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Beneath the Cross of Jesus #3

Beneath the Cross of Jesus #3

Justification: When the Guilty Go Free

Introduction: Psalm 18 begins with these words of introduction: “A Psalm of David the servant of the LORD, who addressed the words of this song to the LORD on the day when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul.” King David then writes: “I love you, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, so I shall be saved from my enemies” (Psalm 18:1-3). These words are all familiar to most of us because contemporary song writers have put them to music for our time. But it is the lyric a bit later in psalm 18 that intrigues me this morning.

“The LORD rewarded me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he recompensed me.
For I have kept the ways of the LORD,
and have not wickedly departed from my God.
For all his ordinances were before me,
and his statutes I did not put away from me.
I was blameless before him,
and I kept myself from guilt.
Therefore the LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.” (Psalm 18:20-24)

Granted, this is poetry and we naturally grant the poet a bit of license in the lyric, but the claim is remarkable. “I was blameless before him,” David says. “The Lord rewarded me according my righteousness; he has rewarded me according to my righteousness.” In light of his military victories over all of his enemies, David draws a direct correlation between God’s salvation and David’s own righteousness. Does David not remember his own words from Psalm 14?

In fact Psalm 14 and Psalm 53 – both psalms attributed to David – begin with the same words:

“Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one” (14:1-3; 53:1-3).

“There is no one who does good, no, not one,” David announces in those two songs, but in Psalm 18, he himself is blameless. According to his own righteousness, the Lord rewarded him. We could decide that the words of Psalm 14 and 53 outnumber this expression of blamelessness and self-proclaimed righteousness in Psalm 18. You know, song-writers get carried away in the moment sometimes and overstate reality. Except that Psalm 18 also makes a second appearance in Scripture. The writer of the books we know as Samuel and Kings use this psalm when summarizing the life of David in II Samuel 22. Psalm 18 is repeated almost verbatim immediately before what the writer calls “The last words of David” in chapter 23. It is not Psalm 51 that the writer uses to summarize the life of David, when he confesses his sins and demonstrates his contriteness as he pleads with God to create in him a new heart. There is no mention of David’s adulterous relationship with Bathsheba or the planned murder of Bathsheba’s husband. Nothing is said about the multiple family dysfunctions in David’s family among his children or his several wives. No, David is remembered in the history book as the one who was blameless, rewarded by God according to his own righteousness.

Following the repetition of Psalm 18 in II Samuel, chapter 23 begins with these words:

“Now these are the last words of David: The oracle of David, son of Jesse, the oracle of the man whom God exalted, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel: The spirit of the LORD speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue. The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land. Is not my house like this with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure. Will he not cause to prosper all my help and my desire?” (II Samuel 23:1-5).

For those of us who have spent more time in the New Testament than the Old, all of this self-pronounced goodness is a bit uncomfortable. We are more accustomed to those other words of David, “There is no one who does good, no, not one.” We may have heard that word blameless used by Paul, and we really wish he wouldn’t have done it. It’s to the Philippians that Paul writes, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:4-6). But Paul does not dwell on his blameless condition before God under the law. Instead he immediately speaks of the unsurpassed worth of knowing Christ crucified.

We continue our series this morning of life lived beneath the cross of Jesus. We want to wrestle with the mysteries of God’s Good News that God became flesh and dwelt among us. That at the heart of this salvation is the shame and humiliation of Roman crucifixion. That in the death of Jesus on that cross, the end of an era in human history occurred and a new one sprang forth with the announcement of the empty tomb. The announcement that human trust and commitment in the death and resurrection of Jesus brings salvation to all human beings. In the prior age, death was the certain outcome of human existence because of sin, this enemy of relationship that creates distance and alienation among us humans and severs the life-link with our creator. But now, through the act of God the son severing his own life-link with God the father, there is now the promise of eternal life.

As the writers of the New Testament try to explain these events in terms that their first century audiences can understand, they are without adequate explanations. Paul admits to his audience in Corinth that, on the face of it, the story of a crucified messiah is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (I Cor. 1:23). The words of a centuries-old hymn, “what language shall I borrow” summarize efforts then and now to explain this mysterious event. There were no equivalents in the story of Israel, no analogies from the surrounding culture, no words or analogies or metaphors up to the task of communicating this universe-altering event. All Paul could say is that in Jesus Christ everything is new Creation. All that the writers of this story could do was draw on earlier words and stories and symbols and metaphors and use them to point beyond themselves.

Texts and stories and metaphors all get clustered and jumbled together at times in an effort to point beyond themselves to this new reality. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has changed all human existence, and for that matter all of creation. Where there was alienation and broken relationship and an infinite capacity within us humans to devour one another and destroy relationship among ourselves and with our Creator, God has acted. We only have language - words – to describe a reality that is beyond words.

Knowing that the words and images were inadequate to the task, what we find in all of the biblical texts is a mixture of prior stories and images. Stories of the Exodus and the Passover lamb get combined with Isaiah’s suffering servant. Stories of rituals and sacrifices get combined with courtroom scenes. Stories of human brokenness get compared to God breaking himself for our sake.

Paul begins his letter to the Romans with this summary announcement of the good news:

“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1:1-7).

Following words of thanksgiving for the Christians in Roman, he writes, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’” (1:16-17). He then launches into a two chapter description of the human condition among Gentiles and Jews – all humans – that reflects the alienation we humans suffer because they have attempted to be the authors of our lives. Human existence is the story of breaking and brokenness, he says because people failed to honor God. Jew and Gentile alike could recognize their dependence on Creator God and live in harmony with God, but they inevitably choose otherwise. Jews even were sought out by God and given the special favor of God’s instruction, God’s law, but having the law only functioned to highlight brokenness and failure. The truth of any life, Paul says, including King David’s is better expressed in Psalm 14 than in Psalm 18. “There is no one who is good, no, not one…. all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3: 10, 23).

He writes in 3:21, “Now apart from law, the righteousness of God has been made known, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it.” I realized this week that those words are critical to making sense of what follows in Paul’s argument. “Now, apart from law – that is, something beyond laws and law-keeping are at stake in this new way of righteousness, this being in right relationship with God and thus with other human beings.” That’s important because Paul is about to mix a variety of images, some from the legal world, some from the religious world of sacrifice, some from the ancient world of extended families and their responsibilities toward one another, and all designed to speak of a new creation community.

Paul writes: “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (3:23-31).

The language of the courtroom (justification – a declaration of acquittal) is mixed with the language of slavery (redemption, the act of buying back or freeing a captive), is mixed with the language of sacrifice (atonement). Paul mixes the metaphors and moves beyond just the legal acquittal language of justification. Yet it is clear that this idea of justification, of being declared righteous through faith in the crucified messiah is crucial to everything Paul is trying to say to the Roman. He repeated uses this language of justification, of God declaring Jews and Gentiles alike righteous because of the faithful actions of Jesus on the Cross.

Paul believes that it is the faithful action of Jesus demonstrated in the cross event that leads to God’s declaration or righteousness for all to trust in that event. There is no room for any human boasting. Relationship with God and among Jews and Gentiles is a gift – it is the grace of God enacted in this crucified and resurrected Christ. Before we broken humans could be hauled into the courtroom for the judge to render the guilty verdict the God shifted the scene from the courtroom to the crucifixion hill. In the narrative story-telling, the trial that was held was a mock trial, a sham of justice. God in the flesh was summarily pronounced guilty.

I want to suggest this morning that we oversimplify the story when we take only one of the images Paul uses here and turn it into THE image of our salvation. I believe that is what Martin Luther did when he realized that the cross offered a way of salvation apart from the Catholic church’s practice of penance and indulgences and an endless cycle of guilt. The dominant image of God in Luther’s world was of God the angry judge. The courtroom image of justification became all important for him. And through Luther and the other reformers of his time, justification by faith alone for the individual has dominated Christian ideas about salvation for almost 500 years. God the judge’s demand for justice was satisfied by substituting the death of Jesus for me. We even further simplify all of these complex images by saying things like, “Now when God looks at me, he sees Jesus. Even though I remain a sinner, God doesn’t hold my sins against me because he sees Jesus.”

Yes, Paul uses the courtroom language a great deal in Romans and Galatians, but he never takes us to court! He combines all of these images because no one is sufficient. We’re talking a new way of being human here. It’s not that we keeping on being the same messy humans, only God just doesn’t see the truth anymore because he sees Jesus. No, what Jesus has done, by our trust and allegiance in him, changes us! My problem may be a selfish one, but I want God to see ME! I want the relationship to be with ME. The point of being declared righteous is so that I can live out the result which is relationship. And it is never about just me – it’s about US! Paul is narrating the story for the sake of US – all humans, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. Whether we use the courtroom image of being vindicated or acquitted or justified, the fact that we are no longer condemned is always the invitation to new beginnings. And there are other images – of redemption, and the day of atonement in which the sins of the people are placed on the two animals, one of which is sacrificed and the blood sprinkled on and around the cover of the ark of the covenant in the holy of holies and the other is a goat that ceremonially has the sins of the people place on it and it is led out into the wilderness. The sins are both ceremonially separated from the people and the people there is atonement blood poured out.

Here is my point this morning: More is at stake in our trust, our faith in the crucified messiah than our acquittal in the divine courtroom. To believe that he died for us is to claim the end of the power of sin in us. It is to claim that in Christ broken and breaking relationship has been redeemed, is being redeemed, will be redeemed. It is to claim that what not a single human being could do, namely bring an end to the power of sin, this image we have for every human activity that breaks or destroy relationship – relationship with God, relationship with other people, relationship with our true, real self has been removed. And as Paul says a bit later, “how can we who died to sin live in sin any longer?” (Romans 6:2).

The gift of salvation comes this morning as announcement that in Christ Jesus we can be found blameless before God and with one another. We who were dead in sin can be alive in Christ. Our unrighteous condition is made righteous. We have been freed from our slavery to sin. The blood of the sacrificial lamb has been sprinkled and we are made clean. By his wounds we are healed. All of that is true – none of it says enough! Yes, it is about eternal life in heaven with Creator God; it is also about life at this very moment lived in relationship with all the rest of creation, all the rest of humanity. At the heart of Paul’s claim is that salvation is for all. Even you. Even me. There is no room for boasting – my church against your church, my race against yours, my gender against yours. The source of righteousness is this stumbling block, this foolishness of the Crucified Christ. Have we yet fully trusted in the salvation that belongs to our God?

Delivered at Woodmont Hills, February 20, 2005.


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