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The Kernel of the Gospel


Romans 5: 1-5


“Can you offer any justification for what you’ve done?”, the judge asks the accused in the courtroom. The judge is asking the person on trial if there is any extenuating reason for his behaviour, any valid explanation that would legitimate his behaviour. If there is, the judge will certainly take it into account; in fact, if there’s legitimate reason for the accused person’s behaviour, the judge will excuse the accused. If, on the other hand, the accused person lacks legitimate reason for his conduct but offers a justification for it in any case, he will instead bring forward the shabbiest self-serving rationalisation.

In everyday discourse we use the word “justification” in both senses. Every day we say, “My justification for driving through the red light is that I had in the car with me a man who had just had a heart attack and needed to get to the hospital as quickly as possible.” This is a legitimate reason for driving through the red light. Every day we also use the word “justification” for the shabbiest, self-serving rationalisation. “I drove through the red light because I needed to get home to see the opening face-off of the hockey game.

When scripture uses the word “justification” it has neither of these meanings in mind. Justification, in scripture, has nothing to do with explanations of any sort, whether genuine reasons or shabby rationalisations. When the apostle Paul insists that God justifies the ungodly he doesn’t mean that God provides an explanation, be it ever so sound, for my ungodliness; neither does he mean that God offers or entertains a shabby rationalisation for my ungodliness. When he says that God justifies the ungodly he means that God puts in the right with himself men and women who are now in the wrong with him. The one Greek word, dikaiosune, is commonly translated both “justification” and “righteousness. If we want to avoid being misled by modern English meanings we should always understand “justification” or “justify” in terms of “righteous” or “righteousness.” To say that we are justified, then, is to say that we are put in the right with God, made right with God. Obviously justification is the kernel of the gospel. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ sets people in the right with God.

“Excuse me”, the miffed person replies, insulted and indignant, “I never thought I was in the wrong. Who, after all, is in the wrong before God?” With one voice all the prophets and the apostles answer, “Everyone! Everyone is!” “There is none righteous”, declares the psalmist. Jesus himself announces that he came for the sake of the lost, the dead: the unrighteous, in other words. Our Lord stops at the foot of the tree in which Zacchaeus is perched. An hour later, when they’ve finished their meal together, Jesus exclaims to all who can hear, “Today salvation has come to this house… For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:9-10) Plainly Zacchaeus was so thoroughly in the wrong before God as to be on the edge of ultimate loss.

Jesus himself insists, “I came not to call the righteous (there aren’t any to be called) but sinners to repentance.” John bluntly tells his readers that if they deny themselves to be sinners at heart, sinners to the core, they are making God a liar. Luke says that the good news of great joy broadcast to all people on Christmas morning is this: we’ve been given a saviour; not a helper, not an inspirer, but a saviour. Since God has deemed it necessary to give us a saviour, we should be fools to tell him is gift is superfluous.

Our text tells us that we are “justified by faith.” We are set right with God through our faith in the Righteous One whom he has give us, Christ Jesus our Lord. He is that Son who is ever rightly related to the Father. To entrust ourselves to him and cast ourselves upon him; to abandon ourselves to him and remain bound to him – all of this is what is meant by “faith” – is to find that when the Father looks upon the Son he sees us included in the Son, so closely are we identified with the Son. As we cling to him in faith his righteousness clothes us; his standing with the Father is reckoned to be our standing. Intimacy with the Righteous One renders us “in the right” too.

The truth is glorious, and because the truth is glorious we must be sure we don’t falsify it. Specifically we must be sure we don’t psychologise it. We mustn’t reduce truth to feeling, actuality to sentiment. We mustn’t say that “justification by faith” means that we feel accepted, even feel we are accepted cosmically. We mustn’t say that our feelings of insecurity are rendered less piercing and our feelings of guilt are assuaged. To be sure, they may have been. It’s to be expected that our changed situation before God changes our feelings about ever so much. Still, the foundational issue isn’t our feelings but our condition: we who are in the wrong before God are set right with him as we cling in faith to the Righteous One whom he has given us.

Justification by faith is the kernel of the gospel. For this reason it must always be declared with urgency, preached with passion, surrounded by the intercession of God’s people.


II: — Yet the kernel of the gospel, like any kernel, germinates and brings forth fruit in abundance. Something of its abundant fruit the apostle lists in the text we are probing together.

First, as we are set right with God we have peace with God. Once again we mustn’t falsify this truth by psychologising it. We mustn’t reduce peace with God to peace of mind, peace of heart, innermost tranquillity. When a Jew like Paul speaks of peace he thinks first of shalom. Shalom is peace not in the sense of “peace in here” but “peace out there”; peace not in the sense of what I’m feeling but what has happened; peace not in the sense of inner contentment but the disappearance of outer enmity. To look for “peace in here” before there is “peace out there” is to pursue an illusion, an unreality.

On the other hand, once “peace out there” has been established, “peace in here” follows naturally and normally. The apostle maintains that as we are set right with God peace with God is established, enmity between God and us ceases, intimacy thrives.

No doubt someone is puzzled now and asks, “Enmity? What enmity? I’ve nothing against God.” The point, however, is the converse: what has God against us? As soon as we look at the parables of Jesus we have to be startled at the theme of judgement which looms so large in so many of them. Think of the parables of the wheat and the tares, the drag-net, the ten maidens, the sheep and the goats, the merciless servant, plus so many more. The elemental issue isn’t our assessment of God; it’s his assessment of us. His assessment is that we are defiant and disobedient; we are inexcusably defiant and disobedient. He finds our defiance and disobedience intolerable. His opposition to us here constitutes his enmity.

But – and this is the most crucial “but” in the world – God opposes us only for our good. He doesn’t oppose us out of petulance or injured pride. His enmity has nothing to do with irritability. To be sure, scripture speaks of his wrath as often as it speaks of his love. But that’s because his wrath is his love burning hot; his wrath is his love scorching us awake.

One day my grade 13 French teacher had a monumental “set-to” with a student. Sandy Gosse was her name. She was intelligent. She was also an indifferent student. On this particular day she came to class without having done her homework – again. The teacher, Herbert Bremner, was livid. He was so angry that a vein in the side of his head was pulsating as though it were going to burst from the pressure and spew blood on everyone in the first five rows. By now Gosse and Bremner were locked in combat. Finally Gosse, the student, said to him, “I don’t see why you are upset. If I fail highschool French it won’t be any skin off your nose. It’s my future that’s at stake, not yours.” At this point Bremner went into orbit. I thought he was in orbit because a smart-aleck student had sassed him. A few minutes later it was plain I was mistaken: Bremner was raging because he had in front of him a student of much ability and much promise with a rich future before her, and all of this she was foolishly frittering away. She thought he shouldn’t be upset since the future she was frittering was hers. But that’s exactly why he was upset: her life was dribbling away, she was so dopey-headed as not to see this, and only his anger had any chance of jolting her awake.

Insofar as we are made right with God through faith as we embrace the Righteous One provided us, there profoundly is peace with God. While God has never ceased to love us, his love, instead of scorching us, now refreshes us. As we know peace with God we also come to know the peace of God; as we come to know peace with God there throbs within us the peace of heart we all crave. The genuine change “out there” has given rise to a realistic change “in here.”

Another consequence of being justified: we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. Hope, in scripture, is never wishful thinking; hope is a future certainty. To be set right with God is to be certain of finally sharing the glory of God. Christians are destined to be immersed in the majesty of God, the grandeur of God, the radiance and splendour of God.

We must be sure to notice two things here. First, the emphasis is on God. Not so with much preaching today where the emphasis is on us: what God can do for us, how the Christian message can profit us. Why, God is said to direct our investment portfolio, calm our nerves better than a prescription, make us social standouts and guarantee success where everyone else fails. Christian bookstores tell me that this kind of book is far and away the bestseller.

Scripture speaks differently. From cover to cover scripture is about a singular, looming, awesome reality as dense as concrete: God. The book begins, “In the beginning, God.” It ends with the magnificent picture of God’s people awaiting the final manifestation of God’s own glory. From cover to cover scripture depicts God’s relentless reassertion of his own Godness and glory in the face of our short-sighted self-preoccupation. The one thing God is never going to do is endorse our short-sighted self-preoccupation. He aims only at directing us away from ourselves to him. We have been appointed to share his glory.

To say that we are going to share God’s glory is also to say that we are going to be rendered those children of God whose resemblance to their parent is unmistakable and undeniable.

Paul tells the believers in Ephesus that Christians are God’s workmanship, his craftsmanship. Does it appear that we are? Or are we so far from the finished product that one can only conclude that the craftsman has scarcely begun?

Ever since my earliest classes in “manual training” (as it was then called) in elementary school I’ve been fascinated by woodturning lathes. A rough block of wood – angular, knotty, coarse, even bark-encrusted – is put on the lathe. At first the lathe turns very slowly; the craftsman uses a coarse tool; for the longest time only he knows what’s going to turn out, any onlooker remaining mystified. Gradually the lathe is turned faster; the cutting tool is exchanged for one more precise; onlookers can guess what the finished product is going to be. Finally the lathe is turned thousands of times per minute; the tool is the most precise the craftsman has; what comes forth is what he had in mind all along. Yet he could communicate his vision adequately only by bringing forward the finished product. Even as he looks it over with satisfaction, people crowd around him to admire it. The craftsman’s finished work brings honour to him as nothing else does.

Those who cling in faith to the crucified and are therein justified, set right with God; we are God’s workmanship. Right now the craftsman appears to be turning the lathe rather slowly (no doubt to spare us.) One day, however, it will “hum” and we shall find ourselves those children of God who bring honour to the craftsman himself. On that day the family resemblance of parent and child will be unmistakable and undeniable. On that day we shall have been brought to share the glory of God. Sharing the glory of God, we shall be rendered glorious ourselves. Knowing that this is our hope, a future certainty, should make our hearts sing as nothing else can. Of course we rejoice now in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

There’s one more consequence to our being set right with God: we rejoice in our sufferings. Do we? The person who stands convinced beyond doubt of her righted relationship with God; does even she rejoice in her sufferings? In one sense, no; at least not if she’s sane. When Jesus was being nailed to the wood he didn’t grin with pleasure and say to onlookers, “This is great stuff, you know, just great!” No one in his right mind rejoices at the onset of pain. Still, we can rejoice some time later, often a long time later, as we’re made aware of what God did with us and for us and through us during a painful episode so very painful as to eclipse everything else.

The most intense and protracted physical pain I’ve suffered occurred when I was injured in an automobile accident and hospitalised for 45 days. My father had died four months earlier. My mother had had to begin working full-time if she wanted to eat and therefore could see me only infrequently. (In fact she made only one trip to the northern Ontario hospital.) I have always felt that the accident, the different kinds of pain associated with it, the 45-day institutionalisation, the proximity to the pain of others (I’m not referring now to the pain of fellow-patients but rather to the innermost suffering of physicians and nurses whom I came to know) – all of this was of immense importance in my formation as a pastor.

And then there’s another dimension to “rejoicing in our sufferings.” I speak now of situations akin to that of Peter and John when they were abused by authorities for bearing witness to Jesus. Their faithfulness to their Lord had elicited the hostility of those who despised Jesus. They could have spared themselves by denying their Lord as Peter had denied his Lord months earlier. Now, however, in the wake of his resurrection and ascension, they were “hard wired” to him and wouldn’t even think of doing anything but bear faithful witness to him. They were made to suffer for it. Luke tells us in the book of Acts, “They left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name.” The name? The name, the name above all other names. There is honour in suffering dishonour for the right person and his truth. We rejoice in our sufferings here too.

No doubt many of you have your own stories to tell. And no doubt, therefore, you would conclude your story on the same note that concludes our text: God’s love has been shed abroad in our hearts. This is the climax of it all. Set right with God by seizing the Righteous One in faith, we rejoice in the midst of whatever life brings before us, for we know that God will use all of it for us and others. We persist in our conviction of this truth, just because God’s love has been poured out upon us, now floods us, and ever will.

Victor Shepherd  

June 1999