other gods.
The Christ light touches the prophet Jonah as he sits sulking.
The Christ light even manages to touch King Herod and the soldiers who execute babies in Bethlehem in an attempt to thwart the Messiah.
We receive a few hints in Scripture of how this Christ light might work backward through time. In 1 Peter 3:18-20, we hear that the gospel was preached to “the spirits in prison.” That and other obscure texts are the origin of the line in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended to the dead.” As Methodists, we often skip the line entirely, unless we are reciting it as part of the baptismal liturgy.
When we do say it, we are asserting that somehow during Jesus’ time in the grave the Spirit of Christ was able to witness to those who had died and awaited judgment.
All of that is tough to work out theologically and remains mysterious. Bible scholar Robert Mounce once called 1 Peter 3:18-20 a passage that is “perhaps the most difficult to understand in all of the New Testament.”
But here’s what we can take away from this complex assertion with great certainty. The power of the cross is infinitely pervasive, yet easily accessed by having faith in it.
Never think for a moment God cannot reach you. Never for an instant believe there is no hope for you.
The Christ light is perfectly capable of touching every corner of your soul, if only you will let it. Many of us have some kind of ongoing sin we cannot shake, and it’s easy to think, “That shame will always be there.” It need not be. Let it go.
Many of us bear pain from sins committed against us. That pain can be so great it keeps us from knowing God in full. Our anger may even cause us to commit new sins as we cope in very wrong ways, hurting others in the process. This also need not be. Let the light of the cross heal that pain.
The Christ light shines into our future, too. It changes all of creation so much that we are told a day is coming when “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Such a vision of the future is truly panoramic.