Sunday, September 04, 2016

The Righteous Shall Live By Faith

First Message in the Series
Romans – The Road to Righteousness

Sunday, September 4, 2016
Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church
Glen A. Land, Senior Pastor

Guilt, fear, and shame—the sources of a debilitating state of mind that robs our days of joy and our nights of peace.

Guilt, fear, and shame—feelings that haunt the lives of people everywhere, regardless of race, nationality, language, culture, educational level, or economic status.

Guilt, fear, and shame— emotions that have bedeviled us from that day when we each first grasped the meaning of “bad.”

Guilt, fear, and shame—since the first Sumerian scribe more than 5,000 years ago pressed a sharpened stick into soft clay tablets to fashion the earliest written words, human history has been the dreary record of the ruinous consequences of this terrible triad of despair.

But guilt, fear, and shame are far older than Sumer—far older than any written history. Their story actually begins in a garden of delights—the Garden of Eden. You know the story…

Genesis 3:4-11
4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

8And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” 10And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” 11He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

So what exactly were the consequences of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? What did Adam and Eve actually learn from their misadventure?

  • Because they broke God’s command, they learned about guilt. It was guilt that caused Adam to blame Eve and Eve to blame the serpent.
  • Because they broke God’s trust, they learned about fear. When God drew near, instead of greeting Him with gladness, they hid in the bushes.
  • Because they broke God’s relationship with them, they learned about shame. Their response? A pathetic attempt to cover their nakedness with fig leaves.

Guilt, fear, and shame—the three-fold emotions of sin. This was the immediate consequence of their disobedience.

  • Guilt: that sense of having done something wrong. You see that flashing blue light in your rearview mirror and it hits you. I was speeding. I broke the law.
  • Fear: the distress felt when faced with the consequences of your actions. The IRS is auditing your taxes. You suddenly realize that when they uncover the deduction you claimed for that “business trip” to Vegas, you’re going to be facing a big fine.
  • Shame: the embarrassment or sense of unworthiness that we feel in the presence of someone better than us. That feeling you had when a parent or spouse caught you looking at an inappropriate website—a feeling sometimes expressed by the phrase, “I wanted to crawl into a hole and pull the hole in after me.”

If guilt, fear, and shame are the immediate consequences of our sin, then the long-term consequence is death—the physical death of our bodies and the eternity in hell separated from God that Revelation 20:14 calls the Second Death.

But there is also an intermediate consequence of our sin. Between the sinner’s sense of grief caused by guilt, fear, and shame; and the threat of death that hangs like a shroud over our futures; there is a lifetime spent in exile. Adam and Eve lived out their days as exiles, cast out of Eden with the way back blocked by a cherubim wielding a flaming sword, while forever haunted by the memory of what they’d lost.

Exile… the Bible is filled with stories of people living in exile, cut off from home, cut off from where they belong. Exile is an integral part of Judeo-Christian theology. Adam, Moses, Hagar, Jacob, Daniel, Isaiah, Jonah—all lived as exiles. Paul spent much of his life as a displaced person. The last book of the Bible, The Revelation, was penned by the Apostle John in exile on the island of Patmos. All of these men and women and more lived—and sometimes died—cut off from family, from friends, from home.

It is the plaintive cry of the exile that we hear in the words of Psalm 137:

1By the waters of Babylon,
    there we sat down and wept,
    when we remembered Zion.
2On the willows there
    we hung up our lyres.
3For there our captors
    required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4How shall we sing the Lord's song
    in a foreign land?

The theme of exile runs through Scripture because sin makes exiles of us all. Our heart’s home is with God. But because of our sin, we are cut off. The way back is barred. There is no going home again.

It was exile in this sense that David feared in Psalm 51, his powerful prayer of repentance after his sin with Bathsheba:

10Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and renew a right spirit within me.
11Cast me not away from your presence,
    and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and uphold me with a willing spirit.

Cast me not away from your presence… don’t make an exile of me again.

One of the worst punishments that a prisoner can face is solitary confinement—deeper exile for one already in exile. To be cut off, to be banished, to be shunned… To be forced into exile is to become a pariah to those whose love and respect we crave. Just ask Ryan Lochte. Sin has made him an exile within the international swimming fraternity, just as sin has made us all exiles from the presence of God.

Ever since The Fall, we’ve sought relief from guilt, fear, and shame.

We all experience each of the three emotions of sin, but some cultures tend to emphasize one more than the others.

  • Western cultures tend to focus on guilt. Catholic parochial school guilt has even become a mainstay of stand-up comedians.
  • The tribal cultures in the jungles of Africa and South America are fear based.
  • Muslim and oriental cultures are shame focused societies where appearances—hiding one’s guilt and saving face—are more important than one’s actions.

But in every culture underlying all of these anxieties is the ever-present fear of death and punishment.

To rid ourselves of guilt, fear, and shame, we sometimes resort to bizarre, even silly remedies. One website I checked out offered some “Emotional Healing Exercises.” A couple of their “exercises” such as, “Write a Letter to someone who hurt you, Read It Aloud, Then Burn It” or “Beat Up a Pillow with a Tennis Racket” are pretty standard stuff in the emotional health self-help world. But some were pretty weird, such as:

The Staircase to Your Inner Sanctuary Exercise
Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Relax. Now imagine that you’re at the top of a tiny staircase that begins… right behind your eyes. This staircase spirals downwards to the centre of your being. Visualize yourself as a little doll, at the top the staircase. Let yourself wander down the stairs to the core of your being, a place of great serenity. Let your dolly freely wander about the place. What do you see? What do you feel? Embrace your emotions. Don’t hold back. Let it flow. Whatever happens happens. Be the little doll within your sanctuary for as long as you like. Whatever happens will be beneficial.

The Pink Bubble of Light Exercise
This one has you visualizing yourself totally surrounded by glistening white light that comes down from the universe, filled with sparkling little silver stars. The light and the stars surround your entire body, swirling gently around you. Then you breathe in the white light. The white light will help you. (Exactly how this helps was not made clear.)

And if the exercises alone don’t hack it for you, the website will be happy to sell you some wonderful flower essences…

As ridiculous and useless as these so-called “exercises” are, at least they recognize our feelings of guilt, fear, and shame as real issues that need to be squarely faced and addressed. In the last half of Romans Chapter 1 Paul describes another approach, one that denies the factual basis of these emotions. And here there is nothing in the least bit humorous:

18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

24Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

28And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Look at this passage in its entirety, and you’ll see that it’s the depiction of a culture—a whole value system if you will—that stands under God’s judgment. For the Bible tells us that it is not merely individuals whom God will judge. He is also the judge of nations and of cultures. And the culture Paul describes is one embraced by people…
  • Who refuse to acknowledge God’s truth.
  • Who actively suppress that truth.
  • Who are futile in their thinking.
  • People who are fools.
  • Who worship the creation—not the Creator.
  • Who are filled with lust and perversion.
  • And people who actively affirm and celebrate rebellion against God and all he represents.

Paul spent his entire ministry working to undermine the power and influence of this world view. This culture has a name. The name is paganism. As characterized by the early church, paganism is a worldview in which hedonism reigns supreme. It is the “religion” if we can even properly call it a religion, of people who are sensual, materialistic, self-indulgent, and who have rejected the Christian basis for morality. In describing paganism Paul speaks of the thought process of a people who have lost touch with ultimate reality. They have ceased to be truly rational beings. Their thoughts have become complete nonsense—that’s how the Good News translation renders “futile in their thinking.” It suffers from a fatal flaw, the basic disconnect from reality that stems from their failure to recognize and glorify the true God. What God did in confusing the speech of the arrogant and proud builders of the Tower of Babel, he has allowed to happen to the very thought process of the pagans. This was the dominant culture of the Roman Empire—the culture that many of the Christians in Rome were a part of before they came to Christ—the culture that they were saved out of.

What, you may ask, has 1st Century paganism to do with a 21st Century world? In a word, everything. Paganism is having a great revival—a Satanic aping of spiritual awakening if you would. It comes in many forms. It’s adherents run the gamut from atheistic secular humanists like Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Angelina Jolie, and George Clooney to an increasingly creepy 90-year-old Hugh Heffner lounging about the Playboy mansion in those signature silk pajamas of his to gay anarchists running amok in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to some Wiccan priestess chanting to the rising sun at Stonehenge on the dawn of the summer solstice.

What all these people have in common is their denial of the moral basis for guilt, fear, and shame. Shaking their fists at their empty heaven, they declare themselves free from the constraints of conventional morality. Those in the vanguard of this philosophy—the really radical true believers—have not merely stretched the boundaries of moral propriety, they have blown them away. And they revile any who do not endorse and support their moral lawlessness. Who among us has not heard the latest outrage in the news without shaking our heads and muttering, “These people just aren’t thinking straight!” In truth, that is precisely their problem. Their thoughts, especially about God and his commands about right and wrong, are complete nonsense. And like arguing with a drunk, you cannot reason with them. They suffer from Babel of the Brain.

And what is heaven’s answer to this mockery of all that’s holy? “…God gave them up… God gave them up… God gave them up…”  Three times that bleak phrase is repeated like the slow echoing cadence of a sounding gong. It is the pronouncement of doom. Paul’s scathing account of the moral emptiness of paganism’s followers reveals its disastrous end; an end where God gives them up to the impurity of their lusts. He gives them up to their dishonorable passions. He gives them up to follow the sinful impulses of their debased minds. The apostle is absolutely unrelenting in his condemnation of a world view that is utterly opposed to Christ’s teachings

Pity the foolish pagans! Paul’s account reaches its nadir in verse 32, “Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” Willful rejection of divine revelation hardens the heart to the point where the rebel takes delight in the sinfulness of others. At this point wickedness has sunk to its lowest level.

But lest we too quickly thank heaven that we are not pagans, we need to ponder the fuller meaning of this text. For while Paul is certainly describing the plight of the pagan, when we look at the broader context of his epistle these words describe the state of all us apart from the saving blood of Jesus Christ. This is the inner reality of the human race—a reality that traces all the way back to Eden. These verses are a revelation of the gospel’s judgment on us all. They lay bare the rotten heart of the human race. And they warn that our sin has invited the wrath of God upon us.

Some cringe and back away from talk about God’s Wrath as if it were some holdover from a less enlightened age. They equate it with irrational passion. Yet we recognize that even for humans not all anger is irrational rage. Righteous indignation against moral evil is not only possible; it is a necessary component of goodness. To not be outraged by, say, the premeditated murder of a child, would indicate an alarming lack of love.

Certainly for fallen humanity we can seldom if ever separate sinful passion from righteous wrath. But that is not a problem for God. His wrath is as holy as his love. And it is just as much an essential aspect of his divine character. They are two sides of the same coin in the same way that his mercy and his justice are both divine attributes.

And so we come, finally, to the heart of this message and the theme of Romans, Romans 1:16-17:

16For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

The preaching of Christ crucified, risen, ascended, and coming again reveals to us both God’s loving mercy to the sinner and his righteous wrath toward sin. Don’t you see? It is the gospel that reveals both. In the gospel divine mercy and divine judgment are inseparable. God offers us forgiveness but he never offers to condone our sin. He doesn’t smile and wink at our misdeeds like an overindulgent grandparent. Through Christ God welcomes us into his family as our Father—but never as our grandpa.

What does Paul say? “For in it [“it” being the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed…” And the gospel is more than just the wonderful news that if we will confess our sinfulness, repent of our sin, believe in the Jesus Christ as our Savior and commit our lives to him as Lord he will save us. It is also the terrible wonderful incredible story of what he did to make this possible. And it is also the story of why he did it, a story that began back in the garden. It is ALL the gospel we must accept—or reject. We cannot cherry pick the nice parts.

It has often been observed that gospel literally means good news. And so it does. And so it is. But the road to the good news must pass through some very bad news: That guilt, fear, and shame you feel? You deserve it. You are guilty. You have reason to be afraid. And you ought to be ashamed of yourself. Until you face that awful truth not even God can help you. You’ve got to ‘fess up. You’ve got to come clean with yourself and with your God. Every AA member introduces himself or herself with the phrase, “I’m an alcoholic.” Well my name is Glen, and I’m a sinner.” We’d do well as Christians if we were to routinely greet one another in this manner. We call it confession and it’s the first step toward salvation. God already knows we’re sinners. We’re just agreeing with him.

So you know you’re a sinner. That guilt, fear, and shame you carry around is baggage you’ve earned—like those heavy chains dragged about by Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol. What are you going to do about it? The Bible teaches us that the next step is an act of will—you determine in your heart and mind to live differently, to turn around and go the other way. We call this repentance. I know. You’re already shaking your heads. You’ve been down that road before and it was a dead end. You’ve tried to change before and you’ve failed every time. And you’re right. All the heartfelt resolutions, all the good intentions, all the tearful pleading will get you nowhere because sin has you in a death grip. You’re not man enough, you’re not woman enough, you’re not strong enough, you’re not good enough to crawl out of the hole you’re in.

This is where the good news part of the gospel comes into play. Help is available. “…the gospel . . . . is the power of God for salvation…” The gospel—not the message we preach but the historical reality behind it—that act of divine redemption that began with a message from an angel to a maiden in Galilee and ended with a brutal execution on a cross, a glorious resurrection, an ascension into heaven, and a future return in glory and power—from this comes the power you need to change your life forever.

You’re guilty. You broke God’s command. On the cross Jesus took your guilt upon himself. He took it all.

You’re afraid. You’ve been running from God all your life. The thought of dying terrifies you. When Jesus was nailed to that cross he took your punishment upon himself. Hundreds of years before his birth in Bethlehem the prophet Isaiah foresaw the sacrifice that Christ would one day make for you and me:

“But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed.”

You’re ashamed. The things you’ve done haunt your dreams. You’ve made such a mess of things. You can’t forgive yourself. There are people you can’t look in the eye, much less God. How could God forgive you?  For the answer we have to jump ahead to Romans 5:8-11:

8but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

The glorious message of Romans 1:17 is simply this. In the gospel, seen in all its fullness, a righteous status which is God’s grace gift to the human race is revealed and freely offered. God’s saving grace means that…

  • Christ has redeemed us. God’s justice is answered. Our debt is paid. Our guilt removed.
  • Christ shed his blood on the cross for our sin. God’s wrath was satisfied. We obtain his mercy which frees us from the fear of punishment.
  • Christ reconciled us with God and brings us into a right relationship with him. He intercedes with the Father on our behalf. God’s honor is preserved and our shame, removed.

All of this is received—and can only be received—by faith. This kind of faith, this saving faith, is best described as believing obedience. It is confidence that what Christ has done for us is sufficient to remove forever our guilt, our fear, and our shame. It is the obedience born of faith that the way of salvation opened to us in Christ is all we need. It is the faith needed to turn from sin and follow the savior. We are saved by grace. But faith opens the door.

Saved—by grace, through faith: No more guilt. No more fear. No more shame. And as the children of God we are no longer exiles. We have come home at last.

No more guilt, no more fear, no more shame—just grace. @RomansTheRoadToRighteousness