Romans – Digging Deep: A Humbling Gift

A Humbling Gift

Romans 3:21-31


During an interview before his 50th college reunion, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg confessed that his mortality has started dawning on him, at 72. He also said that he’s been sobered by how many of his former classmates have passed away. But the author of the interview concluded, “But if [Bloomberg] senses that he may not have as much time left as he would like, he has little doubt about what would await him at a Judgment Day. Pointing to his work on gun safety, obesity and smoking cessation, he said with a grin: ‘I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.’”[i]


As Americans, we celebrate the “self-made person.” You know, the woman or man who started with nothing and, with a lot of grit and determination and sweat and sacrifice they became incredibly successful, significant people. We make feel-good movies about them. We make heroes out of them. The too-short, too-slow, too-light athlete who overcomes overwhelming odds (think of the movie Rudy). The poor, abused kid who climbs to the top and accomplishes much (like in the move The Greatest Showman).


There is something imbedded in the very heart of the psyche of most Americans that flies in the face of everything the Kingdom of God stands for. It is our celebration of those who “pull themselves up by their bootstraps and overcome incredible odds on their own, and our aversion to receiving help. We’re more than happy to help someone else. We simply do not want someone else to help us. We’re thrilled to give more to others than we receive. But we’re very uncomfortable when we think someone else has helped us more than we have helped them. If someone holds a door open for us to walk through, we’ll rush to be the first to grab the next door so that we can hold it for them. Returning the favor is what we call it. The same is true in our gift-giving. If you gave someone a cheap, knock-off, fake Rolex for Christmas, and then you opened your gift from them and found the real deal inside you’d be humiliated, wouldn’t you? I know I would. We’d try to do something to make up the difference; to even things out. Truth is, most of us are far better at giving gifts than we are receiving them. Turn to Romans 3:21-31. Martin Luther called Vv. 21-26 “the chief point and the very central place of the Epistle and of the whole Bible.” There are three truths here that we have to understand and receive. And these three truths are really the heart of what it means to follow Jesus. You receive these three truths, you’ve got it. READ TEXT.


The problem with seemingly self-made people is they far too often worship their maker. They worship themselves. Not in obvious ways. In fact, they are often very generous. Its just that their generosity is very … visible. And that celebration of the self-made and aversion to being the person who needs help penetrates every facet of American culture. It is a part of our culture. It’s everywhere. I see it in the downcast eyes of the men and women who sit in chairs in the hallway outside my office waiting their turn to go into the food pantry. I see it in the downcast eyes of those who come in to ask for help with gas money or a bill they can’t pay. Sadly, the celebration of the self-made and independent and aversion to the needy and dependent has penetrated the body of Christ to it’s core too. I’ve had conversations with people who aren’t sure having a community meal is such a good idea because we’re not asking the guests to help prepare it. You know, teach them a thing or two while they’re here. Now, there’s nothing wrong with building skill and knowledge in those who find themselves down and out. That’s an incredibly good thing to do. The problem comes when we cannot bring ourselves to offer any kind of free gift, help with no strings attached. See, our aversion to being the person in need of help flies in the face of everything the good news of Jesus Christ, the grace of God, and the Easter celebration we will have next Sunday stands for.


St. Paul is just now, F.I.N.A.L.L.Y. wrapping up a rant that he started way back in Romans 1:19. We’re now in Romans 3:21. For the better part of two chapters he’s been on a rant about sin. Not just that sin exists, that evil exists. Not even that sin is bad and that we shouldn’t do it. That isn’t his point. The point of his rant is that every single human heart is darkened by sin. That it doesn’t matter how religious or not religious you are. It doesn’t matter whether you were born in the church, never missed Sunday school and have the whole Bible memorized word for word or whether you’ve never once cracked open a Bible, not even to read one word – every human heart is marred by sin. So last week I said Romans 1:19-3:20 is St. Paul’s really long Facebook rant. You have to keep scrolling, and scrolling, and scrolling to read all of it. And somewhere in the middle you wonder why you’re still reading because it isn’t making you feel so good about yourself or about life or anything else (and that’s all we really want from church, right? To feel good). Well if that’s Paul’s Facebook rant, Romans 3:23 is his short tweet on Twitter summarizing the whole thing. The long rant is like buckshot – it hits everything. Romans 3:23 is more like a bullet. Small, fast, targeted … and lethal. Read Romans 3:23.


There’s a funny word at the beginning of this verse. It’s just three letters, but we really have to let the significance of those three letters, written in the specific order they’re written in, sink in. The three letter word is A-L-L. All. What does the word “all” mean? It means everyone, right? It’s a word that means “no exceptions, no exclusions.” All. Everyone. When we say all are welcome, we mean anyone can come, right? Doesn’t matter how old you are, what color you are, what gender you are, how much money you have, or how much money you don’t have. Doesn’t matter whether you bathed three times yesterday or less than three times this year. All means all, right? No one excluded. Paul says “All have sinned. All fall short of God’s glory.” What does all mean? It means all, right? That means I have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. It means you have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. It means we’re all in the same boat. And the word translated as “fall short” is actually in the present tense. It signifies an ongoing action. We will continue to fall short, even as followers of Jesus, Christians, until we are completely transformed in his presence. The first truth in this passage that we must grasp is this: I am sick with an eternally terminal illness called sin.


The second truth we must grasp is a continuation of the first: and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. Look up at V. 21. The righteousness of God is typically God’s eternal rightness. God’s character as the standard of what is good and right and true. But here it takes on the added meaning of that eternal rightness of God IN ACTION saving us from our sin disease. And the righteousness of God, God acting to save, is seen apart from the law. The law here refers to the religious laws of the Jews summarized in the two great commandments: Love God and Love neighbor. And the reason that the righteousness of God has been manifested, made visible, apart from the law is because even when we simplify the entire law down to Love God and Love neighbor, we can’t do it. Not perfectly. The law is like a mirror that lets me see THAT I fall short and HOW MUCH and HOW OFTEN I fall short. But there is no human alive who can keep it. I am sick with an eternally terminal illness called sin, and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it.


But then, like a breath of fresh air in a stale, smelly room, the good news of Jesus comes breaking in. Look at the first two words of V. 21. “But now.” The word “but” here has been called the biggest but in all of literature and these two words the most beautiful words in all of Scripture. After ranting forever about the darkness and pervasiveness of sin, Paul has made his point and he says, “But now.” The word “but” means that everything that comes after is different. Yes, V. 23 says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But V. 23 doesn’t end with a period. It simply has a comma, and the biggest but in all of literature hits us like a freight train. “And are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” God has the cure for my sin sickness, that I can do absolutely nothing about, in Jesus, and he offers it to me for free.


He then goes into an in-depth description of what exactly makes the death of Jesus effective. Look at Vv. 25-26. Okay, so there’s a bunch of big theological words in there that no one but old Bible scholars use any more, but we can and in fact have to understand what they mean. Paul is actually drawing on some imagery from the Old Testament that his readers, even non-Jewish Christians, would have been familiar with.


The word “propitiation” is a translation of a Greek word for which there is no direct English equivalent. Fortunately, there is an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, and this word was used, even before the time of Christ, to translate into Greek the Hebrew word “Kippur,” as in “Yom Kippur,” the Day of Atonement. On the Day of Atonement each year the high priest took two male goats and presented them before the gathered congregation of Israel at the Temple and one goat was selected to be a sin offering on behalf of the people of Israel. So the high priest would sacrifice a bull on behalf of himself and his family, and then would enter the Most Holy Place, a place that only the high priest could enter, and even he only once a year, on the Day of Atonement.


In the Most Holy Place or Holy of Holies was the Ark of the Covenant, and inside the Ark were the tablets upon which Moses received the Ten Commandments. And the Old Testament tells us that the special presence of God could be seen as an other-worldly light above the cover of the Ark, which they called the “mercy seat.” And the high priest, having cleansed himself and his family of the guilt of their sin by the sacrifice of the bull, then entered the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the blood of the sacrificed sin offering on the mercy seat, in the Hebrew, Kapporet. And in that ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word that was used to translate Kapporet into Greek is the same word that Paul uses here, in Romans 3:25, translated here as “propitiation,” or “atoning sacrifice.” Paul declares the crucifixion of Jesus to be a public sprinkling of blood – an atoning rite of propitiation – once and for all. In the crucifixion of Jesus, the wrath of God against sin is satisfied AND the love and grace and forgiveness of God are made real, for God takes upon himself, in Christ, the eternal Son of God, the punishment for sin, meaning he can declare us NOT GUILTY. In the crucifixion of Christ God has revealed himself to be both just and merciful, for sin has been punished AND our sins forgiven. God, in love, took the punishment of sin upon himself. Christ is the cure for my sin disease. I cannot cure myself. I can only receive the gift of grace that God offers.


  1. T. Wright, writer, theologian, and Bishop of Durham in the Church of England wrote, “We are not to be surprised if living as Christians brings us to the place where we find we are at the end of our own resources, and that we are called to rely on the God who raises the dead.”[ii]


Now, look at Vv. 27-31. Not only does the crucifixion of Christ make possible our forgiveness, the restoration of our relationship with God, not only does it pave the way for us to become citizens of the Kingdom of God, it levels the playing field. We’re all in the same boat. Doesn’t matter what your IQ is. Doesn’t matter how much money you have (or don’t have), or what you do for a living. We’re all sick with an eternally terminal illness called sin. Oh, it may manifest itself differently in each one of us, but we all have it. And there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. BUT, thanks be to God, Christ is the cure for each one of us. No boasting. No pride. No arrogance. No “I’m better than you” or “I’m less of a sinner than you.” Simply a collection of spiritual ragamuffins who have received God’s gift with eternally grateful hearts.


Christianity is the unreligion. It turns all our religious instincts on their heads. The ancient Greeks told us to be moderate by knowing our inclinations. The Romans told us to be strong by ordering our lives. Buddhism tells us to be disillusioned by annihilating our consciousness. Hinduism tells us to be absorbed by merging our souls. Islam tells us to be submissive by subjecting our wills. Agnosticism tells us to be at peace by ignoring our doubts. Moralism tells us to be good by discharging our obligations. Only the gospel tells us to be free by acknowledging our failure. Christianity is the unreligion because it is the one faith whose founder tells us to bring not our doing, but our need.[iii]


The good news of Jesus is not, “God helps those who help themselves.” The good news of Jesus is not, “Find the good in you and make it grow.” The good news of Jesus Christ is, “Recognize you’re sick with an eternally terminal sickness called sin. Realize that there is absolutely nothing you can do about this sickness. And Receive the cure that God has for this disease, because it works every time. And the free gift of Jesus is the cure.


One ad for the U.S. Marines pictures a sword, and beneath it the words: “Earned, never given.” If you want to become a Marine, be prepared to earn that name through sacrifice, hardship, and training. If you get it, you deserve it. That’s the American way.


But if you want to follow Jesus, you need the exact opposite attitude, for the message of the gospel is: “Given, never earned.” That is the way of God.


You cannot save your own soul, and God will not save anyone who tries to earn salvation, but only those who will humbly receive it as a gift through faith in Jesus Christ. If you get it, you absolutely did not deserve it. There are no self-made people in the body of Christ. Let us pray.


[i] Jeremy W. Peters, “Bloomberg Plans a $50 Million Challenge to the N.R.A.” The New York Times (4-15-14)

[ii] N. T. Wright, Following Jesus (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997)

[iii] Dane Ortlund, Defiant Grace (EP Books, 2011), p. 38