Given for the Saints of the World, Easter Sunday, 2010.
"Why do you call me good?" returned Jesus. "No one is good, only God" (Mark 10:18, Phillips).
The Lord uses many ways to shape these writings, including comments, questions, or complaints from readers. This time, once again, I'm indebted to the on-line discussion group for the interesting question that has been rumbling around my soul for a while now. Though I didn't save the scripture which prompted this question, I believe it was Rom. 5:7-8: "Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man, though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us." The group had been discussing atonement and what it means or doesn't mean. What struck me was this question, which I believe is a compelling subject for an Easter message:
"Does Paul, in making a comparison, intend to insinuate that "sinners" are on a higher or lower plane of worthiness than the ones mentioned? Are "sinners" better or worse than righteous or good men? What is the connection here between "sinners" and "righteous" and "good men?" Is it harder for God to love a sinner than a good man? Does God show more love in dying for a sinner than for a righteous or good man? Can a sinner not be either a righteous or good man? Are these three different classes of men?" End Quote.
It's a simple question but actually, it raises some complex ideas which I feel led to address, hoping not to offend everyone on my mailing list. Who would be upset by this discussion? Possibly any Christian who takes pride in the fact that he or she leads a good, moral life, trying with all his or her might to follow the rules laid down in the New Testament. To these folks, which includes me, let me say that I have nothing but the utmost respect and passion for Christian ethics. I was reared in a God fearing Christian home where I learned to love the scriptures and to press as hard as I could to be the kind of person that God, my parents, and my Sunday School teachers would find worthy.
With all the best intentions, I failed to achieve the high calling of righteousness laid out in the New Testament. For instance, I failed to turn the other cheek when I was wronged, even though I knew to do so would be to heap coals of fire on whomever had hurt me. I failed to love unpleasant people, because my love, unlike God's, was not unconditional. The best I could muster was to be "patient, kind, not easily angered, keeping no record of wrongs" (I Cor. 13:4-7), ONLY toward those who loved me and treated me well. "Love never fails," yet my love faltered on a regular basis. In short, I failed to "be perfect" as my Father in heaven is perfect.
Sex, drugs, and rock and roll were never my problems as a young Christian, for I had no interest in such things. My problematic shortcomings included anger, judgment, self righteousness, and pride in what I considered my superior doctrine based on continual Bible Study. "Pride goes before a fall" the scriptures say, and soon enough, all confidence in my ability to get it right began to ebb away. Somewhere along in there, the Lord baptized me in the Holy Spirit, and that turned me upside down and sideways as I begin to see how much I had missed by depending upon the letter of the word rather than the Spirit.
The Lord brought faithful servants across my path to share with me the grace of God, chief of whom was Harry Fox, a Church of Christ missionary, and minister, who became a good friend and mentor. He was the one who first introduced me to the truth that God was eventually going to save everyone. I don't believe things just because someone tells me so, much to the irritation of people who want me to walk and write and be, based on their specifications. Prayer and study on the subject of salvation, atonement, and righteousness, brought me to an astonishing discovery: God loves sinners. Imagine that. He LOVES sinners.
For the most part, I never actually considered myself a sinner because I had "obeyed the gospel," and the spiritual leaders of my youth had assured me that this was the first step in getting to heaven. My admittance into heaven was, of course, dependent upon my keeping the faith and doing the things they told me was necessary, i.e., church attendance, taking communion, giving and serving.
Imagine my shock when a serious study of Romans revealed that Paul declared we're ALL sinners! "What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews (righteous) and Gentiles (unrighteous) alike are all under sin. As it is written: 'There is no one righteous, not even one...All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one" (Rom. 3:9-10;12). Man, that's bleak, but Paul was merely restating what is found in the Psalms (Ps. 14:3; 53:3).
When the rich young man came to Jesus, he fell upon his knees before Him, asking, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus set him straight about who is good, "No one is good, except God alone" (Mark 10:17-18). If Jesus would not accept the statement that He was good while on earth, what makes any of us think we could qualify for that title? King David wrote "The LORD looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any that act wisely, that seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike corrupt; there is none that does good, no, not one" (Ps. 14:2-3).
When we quit fighting this conclusion and accept the fact that no matter how hard we try, how many gifts of the Spirit we've been given, or how many souls we have won for Christ, we cannot call ourselves good, we are closer to the truth, which is that on our own, we lack the ability, the energy, the wisdom, or the determination to please God. This is why Christ came, not to save us from hell when we die, for he who thinks, by self effort, he can live worthily before God is already living in hell. No, He came to save us from ourselves and our delusional hubris.
Someone is bound to ask "If no one is good and we're all sinners, why bother with morality and ethics, with helping and serving others, with Christianity itself?" Paul was asked the same question about what value there was in being a Jew. In Bible parlance, "Jew" was symbolic for righteousness and "Gentile" for unrighteousness, a distinction which goes back to the Law. So, I'll share Paul's answer to the question: "What advantage, then is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God" (Rom. 3:1-2). This says to me that the man or woman to whom the "Word of Life" has been entrusted still has every advantage over those who don't know Him who IS the Word. We carry in our person the indwelling Christ. By accepting Him, we have entered into God's family. We are in Christ, in God, who gifts us His power and grace to live our lives.
Christians who have not been quickened by the Spirit have a difficult time seeing this difference. Lenny and I attended a Sunday School class which John Gavazzoni was teaching in a little church in Ventura, CA. We made the drive in order to enjoy the spiritual goodies and rich fellowship. One Sunday, someone asked John about God's reconciliation of all. As he began to explain it, a man protested hotly, "If I thought everyone is going to heaven, I sure wouldn't be here. I'd be out on the beach." That attitude can be seen in many who think that there's no point in being good if sinners are going to be saved. Proving there's nothing new under the sun, Paul encountered that same attitude when he was ministering on God's grace: "NOW what is our response to be? Shall we sin to our heart's content and see how far we can exploit the grace of God?" (Rom. 6:1, Phillips). His answer was swift and decisive: "What a terrible thought! We, who have died to sin, how could we live in sin a moment longer?" (Vs. 2).
Then follows his inspired analogy that baptism symbolizes our participation in the death and burial of Christ, and when we arose from the waters of baptism, we also rose with Christ into resurrection life. Paul follows with his brilliant conclusion: "Let us never forget that our old selves died with him on the cross that the tyranny of sin over us might be broken, for a dead man can safely be said to be free from the power of sin" (Rom. 6:6-7). Did you get that? Our sinful selves died with Christ on the cross, breaking the power of sin over us. Dead men don't sin. It is in that sense that we are no longer sinners. This is why Paul could address the church at Corinth as "Saints." Even a quick read of his letters to them will show that there was a whole heap of sinning going on there, even as there is in many churches today, but Paul was not deterred, calling them "saints": "To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours" (I Cor. 1:2).
To restate the obvious, it was not because of their good behavior, nor in spite of their sins that he called them saints. The appellation "Saint" was given to them because they and we were reckoned righteous in Christ Jesus. He spells it out even clearer in Romans 8:29-30: "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified." God is in charge of it all. By the blood of the Lamb, we are to reckon ourselves dead to sin (Rom. 6:11), because He reckons us righteous, sanctified and justified.
The inescapable conclusion from scripture is that in terms of human endeavor, there is no difference between righteous men, good men, and sinners. That sounds radical, I know, and of course, we'd all rather live next door to moral, law abiding folks rather than murderers or rapists, but put on your spiritual bifocal lenses and look beyond the surface into the truth of the matter. Only IN Christ is anyone deemed (reckoned) righteous. Peter affirmed, "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit" (I Pet. 3:18). We also have been put to death in the flesh (in terms of depending upon our own efforts), and made alive in the Spirit (relying upon the indwelling Christ). Peter revealed that when Christ was in Sheol (death), he went to the "souls in prison," those disobedient souls who were destroyed in the flood, and preached the gospel to them (I Pet. 3:19-20). This scripture proves that death is NOT the end of the story.
In the flesh, we were sinners; no one was righteous, no not one, but in the Spirit, we have been raised from the dead to be seated with Christ in heavenly places. What a glorious outcome for this sordid story of man's puny efforts to be good. How indescribable is the love of our heavenly Father who is worthy of all praise and glory and honor and blessings, now and forever. "For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen." Jan Antonsson
Lenny and Jan Antonsson
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